2012 Petronas Malaysian Formula 1 Grand Prix Review
When James Allen asked Daniel Ricciardo prior to practice for the Malaysian Formula 1 Grand Prix, if this was physically the hardest race of the season, Ricciardo was honest enough to say that while it was hot and humid, the Singapore race was probably worse as “the heat has nowhere to go”. Nevertheless, since its construction and inclusion on the Formula 1 calendar back in 1999 it is still regarded as one of the most challenging circuits in the world. In an earlier piece on Racefans we had a close look at the track designs of Hermanne Tilke, the designer behind most of the recent tracks added to the Formula 1 calendar and, while the thrust of the article makes strong criticisms about the Tilke designs, the Malaysian Formula 1 circuit in Sepang is absolutely brilliant and has produced some memorable races in the past.
Aside from the extreme heat and humidity, Sepang (about 85km from the city centre of Kuala Lumpur) has become reknowned for it’s monsoonal weather, first experienced in the 2001 edition of the race where cars started on dry tyres, shifted to full wets, only to finish the race back on drys. In recent years, the decision to host the race later in the afternoon has exposed it to the greater likelihood of monsoonal showers as shown in 2009 where the race was abandoned after 31 laps. For 2012 the signs looked ominous for a repeat event with thunder storms forcast for every day. Rain is never discouraged in Formula 1, for many it serves to highlight the sheer skill of the drivers, for lesser teams it is a chance to benefit from a high attrition rate, while for spectators it serves to bring about greater unpredictability to a race’s outcome, something once common in the earlier days of Formula 1 when the cars used to crumble when exposed to light. For the drivers, they are the kind of qualities that remind them that before being granted a raise, their employer must tighten the noose and that the support of the fans are much like those at a Whitney Houston concert, every one fears it may not end well but everyone wants to be there to see it.
Practice Sessions 1, 2 and 3, Friday 23 March 2012
Still for Friday at least, the sun stayed out in Sepang, the noose was loosened and the racing cars could go racing again. In the opening session it was Michael Schumacher, a three-time winner in Malaysia, once again showing the impressive pace of the 2012 Mercedes. By sessions end however it was the familiar sight of Lewis Hamilton at the top of the timesheets with Sebastien Vettel in second but some 5 tenths behind. One question that arose from Melbourne was whether Hamilton and Webber could bounce back from their first round results, however with Webber sixth, half a second down on his teammate, it was looking unlikely for the Australian. Despite his second place, Vettel was very disappointed with the balance of the new Red Bull, a disatisfaction he was willing to express over the radio to the team. Jenson Button had a tough frst session finishing ninth following technical problems. In the second session in the afternoon, Hamilton was dominant, showing imense speed in the McLaren and finishing almost four tenths ahead of another impressive showing from Michael Schumacher. The session was highlighted by the performances of the two Toro Rosso’s with Daniel Ricciardo finishing 5th and Jean-Eric Vergne finishing eighth, showing that Toro Rosso’s 2012 challenger clearly has good pace. So one day down and the McLaren of Hamilton was the one to beat in Malaysia.
