3 April 2010 by Keith Collantine
Three cheers for Ferrari and McLaren! Not waiting for rules to “spice up the show”, they chose to send their cars out too late for qualifying in an elaborate ruse ensuring they would start from the back of the grid and give us an exciting race.
Either that, or the sport’s two most successful teams failed to send their cars out for a banker lap at the start of a wet qualifying session, giving their number one rivals Red Bull a clear shot at maximum points in tomorrrow’s race.
Whichever, let’s take a look ahead to tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix to see what the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso can do from the back of the grid.
Tyres and rain
Let’s start by clearing up a question many people asked after qualifying – do the top ten qualifiers have to start the race on their wet or, in Webber’s case, intermediate tyres?
The answer, as you might expect, is no – here’s the rule:
At the start of the race each car which took part in Q3 must be fitted with the tyres with which the driver set his grid time. This will only be necessary if dry-weather tyres were used to set the grid time and if dry-weather are used at the start of the race.
FIA F1 Sporting Regulations article 25.4 (d)
This makes tyre strategy more interesting than usual. The front runners have a choice between the longer-lasting hard tyre, which takes longer to warm up and could leave them vulnerable to being passed on the first lap, or the soft tyre which warms up more quickly but won’t last as long.
The weather forecast will play a big role in that decision. The race is expected to start dry with rain arriving in the second part of the Grand Prix.
This could persuade some teams not to start on the soft tyre, which might need to be changed before the rain arrives. Starting on the hard tyre could allow them to keep running until the rain arrives, avoiding the need to make an extra pit stop.
This could be a good strategy for drivers who have qualified above their normal starting position – particularly the Williams pair, starting fifth and seventh, who may choose to hedge their bets and split strategies.
As ever, if a driver has used a set of wet-weather tyres he no longer has to use both types of dry tyre before the end of the race.
A disrupted race
As we saw last year and in Q3 today, if a thunderstorm does hit it doesn’t take long for the track to become so drenched the race has to be stopped.
If the red flags come out during the race it is ’suspended’, which means all the cars have to stop on the grid slots. The race clock keeps ticking, but the time spent in suspension doesn’t count towards the overall race time.
If the race re-starts the gaps between the cars before the race suspension are not preserved – the days of ‘aggregate races’ are gone.
The race begins at 4pm, one hour earlier than it did last year, potentially giving the teams just over three hours to complete the race distance if needed.
If the race has to be abandoned, as it was last year, then the teams score half points if between two laps and 75% of race distance have been covered by the race leader, and full points if the leader has covered more than 75%.
Fast cars at the back
Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa have a chance to make history tomorrow – no one has ever won an F1 race from 20th or 21st on the grid, the positions from which they start tomorrow’s race.
As for Fernando Alonso, the only time a world championship race has been won from 19th place was back in 1954 when the Indianapolis 500 counted towards the title.
If Jenson Button were to win from 17th he would emulate two drivers who’ve done it before, both of which also drove McLarens – John Watson at Detroit in 1982 and Kimi Raikkonen at Suzuka in 2005.
All of which is to illustrate that their chances of winning are pretty slim from where they are. But they should at least be able to make it well into the points – if they keep their noses clean. (See here for more stats on the lowest positions drivers have won races from.)
The McLarens should have an overtaking advantage thanks to their F-ducts. We saw how effective it was for Hamilton at Melbourne, and Sepang offers much longer straights for the MP4-25 drivers to deploy it.
Despite not making it beyond Q1 Hamilton clocked the highest recorded straight-line speed during qualifying – 287kph, 1.3kph more than the next car. In Friday practice he was 6kph faster than anyone else, though in Saturday’s running it looked like the team added more wing, taking the edge off that advantage.
But for both Ferrari and McLaren’s drivers it is crucial they do not get caught up in unnecessary accidents. The first thing they must do is pick off the much slower Lotuses and Virgins without tripping over them.
Hamilton has had some worrying near-misses in recent races, with Rubens Barrichello at Interlagos and Massa at Melbourne, both of which he clipped with his front wing while passing, damaging either his car or theirs.
Nico Rosberg did a fine job in qualifying to split the Red Bulls but it’s doubtful he has a fast enough car to make them work for the win.
That said he made a handy start here last year, taking the lead from fourth on the grid despite not having a KERS button.
The opening sequence of bends at Sepang often sees many changes of position on the first lap – on the long run to the first corner, around the wide turn one which switches back on itself, on the long drag to turn four and in the braking zone for this corner. At the end of lap one last year only two drivers were in the same position they’d started.
After the start it’s hard to see Rosberg’s W01 being able to repel the RB6s on pure pace. Whether it can out-last them around 56 laps of Sepang, however, is a different matter – Red Bull have had reliability problems at every race weekend so far this year, including this one.