Sepang: Heat, humidity and horsepower…
20 March 2013 – Kimi Räikkönen’s victory in Australia certainly turned a few heads, with the Finn delivering a master class amid a plethora of questions about the pecking order. Five teams all capable of winning races? Not quite, but we’re still in line for a thriller of a Formula 1 season. And now, with the paddock rolling on to a hot and humid Malaysia, we should get an even clearer picture of the performance ladder.
Räikkönen was back to his best in Melbourne. Although Lotus found itself a little off the pace in qualifying, the situation changed on Sunday afternoon. The E20's impressive tyre management has clearly carried over to 2013, with the E21 showing even stronger capabilities in this area. While Räikkönen’s rivals were struggling to cope with three stops, he made a two-stop plan work and enjoyed ‘one of the easiest victories’ of his Formula 1 career. An ominous message for his rivals, perhaps?
Well, this is where it gets interesting. In theory, Malaysia’s baking heat should accentuate the advantage Lotus holds in terms of tyre degradation. If you were to place a bet, the Enstone team would be a wise choice in anybody’s eyes at this moment in time, but there’s one element that can change everything during the annual visit to Malaysia. Rain.
Let’s travel back 12 months. Fernando Alonso struggles to ninth on the grid in a troublesome Ferrari, 1.3 seconds adrift of pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton. Fast forward 24 hours and the unpredictable weather kicks in, with the Spaniard taking full advantage by storming to victory. We could see some real surprises if the heavens open again on race day.
One team banking on this factor is McLaren. While the likes of Räikkönen, Alonso and reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel got their title bids off to a strong start, the Woking-based squad is in a less-than-ideal position. I will put my hands up. I was definitely too positive about the team’s chances ahead of the season opener, but their struggles have even surprised former driver Lewis Hamilton, who played a key role in the development of the MP4-28 until he signed his Mercedes contract in September.
Jenson Button, who took home just two points in Australia, said of the situation: "I don’t think we can expect an improvement in our fortunes, but the thing about Malaysia is that it can be so unpredictable. We saw that last year, when Fernando won, and we know that the unpredictable weather can make it a lottery for everyone." If any team can transform a struggling car into a winner, it’s McLaren. Remember 2009?
Another outfit hoping for a vast improvement in performance is Williams. While Force India surged ahead in the expected midfield battle with a double points finish in Melbourne, the Grove-based team endured a Q1 exit and a one-car, non-points result. During practice it evaluated two aero packages, but clearly took the wrong direction. Ahead of Malaysia, Technical Director Mike Coughlan says a better setup route has been discovered with a view to scoring points. Only time will tell on that one.
A little further back, one of the most impressive Melbourne performances came from Jules Bianchi. The Marussia driver was in a class of his own compared to his direct rivals, finishing on the same lap as Williams man Valtteri Bottas and Sauber’s Esteban Gutiérrez plus a full tour ahead of Caterham pilot Charles Pic. In addition, the Frenchman posted the 11th fastest lap of the race, albeit on a late stint with the Super Soft tyres. It’s certainly an encouraging sign for Marussia as it bids to steal tenth place back.
In all areas of the grid, we have a fascinating Formula 1 campaign on our hands. Will Vettel, Alonso and Räikkönen be the trio at the top of the standings once again? Can Webber and Massa get back on terms with their team-mates? Is McLaren able to right the wrongs of its MP4-28 and join the lead battle? Will Force India keep Sauber and Williams at bay? And, is Marussia in with a genuine shot of casting Caterham aside? We will be one step closer to finding answers to all of these questions in Malaysia.
There are also two DRS zones at the venue for the first time... I can’t wait.