Perhaps of greatest interest on the opening day of testing was the debut of the Williams third driver Valtteri Bottas who finished the opening practice session less than one tenth ahead of Pastor Maldonado. With recent regulations preventing in-season testing, there has been a new development in Formula 1 surrounding the role of the ‘test’ or ‘third driver’. In years past the test driver used to have an enormous role within a Formula 1 team. You need only look at driver’s like Pedro De La Rosa, Fernando Alonso, and Felippe Massa, all of whom spent at least an entire season poinding out the laps for McLaren, Renault and Ferrari in the never-ending quest for additional aerodynamic devices. Due to the regulations this ‘testing’ now takes place in simulators, allegedly assisting in the reduction of costs for all teams involved. It has meant however, that third drivers are only able to test the real car in anger at either the young driver test, at an official test session, or during a practice session of a grand prix weekend. As the teams priority is to their current race drivers, it is very rare that third drivers are given the opportunity to take time away from the race drivers during a race weekend and has created what appear to be three types of third driver roles being adopted by F1 teams. The first method, and this is most common amongst the top teams, is to have a third driver do simply simulator work throughout the season and participate in the young driver test, but never test the car during race wekends. The second and most favourable, is the driver who, like Bottas, is given the oppportunity to practice at a set amount of Formula 1 events during the season, while also doing simulator work. Finally the third type is the publicity driver who doesn’t do much simulator work at all and instead competes in a lower category under the support of the Formula 1 team, much like Canadian Robert Wickens, who was supported by Marussia last year in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series. So rare is it for drivers to be given the opporunity for a test session during race weekends that it is almost assured that if a driver is given this opportunity, it means a race role is usually not far away. Formula 1 commentator Peter Windsor has spoken on his program ‘The Flying Lap’ stating before the season started that he thought Bottas may well have a race seat at Williams before the season was finished. This would not be wide of the mark as we have already seen drivers make the progression from a Friday morning test role to a race seat within a year, most notably with Paul di Resta in 2011 and Nico Hulkenberg in 2012, both for Force India. With the surprise performance shown by the Williams at the start of the season it will be interesting to see if Bottas is given further tests, particularly if both Senna and Maldonado ‘The Barron’ are able to utilise the cars potential.
Much to the surprise of many, Saturday morning practice was dry and, eager to regain some authority within Mercedes, Nico Rosberg topped the timesheets with a 1:36.877 seconds in a session that was much faster than the times set down on Friday. With both Red Bulls in 2nd and 3rd many thought that perhaps McLaren would not have it all their own way in qualifying and that the double world champions had found the secret to effectively fight for the 2012 title. Almost unnoticed, Fernando Alonso had finished 15th, 6th and 13th in the practice sessions, which while not impressive, were still better than Sergio Perez, who finished 20th, 18th, and 12th, statistics that the significance of which would be made a mockery of by both drivers come Sunday afternoon.
Qualifying, Saturday 24 March 2012
The rain stayed away for qualifying so that Q1 would once again be all about whether the HRTs would have the speed to qualify for the race and whether Felippe Massa simply had the speed to compete in the race. Unlike in Melbourne, the two HRTs made a vast improvement, with both cars managing to get within 107% of Mark Webber the Australian showing renewed speed at a track he always qualifies well at, 2nd on the grid for Jaguar in 2004 being a career highlight. Little fuss was made of HRTs achievements at the time however by race-end, the Madrid machines would make their presence known, the significance of which may only be truly appreciated in the final rounds of the season. After showing good pace in practice, Jean-Eric Vergne would suffer the indignity of being the first contender to not make Q2. Despite what Paul Stoddart has hinted as being an extremely large budget, Caterham are yet to show the kind of pace to contest for Q2 despite having Renault engines and Red Bull gearboxes, a fact that must be weighing heavily on the minds of both Tony Fernandez and Mike Gascoyne.
Straight into Q2 and attention would now shift to the enthralling mid-field battle which if Melbourne was any indication, appears to be a fight between Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso. With Vergne already relegated to 18th both Williams and Sauber and especially Kobayashi and Senna had a chance to capitalise and redeem themselves from their last time out. As Q2 came to an end the closeness of the mid-field in 2012 was apprent to all with only seven tenths separating Alonso in 9th and Kobayashi in 17th. Once again the Force Indias were disappointing, with Paul di Resta having experienced problems in practice, new updates can’t arrive sooner for a team that showed the promise in testing that the williams appears to generate in the race. Of the mid-field teams, only Sergio Perez was able to progress into Q3, the Mexican defying his performances in testing to once again show the impressive potential of the Sauber C31. Showing speed well beyond his recent form, Felippe Massa qualified 12th, 3 tenths down on Alonso but enough to gain the encouragement of engineer Rob Smedley. In the Williams camp Bruno Senna could only manage 13th while ‘The Barron’ was unable to improve on his 11th qualifying time after an excursion across the gravel trap at turn 11 damaged the cars undertray and prevented him from grabbing his second top ten qualifying start from as many races.
