|ATLAS F1 Volume 7, Issue 12|
Malaysian Grand Prix
|by Will Gray, England|
The unusual conditions in Malaysia may have masked the continued improvement in tyre grip, but with a bit of investigation it soon becomes clear that the developments, even since the end of last season, have truly led to increased lap speeds.
Once again there was a new track lap record in qualifying at Sepang as the tyre war continued to show the increases the FIA had feared and leave questions in their mind on how to stop the improvements.
Michael Schumacher's fastest lap in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix last year, the final race of the 2000 Grand Prix season, clocked in at 1:37.397. That is 2.177 seconds slower than his pole position time for this season - despite significant aerodynamic reductions on a circuit which requires near-maximum downforce.
Temperatures were a big concern to the teams, but the conditions proved fairly similar to last year in qualifying with a 33 degrees Celsius air temperature for the session and although the track temperature was above last year's, the cloudy conditions dropped it down to similar levels towards the end.
That means the decrease in lap times is a relevant comparison and that the cars are, indeed, two seconds-per-lap faster than they were at the end of last year. The four second-per-lap improvements seen in Melbourne was a direct comparison to the start of last season, so it is clear how much the rate of development in tyre performance has increased through the winter.
In the eight months of the 2000 season the development on cars and tyres improved performance by two seconds per lap. That is the same amount of improvement as was gained in the five-month build-up to this season following the end-of-year Malaysian race...despite a testing ban in November and the dramatic reductions in downforce demanded by the 2001 regulations.
The race pace is difficult to determine because the heavy rain will have washed the track out and lowered its grip by reducing the rubber laid down on the surface. There was no rain throughout last season's event, so the track became more grippy during the weekend and the fastest lap was 1:38.543. This year it was 2.419 seconds slower, but both the race-day washout and the fact the Ferraris were cruising at the end can be partially blamed for the slow race pace.
But the jury is still out on whether the car speeds have increased to an unacceptable level, and the FIA will have to continue to investigate the data and hope for some more consistent races in the future. It is clear that the cars have become faster, and they are sure to have discussed the matter in Wednesday's World Motorsport Council Meeting in Paris. But clearly they should wait for more results before making any of the dramatic changes such as reduction in engine power or changes in tyre design that have already been suggested.
While the speeds increased, the teams at the top stayed the same, but although a successful tyre decision ensured Ferrari became ultra-dominant in the Malaysian race, it was a different story in qualifying. A near-perfect lap from Michael Schumacher put him just 0.099 seconds ahead of his teammate Rubens Barrichello, but the pair had an exciting battle with the surprise of the day, Ralf Schumacher's Williams, which was much closer to the Ferraris than anyone had expected.
He improved two places on his Australian qualifying performance to take his position as the best of the rest, but he was, more significantly, just 0.291 seconds off pole - nearly half the gap that separated third-placed Mika Hakkinen from pole in Australia.
Clearly Williams have a good car, and the younger Schumacher was not just lucky to put in one hot lap - he improved throughout the session and was only just knocked off the front row at the end. The Michelins looked good, and Juan Pablo Montoya ended qualifying 0.85 seconds closer to pole position than he was in Australia, and six places further up the grid.
But he was not the most improved driver - that accolade went to European Minardi's Tarso Marques, who failed to even set a time above the 107 percent value required to qualify in Australia, and closed on pole by 1.8 seconds in Malaysia. Even though he remained nearly 4.5 seconds off the pace, he still managed to beat his teammate Fernando Alonso...because the Spaniard was the driver who dropped the most time to leave the Minardis, on average, the same distance behind pole position as they were in Australia! There was also a change of fortunes within the Jordan team as Australian qualifying star Heinz-Harald Frentzen dropped down by 0.5 seconds in Malaysia while Jarno Trulli improved by a similar amount.
Jean Alesi improved his time by a massive 0.8 seconds, but amazingly that could only move him up by one solitary grid position. The time improvement, however, is significant, because it shows that Prost has closed the gap within the midfield. In Melbourne, there appeared to be a one second split between upper and lower sections of the midfield runners, but a decrease in performance from Sauber and an improvement by Prost has seen that gap close since the opening race. Indeed, both the well-qualified Saubers and both McLarens dropped further away from the pole time set by Schumacher than they were in Australia, albeit by a minor amount, and all the drivers dropped at least one place on the grid because of it.
As for the race performance, the deluge of rain saw five of the eight retirements caused by the wet weather. BAR had their first engine failure of the year making it Honda's second following Trulli's retirement in Australia. They then lead the engine failure chart from the single BMW blow-up, but overall reliability looks surprisingly good for most teams in this early stage of the season.
|Will Gray||© 2007 autosport.com|
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