Qualifying for Round 2 of the 2011 Formula 1 World Championship at the Sepang International Circuit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has now been run. The permanent race circuit is a better barometer of not only the relative performance of the teams but the performance of the KERS and DRS. Both of these systems can provide significant gains on the long straights of the Sepang circuit.
As usual in Malaysia, particularly in the late afternoon, there was a question as to whether it was going to rain. Fortunately the rain held off and we had the opportunity to watch dry qualifying on one of the better tracks on the calendar.
The track surface in Malaysia was very slippery, particularly on the hard tyres. Of the top teams, Mercedes seemed to be particularly difficult to turn in and then keep straight on the exit of corners, even on the soft tyres. Q1 was stopped briefly with 12 minutes remaining after the sidepod cover of Sebastian Buemi's Torro Rosso ejected itself from his car between turns 8 and 9. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that everyone, including the HRT drivers, qualified within the 107% time, meaning all 24 drivers will start the race tomorrow. The mid-pack driver who did not progress to Q2 was Pastor Maldonado in the Williams, despite showing some good pace during the practice sessions. As expected, the Lotus, Virgin and HRT drivers all took up the final 6 places on the grid. Webber ended Q1 in 15th place, however both of the Red Bulls only used hard tyres in Q1 while most of the other contenders burnt a valuable set of soft tyres to ensure their continued participation in qualifying.
Q2 ended up knocking out both Force India drivers, both Toro Rosso drivers, Barrichello in the remaining Williams and Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes. Schumacher qualified in 11th but was convincingly outpaced by his teammate by 0.647 seconds. Schumacher seems to be facing a long year again. Impressively, Paul Di Resta in only his second F1 qualifying session managed to outqualify his teammate Adrian Sutil and was also the fastest of the four rookies. Alguersuari, again, could not better his teammate Sebastian Buemi after also being slower than the Torro Rosso reserve driver, Daniel Ricciardo in Friday Practice. Alguersuari will be lucky not to be replaced by Ricciardo before the end of the year at this rate.
The final qualifying session, to set the top ten grid positions, was thrilling as the Red Bulls and McLarens battled it out for the top spots. Vettel managed to top the timesheets with a superb lap, just pipping Hamilton, while Webber managed third and Button slotted into fourth. Only 0.33 seconds covered the top four, while Alonso was 0.602 seconds slower than Button to take the 5th grid position.
Red Bull are using KERS this weekend after opting not to use the system in Melbourne. Given the close times at the pointy end of the grid, Red Bull would have been severely penalised in lap times if they had not used KERS.
Ferrari must be concerned with their relative pace at the moment. While Alonso managed to drag his car to 5th, Massa was down in 7th. This is a far cry of where the team had hoped to be based on their pre-season testing performance and completely against the desires of Ferrari management who had almost promised to the world that Ferrari would be champions in 2011. More heads will roll at Maranello this year unless they can turn their fortunes around.
Heidfeld had a much better qualifying in Malaysia, ending up in 6th while Petrov qualified in 8th. Heidfeld should have a better race from row 4 than he did from row 9 in Melbourne, although there is plenty of scope for another clash in turns 1 and 2 of the Sepang circuit to ruin his race. Kobayashi managed to split the Mercedes pair by landing in 10th position on the grid.
With low grip and a very tight double hairpin in turns 1 and 2, the start of the race will be very interesting. Expect locked front tyres, overshooting corners and a few bumps in this section. Those starting outside of the top 10 will be the most spectacular as they are most likely to start on the hard compound tyres. Although, the imminent rain in Malaysia may change the tyre selection. Also, the Hamilton, Vettel, Webber combination into turns 1 and 2 is likely to be a game of chicken for late brakers. Whether it is dry or wet, don't be surprised to see Button slip through to make up a couple of positions on his way out of turn 2.
Pos Driver Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Sebastian Vettel 1:37.468 1:35.934 1:34.870
2. Lewis Hamilton 1:36.861 1:35.852 1:34.974
3. Mark Webber 1:37.924 1:36.080 1:35.179
4. Jenson Button 1:37.033 1:35.569 1:35.200
5. Fernando Alonso 1:36.897 1:36.320 1:35.802
6. Nick Heidfeld 1:37.224 1:36.811 1:36.124
7. Felipe Massa 1:36.744 1:36.557 1:36.251
8. Vitaly Petrov 1:37.210 1:36.642 1:36.324
9. Nico Rosberg 1:37.316 1:36.388 1:36.809
10. Kamui Kobayashi 1:36.944 1:36.691 1:36.820
11. Michael Schumacher 1:36.904 1:37.035
12. Sebastian Buemi 1:37.693 1:37.160
13. Jaime Alguersuari 1:37.677 1:37.347
14. Paul Di Resta 1:38.045 1:37.370
15. Rubens Barrichello 1:38.163 1:37.496
16. Sergio Perez 1:37.759 1:37.528
17. Adrian Sutil 1:37.693 1:37.593
18. Pastor Maldonado 1:38.276
19. Heikki Kovaleinen 1:38.645
20. Jarno Trulli 1:38.791
21. Timo Glock 1:40.648
22. Jerome D'Ambrosio 1:41.001
23. Tonio Liuzzi 1:41.549
24. Narain Karthikeyan 1:42.574
107% time 1:43.516