Saturday 9 April 2011

Sepang Preview: Bulls blowing smoke?

One of the most galling aspects of Sebastian Vettel's dominant performance in Australia two weeks ago, for his rivals at least, is that on paper the Sepang track should allow his Red Bull to stretch its legs even more than the Albert Park track did.

The evidence of practice in Malaysia is that dominance could continue this weekend. As previously discussed, the Sepang track is in many ways a much more representative guide of competitiveness than Albert Park. Some of the other teams may want to look the other way when the final qualifying times are in.

As in Australia, the McLarens are giving the Red Bulls most to think about in Malaysia, getting amongst them on the practice timing screens and Lewis topping the times in practice three. Yet most of the paddock are hard bitten on this sort of thing - the conventional wisdom is that the Red Bulls will find half a second per lap of pace for qualifying. We'll find out later today if that's the case. (And I loved Lewis's quote on the subject: 'I think Red Bull are always blowing smoke up other people, I'm sure they have got half a second at least to pull out tomorrow.')

There are a few factors that could disrupt the Vettel/Red Bull demonstration run, however. Perhaps the biggest factor is Seb's team mate. Mark Webber has looked far more on it this weekend than in Australia, and indeed has been the quicker of the two Bulls in each practice session, topping the times in both of Friday's sessions. Both driver and team have admitted there isn't a complete explanation for his off the pace performance in Australia, and Mark will be more determined than ever to end Seb's recent (and now fairly lengthy) run of beating him.

There are also a couple of unwelcome variables for the front runners: tyres and the weather. As predicted, the Sepang track, with its long corners and high temperatures, is giving the new Pirelli product much more of a work out than Albert Park did. The soft tyres especially are struggling to last, and the top ten on the grid may be faced with an early stop tomorrow that will put them into traffic. The ability to keep tyres in shape for long enough is the closest it seems the Bulls have an Achilles' heel, with some reckoning that McLaren are better on this front. Though if the Red Bulls are miles ahead on pace they may counter this by qualifying on the harder tyres. Three stops are expected tomorrow, and Pirelli have predicted that the high tyre degradation and the associated strategies will create a lot of interest come Sunday.

Then there's the weather. The chance of rain is increasing throughout the weekend, and the tendency for short sharp showers at Sepang is well established. This could also re-jig the order on Sunday.

Last word goes to Ferrari. Once again they are looking at a weekend of damage limitation, not on the Red Bulls', or even the McLarens', pace, showing that the Australian performance was no one-off. Their balance looked evil for most of Friday, and it was no surprise they were eating their tyres rapidly. They looked a bit happier today, if still not on the pace. They more than anyone will be grateful for a few random variables brought by the weather and strategies tomorrow. But in any case they appear to have a lot of work to do.

And highlights of FP2, also courtesy of the BBC

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