A Race of Two Faces

There are two contrasting directions the Malaysian Grand Prix could potentially take tomorrow. Whether the race is dry or wet will alter strategy and tire usage drastically, thus playing to the strengths of different cars.

As we saw in qualifying today, the Red Bull was not the fastest car in the dry. Even Sebastian Vettel admitted that had qualifying stayed dry, he would not have been on pole position. This fact was very revealing, as last week in Melbourne, no one could touch the Red Bulls in the dry. However, in the race, their pace was nothing like what we were expecting it to be, as the long run pace of the triple World Champion team was not enough to propel either of their drivers to victory. Today, we saw a reverse in Red Bull’s fortunes. With one lap pace in the dry not where they wanted it to be, when the rain came, there was nothing that could touch Sebastian Vettel. The German secured his 38th career pole position in commanding fashion with an increasingly resurgent Felipe Massa slotting in alongside of him on the front row. With Red Bull’s dominant wet weather pace, a wet race would be a welcome surprise. However, if the race is dry, could Red Bull have found their long run pace in the dry, or will they fall into the clutches of the Lotus and Ferraris? It is not something Sebastian will want to find out the hard way.

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Kimi Raikkonen had a rather disappointing qualifying. Considering his dominant long run pace yesterday in practice, and his ability over one lap, many were tipping the Finn to take his first pole position for Lotus. Circumstances out of Kimi’s reach prevented him from emulating his performance in the dry of Q1 and Q2. Kimi was one of the fastest, but with rain already coming on in the latter half of Q2 and continuing even stronger in Q3, the pace of the Lotus was not enough to challenge The Red Bulls, Ferraris and Mercedes. He lined up 7th for the second race in a row, but, luckily for him, the last time he started 7th, the race turned out rather well. A later development after qualifying revealed that the Finn was handed a 3-place grid penalty for holding up Nico Rosberg in qualifying. This reverts the championship leader to the 5th row of the grid and dents his hopes of winning again. He will have to rely on his superior tire wear to make progress tomorrow. Of the top teams, Lotus was the only team to not have both drivers in the top ten, with Romain Grosjean missing out in Q2 as the rain hit at just the wrong time. He has an extra set of dry tires for the race, but the jury is still out on whether they will be used at all during the race tomorrow. If the race is dry, he should be well-placed for a string result. Both Lotus cars look like the team to beat in a dry race.

The Mclarens have made some progress this weekend, and with both cars making it to Q3, there is cause for minor celebration. Jenson Button has been very positive about the Mclaren’s pace in the rain, as he was the fastest car on track when the rain came at the end of the second practice session. In qualifying, though, this pace deserted the Mclarens leaving both drivers at the bottom end of the top-10. Hopefully for them, their pace in the wet will return and they can make progress in the predicted wet race. If the race is dry, they look set for a battle between themselves and the Force Indias like last week.

Among the midfield, the Force Indias have been consistently the fastest. Adrian Sutil ended the final practice session third fastest, raising the team’s expectations for qualifying. He backed up this pace by topping Q1 ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and setting the 6th fastest time in Q2. When the rain came, however, his pace was not there. He lines up 8th on the grid after Kimi Raikkonen’s penalty. He did fare better than his teammate, though. Paul di Resta was caught out by the sudden rain in Q2 before he had set a time in the dry conditions. He lines up 15th.

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The Saubers, Toro Rossos and Williams had more quiet qualifying performances. They seem to be a significant way off the pace of the Force Indias and will be working flat-out to figure out why. With Sauber ahead of Toro Rosso, who in turn are ahead of Williams, there is at least a hierarchy against which we can compare each midfield team.

In the battle of the back markers, it was Jules Bianchi who dominated once again. Not only did he out-qualify the nearest Caterham by nine tenths and his teammate by 1.2 seconds, but he was less than three tenths off the pace of Valtteri Bottas in the Williams. Jules Bianchi may have a genuine shot of beating one of the slower midfielders tomorrow if the race is dry. If the race is wet, he could even hope for more.

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The 2013 season promises to keep fans wondering. Will Red Bull find their dominance again or has a new leader emerged in Lotus? Will Mclaren reclaim their mojo, or are they resigned to a year stuck in the top end of the midfield? Will Mercedes’ pace last, or will they fall behind as the season progresses? These questions may be answered tomorrow or at the next race, but as 2012 proved, we may not know until the end of the season.

All images courtesy of Autosport

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