ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 11 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Technical Preview
Malaysian Grand Prix

Click here for a track map of Sepang by Will Gray, England

The story of this year's Malaysian Grand Prix will centre around the weather. March is traditionally rainy month in Malaysia, and a deluge at the Sepang International circuit could upset Formula One's applecart in the second race of the season.

However, it is not only the rain that will get the teams thinking in Malaysia because when it's not raining it can be very hot and humid. The track temperatures teams must cope with are expected to be well over 30 degrees Celsius, and they have even reached 50 degrees in the past.

So, with weather conditions so unpredictable and changeable, the set up will be tough to call and the tyres will once again be the most important item on the car.

Bridgestone were quickest to get off the starting blocks in Melbourne as the tyre war kicked off, and with the difficult conditions the tyre manufacturers will be facing in Malaysia there is little to suggest Michelin will be able to cope better than their more experienced rivals this time around.

But if the wet weather comes in, Bridgestone knows better than anyone how easily Formula One's regular running order can be upset. When they entered the sport in 1997, they struggled to compete with their more experienced rivals Goodyear in the dry at the early races but then stunned the front runners in the fifth race of the season by taking a second place finish at Monaco in wet conditions. If it rains in Sepang, Michelin will be hoping they can capitalise on a similar situation in their debut year.

If the track is dry, however, Michelin could find themselves struggling with no previous data of the extreme conditions Malaysia creates. The circuit's smooth surface, along with the slow and medium speed corners suggest a softer tyre compound is best for grip - but the heat and humidity means the soft and rapid-wearing tyres will wear even quicker than normal.

Consistency as well as speed is important in a tyre, and the fact that Bridgestone has already run tyres in Malaysia, all be it in lower temperatures, will see them well if conditions are dry. Michelin did test in Kyalami before the season began in the hope that the South African weather could provide them with clues as to how their tyres would perform in high temperatures, but whether the clues will be the right ones remains to be seen.

The degradation of the tyres will have an important effect on race strategy, and most teams should be on a two-stopper because of the tyre wear. But it is not only the tyres that are affected by the heat and humidity - it punishes the drivers hard too.

A one hour and forty minute race is exhausting in any conditions but with the extreme conditions expected in Malaysia the drivers will lose a great deal of fluid and the race will take a toll on their bodies. To prepare for this, they will take on a large amount of fluid before the race, and their on-board drinks bottles will be working overtime.

Similar conditions in the past have seen drivers collapse with heat exhaustion, and they have taken on extra fluid through drinks bottles handed to them during pit stops. But the Formula One grid is now fitter than ever, and if the expected conditions are experienced at Sepang, then the drivers' personal trainers will ensure their men are in the best condition to cope.

Michael Schumacher is known to be one of the fittest drivers in Formula One, and all the top drivers know what the conditions can take out of you. But the grid is made up of seven inexperienced drivers and their fitness will definitely be brought into question in the long hard race. Kimi Raikkonen in particular could suffer as the only over-one-hour race he has driven in was this year's Australian Grand Prix.

Perspiration will be intense for the drivers, but cooling the cars is just as important and the teams will be implementing extra systems to cope with the high temperatures. Benetton already had large cooling exits at the rear of their sidepods at the first race and McLaren were another team there with significant cooling ducts.

But all the teams will be increasing their radiator outlets for the Malaysian race, and expect to see more of cooling chimneys pioneered by McLaren last year appearing on their competitor's cars once again.

Qualifying will be important once again because the track, despite being one of the widest on the Grand Prix circuit, is not easy to overtake on during the race, so a good place on the grid should convert into a successful race finish - but then there is the question of reliability.

Both Ferrari and McLaren got their cars to the finish in Melbourne - at least one of them - probably as much to the surprise of the teams as Formula One fans. In this early stage of the season, however, there are still question marks over the reliability, particularly as the engines will be made to work harder than ever. If they do keep going, however, there should be no stopping the top two once again.

But if the rain comes down, then it could be anyone's race, and if Michelin's efforts on their wet-weather tyres are as successful as Bridgestone's in their debut year, then there could be some surprises on the agenda.

Will Gray© 2007
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