• Malaysian Grand Prix preview

It never rains but it pours

Nate Saunders
March 28, 2014
All eyes will be on Red Bull in Malaysia © Getty Images
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Saying Formula One returned with a bang in Australia would perhaps be slightly misleading. It returned with a new noise, a noise that may take some getting used to, as well as a new generation of 1.6 litre, V6 turbo engines, and a rejigged pecking order. The circus now heads to Malaysia, one of the most demanding circuits on the calendar, but not all the questions from the winter have been answered. In Malaysia there are a few guarantees, humidity, lightning fast straights, complex corners and the occasional afternoon deluge, but there is still plenty left to discover about the new era of F1.

In form

Mercedes remains the team to beat after Nico Rosberg won the opener at a canter, while Lewis Hamilton took a convincing pole position before engine gremlins ruined his day on Sunday. Despite the Hamilton setback, Mercedes is clearly a cut above the rest and if it can avoid reliability issues in Sepang it is hard to look past the team for another win. It was another Mercedes-powered outfit which showed the benefit of reliability in 2014, as McLaren's Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button finished second and third to give the team the lead in the constructors' championship. McLaren does not look like it can match the outright pace of Mercedes and Williams just yet; in fact Eric Boullier has revealed the team prioritised reliability over performance this winter, with the expectation the latter would improve rapidly as the season continues. With Button, the most experienced driver on the grid, and the hugely exciting Magnussen, whose impressive debut was overshadowed by Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification, at the helm, we could see that decision continue to pay dividends in Malaysia.

Out of form

While Daniel Ricciardo's weekend took a lot of the focus to another part of the Red Bull garage in Australia, it is hard to escape the fact Sebastian Vettel has endured a highly frustrating 2014 so far. Vettel has yet to show us what he can do with 'Suzie', his newly-named RB10. Watching his team-mate steal the plaudits on Saturday, and then again on Sunday, during the first race will have been a bit of a culture shock for Vettel after enjoying such a big advantage over Mark Webber in the latter days of their partnership. Over the radio Vettel sounded fraught, even slightly petulant, in Melbourne, and it will be interesting to see how he would react to another early retirement - especially if Ricciardo ends up on the podium again. Despite the negatives, Vettel will be encouraged by the fact that Red Bull is clearly in possession of a very quick car and is no doubt thanking his lucky stars he is not driving for Lotus. Just how big of a mountain the team has to climb became clear at Melbourne, with it occupying the final two spaces on the grid before Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean both retired with ERS problems during the race. The team has admitted Australia "felt like a testing session", and the smart money says Malaysia might just feel a little bit like another one as Lotus is still yet to complete a race distance.

Williams cannot afford another wasted weekend © Getty Images
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One to watch

Williams comes to Malaysia having not lived up to its obvious potential in Melbourne. Felipe Massa could do nothing about Kamui Kobayashi's Caterham at Turn One, while an error on lap 10 from Valtteri Bottas almost certainly cost him a podium as he spent most of the race absolutely flying. It struggled in the wet qualifying session in Australia but, if it stays dry in Malaysia and they keep out of trouble, Williams is surely the only team which can provide a serious challenge to Mercedes. Melbourne will have been stamped firmly in the "what might have been" column for Williams, but another failure to achieve at least a podium could leave the team looking over its shoulder as the rest of the pack starts to make inroads on its early-season advantage.

Talking points

Fuel-flow sensors give you wings
Daniel Ricciardo will be in focus for a number of reasons this weekend. A strong result in Malaysia would make him start to look like a natural fit alongside a man with four world titles to his name. But another interesting question is how much of his second place was down to him and the car, and how much was the advantage (however minute) Red Bull's decision to ignore the FIA fuel-flow sensor may have given him over the rest of the field? There is also the issue that, by leaving such a long gap between the Australian Grand Prix and the appeal hearing, the FIA has set itself up for a potential headache in Malaysia with continued ambiguity around the regulations.

Come on feel the noise

The fact that F1 has embraced such revolutionary technology for 2014 has, perhaps ironically, been drowned out by the fallout surrounding the noise of the new engines. Ron Walker, the chief of the Australian Grand Prix, has been the main culprit, though the negative headlines have also given Bernie Ecclestone a golden "I told you so" moment. Walker's threat of a mass exodus to IndyCar in protest seems highly unlikely, but the story is likely to run until fans grow accustomed to the new engines. Though the noise is noticeably different, a thrilling race or two in the early stage of the season may help remind the naysayers that F1 is about more than just the deafening roar of a V8 or V10 engine.

Sebastian Vettel has three wins in Sepang © Sutton Images
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Renault's progress
Five of the seven retirements in Australia were Renault-powered. We all know Mercedes is well ahead of Ferrari and Renault, but it is the progress of the latter, considering they have won four world titles in a row, that will be of the most interest in Malaysia. Even though Red Bull clearly has a fast car, its chance of mounting a serious challenge in 2014 now lies with the men in yellow.

Facts and stats

  • Of the current grid, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have the most victories in Sepang, with three apiece. Michael Schumacher is the only other F1 driver to have taken the chequered flag flag three times in Kuala Lumpur.
  • After the new A1 Ring, this was the second circuit designed by Hermann Tilke, but the first of the now common Tilkedromes to be built from scratch.
  • Jenson Button has appeared the most times at the Malaysian Grand Prix, taking part in 14 of the 15 races held so far
  • The first Malaysian Grand Prix was held in 1962. It was a Formula Two race and was run on the Thomson Road circuit in Singapore under the moniker of the Malayan Grand Prix

Betting

The bookies are still very much in Mercedes' corner, with Lewis Hamilton just edging Nico Rosberg as favourite. They also think there may be something to Red Bull's recent upturn in fortunes, though the bookies think it is Sebastian Vettel (12/1) and not Daniel Ricciardo (22/1) who is most likely to end the Mercedes' dominance despite his struggles in Australia.

Weather

© ESPNF1
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Thunderstorms are never far away at this time of year in Malaysia, and have a tendency to strike late in the afternoon. However, Kuala Lumpur has been experiencing a relatively dry spell lately, with water usage restrictions in some areas. If it remains dry the race will all be about managing tyre degradation, but with a few spots of rain the show will be spiced up significantly.

ESPN prediction

It is hard to look past another walk in the park for Mercedes. Nico Rosberg shone in the Melbourne sun but Lewis Hamilton should not be written off, after early engine woes robbed him the chance of challenging his team-mate for a win after convincingly taking the first pole of the season. Williams and McLaren will be left to scrap it out for the remaining spot on the podium, though write off Red Bull at your peril.

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