Organizers will be watching the skies, rival teams will be eying the Ferraris and local fans will be cheering on their own new team at this weekend’s Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix.
The main talking point in the F1 paddock at Sepang is the chance of rain, after last year’s drenching tropical downpour, which forced the race to be abandoned after an hour with only half the usual points awarded.
That abandonment forced a revision of the starting time, with this year’s race brought forward from 5pm to 4pm.
That will lessen the chances of the arrival of rain, which tends to come in the late afternoon, while also heightening the chances of a re-start if the race does have to be stopped. Last year, by the time the storms had passed, it was too dark to contemplate a re-start.
Rain and scattered thunderstorms are forecast from today onward, which makes it difficult for teams to set up their cars in advance, but promises an exciting and unpredictable spectacle for fans.
It also makes it difficult to predict which team will thrive in the conditions. The last round in Australia had some light rain just before the race start, but the cars have not yet been tested in truly wet conditions with the heavy fuel loads required this season.
Should it remain dry, Ferrari looks like the team to beat, based both on performance this season and historical precedent in Malaysia.
After two races, Fernando Alonso leads the championship with 37 points from Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa on 33 — a marked contrast to last season when the Italian team went through the opening three races without scoring a single point.
Alonso’s total would have been even higher if not for being spun in contact at the first corner in Australia and having to fight his way through the field from last after the first lap to finish fourth.
Ferrari has an enviable record over the 11 years of the Malaysian Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher having won three times, while Kimi Raikkonen and Eddie Irvine won once each. The the team took pole position seven times.
Alonso also has some history of his own here, winning in 2007 for McLaren.
One team that may be happy for this weekend’s race to be abandoned at half-distance, as it was last year, would be Red Bull.
Both in Bahrain and Australia, Sebastian Vettel led comfortably mid-race only to to be stymied by technical failures — a sparkplug misfire in Bahrain that knocked him down to fourth place and a wheel failure in Australia that sent him into the gravel and a premature retirement.
As a result, the German has only 12 championship points instead of the 50 he probably would have had if the car had lasted. Teammate Mark Webber had also got little reward — a poor qualifying performance condemned him to eighth in Bahrain, and some over-eager racing and errors pushed him down to ninth at his home race in Australia.
Red Bull’s speed over the opening races had raised eyebrows at other teams, with suggestions the team is using an adjustable suspension to lower the ride height in qualifying and raise it for the race. While the team denies it, rivals have been eying the cars very closely, but have yet to lodge any formal complaint that would be needed to prompt an FIA investigation.
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