Malaysia: Technical Preview

Just a few hours after the race in Australia ended; the teams were already packing up and heading off to Malaysia for Round3.  Sepang is a circuit that drivers love; it has a wide range of corners from hairpins, to long straights and at last fast turns.   Thus being quite a complex track it demands drivers get a good rhythm and the car works well in all situations. 

It’s quite a technical track; with long straights each punctuated by slow turn required aggressive braking and traction events, the slow turns eat up laptime, so the chassis needs good mechanical grip.  Most importantly the fast changes of direction through turns 5 & 6 at over 150mph; means the car will encounter sustained high speed cornering loads for the first time since Barcelona testing.  However being in Malaysia the track will be hot and this along with heavy race fuel will place huge loads on the tyres.  Malaysia will prove to be hard on tyres if it remains dry.  But rainstorms hit the late starting race last year and are already forecast for this weekend.  We could see the situation where a hot race turns into a very wet race, leading to a strategic headache for the teams, to respond to the changing conditions.  Recall last years race, with the torrential downpour ending the race just after half distance.

If it remains dry the teams will need to demonstrate their aero efficiency as the tyres will need downforce in the fast turns, but the track will penalise those running slower on the straights with lots of drag.  Of course in the heat, the teams need to open up the bodywork tool the engine and electronics, this costs drag and as Bahrain showed some teams needed to be quite extreme in creating sufficient outlet area to cool their car.  Otherwise Sepang is a moderate circuit; with medium downforce, braking and fuel consumption.  Although not to the extent of Albert Park, Sepang is a green track and will rubber in as the weekend progresses.  The track will become faster over the course of the weekend, this will allow the drivers push harder in the fast turns and in the braking areas.  Bridgestone will bring their hard and soft tyre options to Sepang; drivers will need to be mindful to care of them as the cars will work their tyres hard on full fuels loads in both the fast turns and inout of the hairpins.  This might make the driver cautious in the opening laps, but not necessarily tin the hectic first couple of corners.  Once the tyres are settled in, the track does offer overtaking opportunities, especially to those with a straight-line speed advantage or those brave into turn1.

Development-wise Australia was a surprise with several new parts tested up and down the grid.  Malaysia should prove to be a similarly interesting event, several teams are rushing their F-vents into production, so it’s possible we might see other teams test their early prototypes of the set up.  Only Renault and the new teams are expected not to develop such systems in the next few races.

Certainly there will be another debate on ride height adjustment, this was raised in Melbourne and continues through the media in the intervening week.  The argument is that some teams are able to alter their ride height in between qualifying and the race.  Doing this within what is permissible within the Parc Fermé rules.  Just as with the F-vent, the rules are worded to try to prevent this sort of practice, but the actual wording might allow some creative interpretation.  What is clear the teams will have to resort to form of hands off altering of ride height.  They are not permitted to make mechanical changes or adjustments to the suspension, until the car is stationery at the first pitstop.

If teams are running these systems, we can expect other teams to formally protest it and the FIA be more decisive and act to prevent it continuing.

Team by Team

McLaren

After a mixed weekend in Albert Park, where Buttons was confidence refreshed with a strong Q performance and of course a race win, but Hamilton showed their qualifying performance is still a problem.  A good grid slot for both cars will be important this weekend, as this has been a weak point for the MP425.  This might be down to the way the car is set up over the weekend.  It seems that Australia reinforced the level of straight-line speed advantage promised in Bahrain.  Although Bahrain proved that the car was matched on VMax by other cars.  Looking at the Australian speed traps, the McLaren’s were a step faster than these teams and a lot more rapid than the Ferrari but especially quicker than the Red Bulls.  McLaren averaging around 192mph and Red Bull 183mph, nearly a 10mph advantage.   However this equates to easier overtaking in the race, but McLaren could offset more of that advantage with adding more downforce to get a better qualifying time.

Although Sepang has its long straight and if McLaren continue to focus on the straight-line speed advantage given by their powerful engine and f-duct, they might struggle in the fast corners.  Equally we have seen the McLaren uses its tyres and brakes quite heavily, again Malaysia will not reward a car harsh on these, especially in the opening laps when the driver needs to take care and not race off for the car immediately ahead of it.

Mercedes

It seems the team are still working towards better pace.  Melbourne saw the team make more steps forward in set up, but I expect new parts are required to get the W01 working.  Despite the urgent need, the team haven’t announced major updates for this race.  Instead the diligent work to get what they have working better over a lap and balanced between qualifyingrace will be their focus.  Something the two drivers appear to be working very well together in doing. Although not challenging the leading three teams for lap time, at least the car has been reliable and getting to the finish and in the points, leading several of their rivals in the championship, will help offset the cars lack of pace at this point in the year.