So Q3 would see McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus, a Ferrari and a Sauber battle it out for the front row. All that is except for Kimi Raikkonen who would have to take a five place grid penalty for replacing his gearbox. The battle for pole ended almost as soon as it began with Lewis Hamilton showing he will be the man to beat at the one lap flyer in 2012, setting a blistering time despte a mistake on the final corner. After the drivers initial laps, Button would be 4 tenths down on his teammate, improving this to just over a tenth to ensure back to back front row lock outs by the McLaren team. On a track with immense staright-a-ways the mysterious air-blown front wing system on the Mercedes appeared to assist the German manuacturer with Schumacher outqualifying his teammate, finishing third for the first time on his return, securing an all Mercedes top 3 and with it, the greater likelihood that the system will be banned before mid-season but more of that later. Most intriguing for the race was the strategy adopted by Red Bull who opted to have Vettel do his Q3 run on the hard tyre and thereby saving a set of soft tyres for the race tomorrow. With Webber 4th and Vettel 6th, which would become 5th with Raikkonen’s penalty, the champions were in with a serious shout. Kimi Raikkonen was impressive, outqualifying Grosjean and providing further proof that a sabbatical doesn’t have to diminish a driver’s performance. Both Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez finished 9th and 10th, to which some were heard questioning how well both drivers would be if they were in better machinery… if only.
2012 Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix, Sunday 25 March 2012
On the grid before the race and venturing out on yet another now famous grid walk, Martin Brundle had a chat with Jenson Button just as the Malaysian national anthem commenced. While it’s always interesting to hear the thoughts of a Formula 1 World Champion seconds from the start of a race, even Button would’ve felt a little upstaged because the rain, long anticipated to arrive, began to fall. Some said the climactic conditions were attributable to the repeated reference to a ‘successful reign’ in the nation’s nthem, others weren’t so sure. Myths aside, it was clear that strategy would play an important part in the race. Moving further down the grid, Brundle approached the Red Bull of Mark Webber just as the team conducted a clutch bite-point find on the RB8. The test, conducted on the grid prior to every race, provides the drivers with the best possible information to maximise their starts. Interestingly, Webber himself wasn’t at the wheel of the car when the test was done leaving many to wonder whether he is ever provided with the information or if it is used against him come contract time. Brundle saved the best line till last by noting ‘The first Ferrari on the grid then, Fernando Alonso, and he might be a man to watch if it starts to rain’.
Lights ablaze and for the first time in 2012, 24 cars launched from the grid and immediately it was clear that only Red Bull knew the optimal clutch release point, because Webber was sixth by the first turn, made to look all the worse by Grosjean who had a blinder, surging through the second row to be third by the first turn. With an audacious move around the outside of turn 3, Webber got back past Vettel and Grosjean so that by the end of the first lap it was Hamilton, Button, Webber, Vettel and Alonso. In the spray at turn 4 Grosjean had mistimed his pass on Schumacher sending both cars off the circuit. Fortunately for Grosjean, he was able to continue albeit after watching every car bar-one go past. The one that hadn’t was Pedro de La Rosa, whose HRT clutch bite-point ate half the gearbox, much to disappointment of the Spanish spanners. At the conclusion of lap one Sergio Perez dived for the pits, putting extreme wets on in the anticipation of a severe downpour. Over the next five laps Perez would find himself third behind the two McLarens.
As rain increased the leaders quickly came in for full wet tyres with some opting to stay on their intermediates, most notably Jean-Eric Vergne who would soon question that decision as a monsoonal shower turned the circuit into a rowing facility and played havoc with Vettel’s decision to run hard tyres in qualifying. But this was nothing compared to Grosjean who was beached in the gravel on the exit of turn 6, visited by fellow countryman Sebastien Bourdais in 2009 and we all know how that season ended for the Frenchman.
So as was the case in 2009 the red flag came out and the cars stopped on the pit straight so they could fill up with water and enable the teams to errect their colour coded tents, further distingushing the haves and the have-nots in Formula 1. On the grid people marvelled at how Vergne had survived with intermediates on track conditions deemed worthy of a safety car. It had certainly proved favourable for Vergne who now found himself 7th. With a red flag and a restart behind the saftey car his gamble had paid off as all drivers would have to start on full wets, a compound increasingly used for as long as the safety car remains on the racetrack until the track conditions become suitable for intermediate tyres. A decision that increasingly robs the true emeging talent in F1 from making themselves known.
