F1 Malaysian GP: No Problems? No Problem.

A little bit a rain during qualifying? Not a problem. High heat which makes your engineers worry on the formation lap? Not an issue. Trying to win from third on the grid? Clearly, no troubles there. Sebastian Vettel got the lead into the first turn and never looked back as he had his first trouble free race of the season. The man that led the most laps of the season heading into this weekend finally led the most important one as Red Bull and Vettel scored their first win of the year with a 1-2 finish. The race was actually interesting because there was passing and mechanical failure throughout the field. The former was probably helped by a rain-soaked qualifying session that left some frontrunners starting from the back.

Up at the front, things were fairly processional. Vettel led from the start followed by Webber, Rosberg, Kubica, and Sutil. Conveniently, that’s how the Top Five heading into the first turn of the race came out of the final turn of the race. Further back, things were far more interesting.

Four cars from Ferrari and McLaren all started well back in the field. (More on that later.) From the rear, they all worked their way up to the points. It wasn’t just through strategy that they were able to do it. (Except for Button, his march was mostly because of pit stop strategy.) The superior speed of the Ferraris and McLarens allowed them to slice through their field and almost make the top five. Hamilton was glued to the back of Sutil in the latter stages of the race with Massa closing in. Interestingly, for the second week running, the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari was difficult to pass. Last week, Schumacher couldn’t get by him for the life of him. This week, the Ferraris and Button needed to work some strategy to get by.

Maybe a bit more interesting was some of the cars that featured at the front with some of the Big Four fighting in the midpack. Robert Kubica finished fourth in a Renault that looked like it would be lucky to get two cars out of Q1 based on pre-season testing speeds. My pick for best of the rest, Force India, looked fairly strong today. Sutil finished 5th and Liuzzi looked strong until his car broke. While these three guys didn’t do much passing, it seemed like everyone’s mistakes were being taken advantage of. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debateable. Passing is good but if you need a mistake for it to happen, we could be waiting an awful long time for some passing. Just look at Bahrain.

•••

The FIA have made another rules change during the season to reduce downforce but they claim is in the name of safety. Mirrors have to be moved from the turning vanes out on the sidepods to the nose section of the car. The drivers have been complaining that the sidepod mounted wings provide little to no visibility thanks to their size, position, and the vibrations of the car. Apparently, mounting them ahead of the driver will fix all those problems. Really, it’s just to eliminate the aerodynamic benefits of the wings mounted on the turning vanes. This change will come into effect in Spain. I assume that the Spanish GP will see lots of aerodynamic updates including everyone with their own version of McLaren’s stalling rear wing. Now there’s something that should have been banned.

•••

Speaking of rules changes, the Formula One Teams Association are talking about reintroducing KERS for the 2011 season. It was eliminated for this season to save costs. Now, because passing is non-existent unless someone makes a mistake, FOTA thinks they need it back to improve the show. So cost-saving is being thrown out the window to “improve the show.” The only problem was the KERS was used more in defence than offense. I think most of that was caused by the constant refreshing of the KERS charge. If you can use it on every lap, there’s no strategy to using it and no benefit to everyone having it. If a customer KERS device is developed to make it affordable for the new teams, then this might be worth it whether or not a “strategy” element to its use can be introduced. By strategy element, I mean that KERS should have an 80 HP boost for something like 30 seconds with a recharge every 10 laps. Basically, something that doesn’t means that a driver pushes the button at the start of the longest straight on every lap. However, something that sensible would never fly in F1.

•••

If last week’s race didn’t convince you that my latest idea for spicing up F1 was worth exploring, this week’s did. The whole field was jumbled up because of rain during qualifying. The Ferraris and McLarens were caught napping during Q1 thanks to an incorrect weather forecast so they didn’t make the cut. (Technically, Button qualified for Q2 but was beached in a gravel trap at the end of Q1. If you don’t run in Q2, it’s as good as missing the cut in my books.) That left them spread between 17th and 21st (separated by Jarno Trulli’s Lotus in 18th). However, with the rest of the field putting in early runs, Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen and Virgin’s Timo Glock made it into Q2 for the first time in their teams’ histories.

But you’ve got to love any qualifying session hat sees all sorts of unexpected results. Nico Rosberg split the two Red Bulls. Both Williams and both Force India’s made the Top 10 shootout for pole. Hell, the two Williams, Kubica’s Renault and Sutil’s Force India were all ahead of Michael Schumacher, who used to be F1’s unquestioned rain master. Wet weather provides all sorts of ridiculous results but there should be anything wrong with that. Like I said last week, changing weather conditions provide a real test for teams and drivers. They can’t rely on computer simulation and advanced aerodynamics to save them on a drying track. Time to install sprinkler systems on all the tracks. Hell, even ex-F1 driver Tiff Needell thinks that they should have randomly activating sprinkler system. The ball’s in your court now, Bernie.

•••

One thing that F1 and FOTA have gotten right is the new points system. Three races have given us three different winners and a couple more consistent drivers who are all in the hunt. The top five in points are separated by all of four points. Massa leads on 39 points despite not having a win. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel sit on 37 points with one win each. Jenson Button’s one win is only good enough to tie him with Nico Rosberg at 35 points each. In other words, any of them can leave China with the points lead. And since you’re interested, Michael Schumacher sits 10th with 9 points which is one behind Adrian Sutil. That’s what happens when you have a wheel failure 10 laps in.

•••

Here’s a bit of news that I forgot to pass along after last week’s race: Bernie Ecclestone has lost it. He’s working on a plan to bring back the US Grand Prix by 2012. Now, that’s not a ridiculous plan. After all, bringing F1 back to the biggest car market in the world is in the best interest of the remaining factory teams and of any manufacturers interested in getting back into F1. It’s his location that’s questionable. He’s not going back to Indy or running on Road America, the best road course in the USA. His master plan involves running a race in or around New York City. Bernie’s bright idea is running a race so that the Manhattan skyline is part of the scenery of the race. Fortunately, our F1 supremo is willing to admit that a race through the heart of Manhattan isn’t likely to happen. After all, that would involve shutting down the busiest streets in the world for upwards of a week and that’s just not happening. So it looks like if the New York City GP were to happen, it’ll be across the river in New Jersey with Manhattan in the background. Of course, they tried this sort of thing in Detroit and that went well… Actually, maybe Road America, even though it isn’t up to “F1 standards” and in the middle of nowhere, would be a better choice.

•••

Before I close the column, let’s give a shout out to the HRT gang. Not only did both drivers finish the race (albeit a combined 7 laps down), but they both finished ahead of Jarno Trulli’s last place Lotus. They even passed Trulli on the track. For a team that’s been on track for all of four weeks, they certainly seem to have done a good job of closing the gap to the other new teams. For the record, Chandhok finished 15th and Senna 16th. Chandhok even finished on the same lap as the highest finishing new entry of Lucas Di Grassi who was 17 seconds ahead on the road.

•••

The next round of the world championship is in two weeks time at the third Herman Tilke track in the first four rounds. The Chinese Grand Prix at Tilke’s Shanghai International Circuit is a historically dull race with only one passing zone at the end of a kilometre-long straight. Last year’s race was salvaged by rainfall which propelled F1’s newest rainmaster, Sebastian Vettel, into the title picture. Wet weather wouldn’t be unexpected for this race and, quite frankly, it would be welcome. If it doesn’t rain, this should be a Red Bull race. They were quick at Bahrain and Malaysia, the two Tilke circuits run so far, so they should be good at Shanghai. The high-powered Mercedes cars should run well and you can never count out Ferrari. It should be a good race… If there’s rain.

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