Round 2 of the 2011 Formula 1 season is to be held in Malaysia this weekend at the Sepang International Circuit near Kuala Lumpur. Most of the teams have been looking forward to the Malaysian race as it will be the first race of the year run on a purpose built race track. While the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne is generally loved by the F1 fraternity for the atmosphere, it utilises public roads around a park and as such is dusty, slippery and covered in road marking and lines. The advantage of racing on a proper circuit, such as Sepang, is generally that the track surface is better quality, not covered in oil and road grime and is not usually as bumpy in the braking zones.
The teams are expecting to get a better understanding of the hard and soft compound Pirelli tyres that will be used in Malaysia. These are the same compounds that were used in Australia, but the combination of a proper racing surface, higher ambient and track temperatures and more high speed corners are expected to push the tyres much harder. Compared to the 2 to 3 tyre changes per car in the race in Australia, Pirelli is expecting most cars to make 3 to 4 pit stops to change tyres in Malaysia. This is predicated on the race being a dry race, however, as with the last two years, there are thunderstorms forecast for race day. Again, it's not a question if it will rain in Malaysia, but when and how much it will rain. The intermediate and wet tyres have only been used briefly in pre-season testing so no team has much data on either of these tyres. Regardless of the weather, the tyres are likely to throw up some interesting results in pit strategy, tyre wear rates and tyre choice. We are also likely to see some nice displays of driver skill, particularly on a drying track or if it rains during the race.
The other system that teams are keen to see in action at Sepang is the Drag Reduction System ("DRS") that allows the top element of the rear wing to be raised to allow a gap of 50mm between the top and the bottom elements of the wing, reducing drag and allowing the cars to go faster. The compromise is that rear downforce is also reduced and therefore the car can only go faster in a straight line. The Sepang circuit has two rather long straights and four other shorter sections where the DRS can be utilised to increase lap time. In practice and qualifying the system can be used anywhere on the track, however in the race it can only be used in a designated section and only by a car that is following another car within 1 second in a section of the track before the straight in which the DRS can be deployed.
The DRS was of little help to the following car in Melbourne, largely due to the final corner leading on to the main straight where the DRS could be deployed being a relatively fast corner where the following car would lose aero efficiency in the wake of the car in front, losing pace mid corner and on the exit of the corner. This made it difficult for the following car to regain that lost speed in the relatively short pit straight at Albert Park and as a result there were only two successful passing moves made under the DRS during the race in Melbourne. It is expected that the DRS will also be utilised in the main straight in Sepang for the race, however the relatively slow hairpin leading on to the main straight should allow the following car to remain close to the car in front as they prepare to slipstream down the main straight to make a pass into turn one. We only hope that it is not too easy to make pass the car in front.
However, the FIA have pronounced that the DRS can not be used on a wet track. This is a safety precaution aimed at reducing the risk of having a car exit the track backwards from a lack of rear grip caused by the reduced downforce from the rear wing. Given the likelihood of rain in Malaysia, we may not see the DRS in action at Sepang in 2011. Personally I don't see this as a bad thing, as I am yet to be convinced that Formula 1 needs a gimmick such as DRS.
As far as predictions for the race, given the form of Sebastian Vettel in Melbourne and his abilities on a wet track, it seems that Malaysia is his to lose. Expect to see Lewis Hamilton use his wet weather prowess to a podium finish. Mark Webber should also be in with a podium opportunity provided he and the team have actually sorted out the problems they had in Melbourne. At the other end of the field, HRT will again be hard pressed to qualify within 107% of the leader.