When the race finally restarted, Button headed for the pits to change to imntermediates. A lap later and the leading cars except for Perez piled into the pits. Massa, not content with holding up cars on the track, now resorted to doing it in the pit lane as Hamilton was exiting, enabling Alonso to jump him. Hamilton would rejoin third behind Alonso and Perez. Others to lose out were Webber who was passed by Alonso and Vettel at the restart, and now found himself in seventh behind Rosberg and Raikkonen. Staying out one lap longer, Perez put in the fastest lap of the race, pitted and returned in the lead only to be overtaken by Alonso a lap later.
While superior pit stop strategy had stirred up the running order, with over 30 laps remaining the cream in the Malaysian soup had every chance to rise. Curiously however, for the next ten laps or so the only gap that closed was in front of Perez and behind Rosberg. With Schumacher languishing in 14th and the team needing points to open their 2012 campaign, Rosberg embarked once more on his ‘fade from the front’ routine, a hallmark of a car that goes through tyres like Tamara Ecclestone goes through coins. For Button however, the Malaysian Grand Prix turned sour after a misjudged pass on Karthikeyan had seen him tag the rear of the HRT, forcing the 2009 world champion in for a new front wing and ruining any possibility of a points finish. As the drivers approached lap 40 with two of the most unlikely competitors exchanging fastest sector times, it was clear that if the next 18 events were to be held in cold wet conditions both Sauber and Ferrari would be in with a shout. But there would be one final twist in this Malaysian tale.
On lap 40 and with drivers showing pace on the dry tyres, Fenando Alonso came in to the pits and put on a set of slick options with Perez continuing on. A lap later and Perez was in but upon exiting it was clear the Mexican had lost vital seconds. In a savvy move, the Sauber team fitted the harder slick tyre, knowing that Alonso would start to struggle on the soft tyres and this is exactly what happened. With an 8 second lead on lap 44, and while commentators argued over whether Sauber had ever had a grand prix victory before, Perez got closer. Lap after lap the ‘Guadalajara Giant’ reeled Alonso in so that with 7 laps to go, Perez was less than a second behind and on better rubber.
The prospect of the first Mexican to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix since the great Pedro Rodriguez took out the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix came to nothing however as Perez ran wide at turn 14, regaining control but enabling Alonso to have an untroubled run to the flag in what itself was an astonshing victory. Across the line the top five was Alonso, Perez, Hamilton, Webber and Raikkonen. But Perez was undoubtedly the star of the race failing to emulate Rodriguez but shading the recent Mexican Formula 1 driver history left by Hector Rebaque.
Vettel, like Button before him, had tripped up on Karthikeyan’s HRT while lapping him, throwing away 12 valuable points in the process. It would later become clear that Vettel had gone the whole race without a radio which had compromised his pit stop strategies throughout the race. With attention squarely focused on the front it was easy not to notice that Senna had moved to 6th as quickly as Rosberg had dropped to 13th. Williams almost got a double points-scoring finish were it not for The Barron suffering an engine failure with two laps to go enabling Schumacher to inherit 10th place and a solitary point for Mercedes.
The 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix had answered a few questions, the HRTs had the pace to race, McLaren had the car to beat and the rivalry within Lotus, Williams, McLaren and Toro Rosso was alive and well. Going into the three week break before the back-to-back rounds at China and Bahrain there were more questions to answer.
1. Can Mark Webber show genuine pace against his teammate Sebastien Vettel over a race distance?
2. Will the Mercedes GP rear wing be permitted by the FIA?
3. Will Mercedes finally get into gear in 2012?
4. Are Sauber now the midfield team to beat?
5. Will the Bahrain GP go ahead?
6. Will Felippe Massa be replaced before the end of the year?
All will be answered in the next three weeks when the circus that is Formula 1 commences the human rights leg of the 2012 championship in Shanghai for the 2012 UBS Chinese Grand Prix.
See you then.