Red Bull

Australia proved to underline the pace that the RB6 has around a lap.  Increasing comments from other drivers about the cars balance and grip show the car has an advantage over its rivals.  Red Bull seems to have more downforce than other teams and this has lead to its speed.  However this does not come for free, Red Bull were the slowest through the Melbourne speed traps. It might be that the team are protecting their tyres with an excess of downforce, at tracks without long straight and a flat aero map, they can get away with this.  In Malaysia with the importance of the long straights, their high downforce approach might not pay off so well.  Still, there’s is no reason not to expect Red bull to take pole and race win in Sepang.  Also the teams other issue, despite their denials is their reliability.  Although clearly not a single intrinsic fault with the car, the team have failed to finish three time out of four, twice with a problem leading directly to the loss of a win.  It may not be a cause for concern for the team, but points are being racked up by their rivals at point when Red Bull could be dominant.

Ferrari

Proving to be the most consistent and reliable team so far, the F10 has yet to excite with Red Bull beating pace.  Small changes to the front wing for Albert Park were a step forwards, but the team much rumoured major update is due for the European season.  This step will need to be a greater gain than their rivals find in the mean time, if the team are to compete.  The period spent waiting sees their rivals develop their car at each race.  Malaysia should again see Ferrari competitive, their Barcelona testing on long runs were fast and without the tyre degradation suffered by others, but its doubtful they have the cornering potential, to that of Red Bull to really set fast lap times.

Renault

Renault have so far proven to be best of the rest with two races with strong results, underlining their inherent pace.  We can point to the two recent upgrades t the car that have resulted the teams position relative to their midfield rivals.  As more detail emerged of the R30, with its complex diffuser treatment and ever more intricate front wing development.  There are further developments planned for this weekend.  What initially looked like an under developed car is turning into a much more serious contender.  Regardless of these performances the team are cautious about their pace in Sepang, feeling that they lack downforce.  Malaysia will be a true test to see if the car has got the potential to lead the midfield pack.

Williams

Points for one car in Australia were welcome reward for Williams, Having one car punted off the track was not.  Still the team have not shown the promise in the car, being very much middle of the midfield after two races.  Technical director Sam Michael is pointing to the next few races as a period of focused development.  Three areas have been cited; naturally the cars the aerodynamic, but interestingly the engine and gearshift.  It might be the case the lack of pace for Williams could be the loss of Toyota power and the shift to the Cosworth engine.  Having stepped aside from developing their F1 engine, other engine suppliers have worked through many iterations of their engine to bring the maximum possible performance within the limits of the regulations.  Cosworth may have some catching up to do.

Sauber

Their promise shown in testing is ebbing away, the team still head the design race as the second team with an F-duct, but they have failed to deliver strong performances.  Track time and a race result were lost in Australia with the front wing problems.  Not strictly wing failures as the wings had been damaged on the preceding corners in both cases; the team will run with a reinforced front wing in Sepang.  They have also confirmed their testing the F-duct again, but it might be a few more races before its race ready.  Other aero development is going on at Sauber with new bargeboards in Melbourne, so we might see resurgence over the coming races.

Toro Rosso

Some promise was shown in qualifying for Buemi in Melbourne, but then being taken out in the Kobayashi incident was a disappointment.  As was the other car failing to progress for most of the race, when points could have been taken in the disrupted race.  Sepang offers no great glimmers of promise, but the 2009 RB5 based cars pace around the more technical track should set it apart from the new teams.

Force India

Joining Renault as the leaders of the midfield, one car continued to get into Q3 and there were also positive race performances.  The Australian race retirement was a missed opportunity for the otherwise reliable Mercedes powered team.

Lots of development is evident with new parts at each race and an f-duct in the pipeline or should that be in the ductwork?.  This should aid what is already one of the fastest straight-line cars, by allowing the team to run more rear wing for greater downforce, without giving up their speed advantage.  Also aiding the team at last, is a front wing adjuster.  This made its debut over a year later than other teams.  Legally allowing the driver to adjust the front wing by 6-degrees each lap, the driver can now tailor the cars handling to the tyres and lessening fuel load.  Malaysia should be a good race for the team, as long as the heat doesn’t ruin their aero; they were conspicuous in Bahrain as having a lot of openings in their sidepods.

Lotus

With its Malaysian owners Sepang will bring a lot of pressure on the team. Especially after the disappointment of the non-start for one car in Australia.  Lotus are working hard to get a good race car together, the team may not always have the pace of the Virgin, but as a package its outperformed all the other new teams.  Sepang will be quite a test for the short & nimble t127.  To aid stability we can expect a return of the shark fin engine cover once more.  As with all the new teams they are short of downforce, which will hurt them in the fast turns.

Virgin

Problems with manufacturing parts lead to the teams early season hydraulic woes, a new team with lots of parts to be made many out of house, this will Quality Control nightmare.  Revised parts for Malaysia should solve these problems, once and for all.  Also already well discussed is the fuel tank issue, so Wirth Research has their work list full for several months.  Hopefully the QA improvements and new chassis development can run parallel to the performance upgrades.  At Sepang their cars need a clean weekend, without loss of track time and both going all the way to the finish.  No doubt fighting with Lotus all

Hispania

Qualifying less than half a second behind the Virgins and a race finish should be seen as a strong result for the Hispania team in Australia.  Always taking care to avoid the leader when being lapped obviously cost Chandock lot of time, as he was four laps down at the end two more than the lotus.  More steady progress over the next two race weekends should see Hispania arrive in Europe with some confidence that they can start to develop their car.

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