The Malaysian Grand Prix Preview
Donâ€™t for a moment imagine after the Australian Grand Prix that McLaren are going to get complacent, or that Ferrari have let their heads drop. Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo might have said, after engine failures stymied Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa in Melbourne: "It was a healthy dose of humility." But, he also said: "I'm looking forward to Malaysia when I expect to see the real Ferrari."
And new team principal Stefano Domenicali added: "The result speaks for itself. Unfortunately it was a dreadful weekend. Nothing went as planned, so it was difficult. But if you remember, in 2006 we had a similar start with the two non-finishes and we were able to catch up again.
"We weren't phenomenal guys before this race and we are not stupid after it, so we really need to analyse in all the details what has happened. And of course the main concern is to understand the reliability problems. We had two engines fail so this is the main issue to understand. But we need to stay cool, calm and concentrated. We need not be too emotional now because it's very easy to go down that route. We need to stay very rational."
McLaren never underestimate Ferrari, and are not expecting another relatively easy run in Sepang this weekend.
"Every Grand Prix team experiences difficult weekends," said team principal Ron Dennis, who will miss this race because of family commitments in England. "They have got a lot of depth and we are under no illusions that they will come back and will be very competitive in Malaysia and for the rest of the season. All we can do is try and stay focused on our own efforts and that is what we will do.â€ť
The indications in Melbourne were that the two top teams have similar pace. What was also exciting, however, is that Nick Heidfeldâ€™s best race lap for BMW Sauber, who finished second in Albert Park, was only three-tenths of a second off McLaren, and the same as Ferrari.
â€śWe were very pleased with the way things went,â€ť admits technical director Willy Rampf with a big smile. â€śWe did not get the best from the cars on Friday, but we were happy with the set-ups on Saturday and I think that showed in our performance then, and in the race. But we are cautious. Sepang is a different kind of track to Melbourne, so we must wait and see how well it suits our cars.â€ť
Nevertheless, donâ€™t write off the chances of Heidfeld and front-row starting team-mate Robert Kubica, in their F1.08s.
Likewise, Williams are feeling very chipper after Nico Rosbergâ€™s strong performance won him his first F1 podium. The FW30 looked very impressive last weekend, and Kazuki Nakajima also earned points to place the team second overall ahead of BMW Sauber. On the downside, Nakajima will be hamstrung by an automatic ten-place grid demotion at Sepang, a penalty for the Japanese driver colliding with another car in Melbourne.
Then there is Red Bull. Mark Webber got no chance to show what the RB4 could do in the race, and is hungry to correct that this weekend. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso is also out for further points. The Renault R28 may not yet be a front-runner that can challenge McLaren and Ferrari, but the Spaniardâ€™s driving in Australia, especially when he overtook Raikkonen and Kovalainen in one swoop, served as a reminder that he has lost none of his skill or motivation.
â€śSepang really is my favourite track,â€ť the former champion says. â€śI took my first pole position there in 2003 with Renault, and I have won this race twice. Itâ€™s a circuit that I enjoy and I always tend to attack a little bit more.â€ť
Renaultâ€™s executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds, is not alone in believing that it will take the next two races before the true picture of 2008â€™s pecking order emerges in Spain.
The challenge of Sepang lies in its fast sweeping turns, especially Turns 4 through to 8, which demand a well-balanced chassis. Good traction is also important, especially on the exit of Turn 9, the tight left hander. The opening combination of Turns 1 and 2 is also a difficult challenge for the drivers, but they get compensated by Turn 14 which demands genuine skill with its tightening entry which is approached under braking.
The high ambient temperatures also place a premium on adequate cooling, and the track is tougher on tyres than Melbourne. Bridgestoneâ€™s offering in Malaysia will be the medium and hard compounds, as opposed to the soft and medium used in Australia. That, and the ban on traction control, will force drivers to look after their rear tyres, which already tend to wear quickly here. Throw in the changes to the electronic engine braking systems, which have tended to make the cars trickier to handle under braking, and we could have another race like Melbourne with drivers getting caught out by mistakes.
As a subtle warning to the opposition Dennis added, in reference to Lewis Hamilton after Australia: â€śHe was very fresh, and he was very comfortable. And he was saving the engine. It was very easy! I think we have shown we have a very competitive car, so we will go to Malaysia with a very positive mood.â€ť