The 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix will be the thirteenth F1 race to take place at the purpose-built Sepang circuit on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur – and this is an event that is quickly becoming a much-anticipated feature the modern F1 calendar.
The first event was the penultimate race of the 1999 season and, although won by Eddie Irvine, the race will be remembered for a dominant display from Michael Schumacher.
It was the German’s first race back after breaking his leg in Silverstone that July. He had no chance of the title himself, but Ferrari team-mate Irvine was in a position to challenge Mika Hakkinen for the title. Schumacher took an easy pole position, let Irvine pass him in the early stages of the race, and then spent the rest of the afternoon slowing the rest of the field, yet still finished the race just a second behind the other Ferrari. (Both Ferraris were later disqualified for irregular-sized barge boards and then reinstated on appeal. Hakkinen went on to win the championship decider in Japan and his second title)
Schumacher can only dream of similar dominance this year. As a Ferrari driver he won the Malaysian Grand Prix three times but last weekend in Australia the seven-time world champion’s Mercedes team showed little indication of being able to challenge Sebastian Vettel for the victory, even before both cars retired through collisions.
Surprisingly, it was McLaren who, despite being mediocre throughout pre-season testing, took the fight to Vettel in Australia. Lewis Hamilton in particular will be a big threat to Vettel in Malaysia, especially if Red Bull are again racing without KERS. The Sepang circuit has much longer straights than the streets of Albert Park, straight-line speed and acceleration are much more important for a good lap time, and so the power-boost system is much more useful here!
Other drivers looking forward to Malaysia after the first race will be Vitaly Petrov – who scored his maiden podium in Australia – and Sergio Perez. The Mexican rookie impressed Pirelli by requiring only one pit stop during the opening race, and would have scored points on his debut outing if it were not for his Sauber team flouting some minor technical regulations.
On the Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, all eyes in Q1 will be on Hispania as they attempt to beat the 107% rule and get at least one of their cars to qualify. Tonio Liuzzi tried his utmost to do this in Australia, and missed out by just one second. Narain Karthikeyan, however, looks woefully off the pace. Even if the team stick patiently with him, the former Jordan driver may not qualify for a race until the circus gets to Monaco, judging by his performance in the opening race.
One thing that HRT and the other new teams could benefit from is the tropical Malaysian weather. Heavy rain usually features at some point over the weekend – a heavy shower in qualifying caught out McLaren and Ferrari last year and allowed Lotus and Virgin a crack at Q2 last year, but then conditions remained fine for race day.
In fact, Malaysia rarely provides us with a dull race, with teams looking carefully at weather forecasts and ominous dark skies, trying to second guess the next deluge and adjusting strategies accordingly.
The Australian Grand Prix may have answered some of out pre-season questions about relative performance of the teams, the behaviour of the new tyres, and the new DRS. It left us with plenty more unanswered though, and Malaysia provides us with the first proper circuit of the season (i.e., not a street circuit) and should give us more clues as to whether or not Red Bull will be a truly dominant force this season, and which other team is best suited to stopping the Milton Keynes-based outfit in their quest to retain both titles. Either way, Malaysia will deliver an exciting second chapter in the epic story that is F1 in 2011!
The race begins at 08:00 BST and there will be reports and reaction throughout the weekend on TheCheckeredFlag