Throughout testing and right up until the Australian Grand Prix, we were constantly being told that the true pecking order of the 2012 field would not be revealed until qualifying at the opening event, or maybe even the race.
But has the result in Melbourne set the tone for the the year ahead, or were some of the performances just flukes? The Australian Grand Prix provided more questions than it answered.
Have McLaren really got the best car in the field, or did the warm, sunny conditions of Albert Park last weekend particularly favour the MP4-27? Can Mercedes challenge for podiums and race wins, or will they again be plagued by tyre-wear problems when it comes to race day? Did Romain Grosjean‘s qualifying pace flatter Lotus? Are Ferrari really that bad? Who is winning the battle of the midfield? Can Caterham join their ranks once they have sorted their reliability problems? Will HRT ever get off the back of the grid?
Luckily, this weekend, some or all of the answers to these questions will become a little clearer. The Sepang International Circuit, venue of the Malaysian Grand Prix, is the first of the ‘proper’ purpose-built circuits on the calendar, and it will remove some of the uncertainties thrown up by a street circuit such as Albert Park.
Having said that, Malaysia is known for its tropical climate and, in addition to the intense heat and humidity that is guaranteed this weekend, there is a significant chance of rain. Showers during qualifying or the race could mix things up again.
It is worth remembering that last year, when Malaysia was also the second stop on the calendar, this was the race when the differences between the new Pirelli tyres and the Bridgestone rubber of 2010. There were a whopping 58 pit stops in last year’s race as drivers struggled with tyre wear. The midfield order was changing on virtually every lap and by the end of the race, the track was covered in a sea of little rubber marbles. Will the new-spec Pirelli rubber deliver the same plethora of pit stops this year?
The Malaysian Grand Prix was one of the first to be held in Asia (although Japan was first by a long way), and has been on the calendar every year since 1999. That inaugural race was dominated by Michael Schumacher, who was making a return to the sport after a broken leg. A gearbox problem stopped the seven-time world champion’s charge in Melbourne, but can he get on the podium at the venue of some of his greatest drives (see last year’s Malaysian GP preview for a recap).
Schumacher will probably leave Australia in an optimistic mood after qualifying fourth and running a convincing third until forced to retire. Others, including Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg, will also be lifted by the performance of their new cars, despite a less-than-ideal result in Melbourne.
On together hand, there are a few drivers who will struggle to draw positives from the opening race, and grateful that the next event comes around so quickly. Felipe Massa had a nightmare weekend, and was comprehensively outshone by team-mate Fernando Alonso, who got the most out of the F2012, and Pastor Maldonado was on course to beat Williams‘ 2011 points total in just one race before crashing out on the final lap.
Sebastian Vettel won the Malaysian Grand Prix last season, and while the German may have the luck of a champion after snatching second place under the safety car in Melbourne, he no longer has the dominant car he was enjoying last April. Will his Red Bull have the pace to topple the McLaren on Sunday?
- Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix begins at 08:00 GMT on Saturday. The race begins at 09:00 BST on Sunday morning. Note that, in the UK, the clocks go forward an hour early on Sunday morning.
- In the UK, live coverage of events in Malaysia is available on Sky Sports F1 HD and BBC Radio 5 Live, with race highlights available on BBC One later on Sunday.
- There will be reports and reaction available throughout the weekend here on thecheckeredflag.co.uk