Saturday, 4 April 2009

Button and Trulli fight it out to the pole in another hugely exciting Qualifying session in Sepang!

Well, the first thing I have to say is that how close was that? Just like in Melbourne the top ten cars qualified within one second of each other, here in the Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur the top nine qualified within nine-tenths of a second of each other. That's how close it was! It was great to watch, with constantly changing positions for the drivers and a potential threat of rain that never really materialised.

The Brawns were yet again the fastest in the field and although Barrichello did complain a little bit about understeer, his team-mate Jenson Button looked absolutely flawless! He got a well deseved pole position. Although he was seriously challenged by Jarno Trulli, who's Toyota looked very quick as well, but Trulli just missed out on pole by about one-tenths of a second but still managed to get on the front row. Behind them, Vettel, Barrichello, Glock, Rosberg, Webber and Kubica all seemed to have very good pace and finished within milliseconds of each other. Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari and double world-champion Fernando Alonso in the Renault, representing the first two of the KERS cars, round off the top ten. Now is it a coincidence that six of the top eight cars are the ones with the rear diffusers?

At the start of the qualifying session, both the Ferraris looked pretty quick and got some good lap times pretty early on. Kimi got a provisional third and team-mate Felipe behind him in fifth when both of them, after only a couple of flying laps, went back to the pits and into the garage. Now both the Scuderias got very good lap times, and when I say good I mean almost as good as the lap record. So although there was still about eight minutes or so left to go in the first part of qualifying, Ferrari thought that they have done enough to get them through to Q2 (the second part of qualifying). This is why instead of burning another set of option tyres and trying to save them for the next two sessions of qualifying, both of Ferraris decided to stay back in the garage for the remaining time of Q1. This proved to be a critical error in judgement because what they couldn't foresee was how the others in the mid-field are going to improve towards the end of Q1, and before long both the Ferrari drivers found themselves getting too close to the knockout zone of the bottom five. And at the end of Q1, Massa was left in sixteenth, which means he was out of the running for the next two sessions of qualifying and would start the race from sixteenth on the grid! His starting position on the grid does not do him justice because he definitely had the pace to qualify way up front, and keeping in mind that in the last two years Massa has started the Malaysian Grand Prix on pole! His team-mate just got through, finishing in fourteenth at the end of Q1.

In Q2, Kimi Raikkonen was the first car to come out of the pit lane and this time, eager to avoid the mistake made earlier on, he did several flying flaps to finish the session in seventh so was well outside the knock out zone (as only the top ten of the fifteen cars go through at the end of Q2 for a shoot-out in the final session of qualifying).

Fernando Alonso, suffering from an ear infection tried to avoid doing too many laps in order to keep his energy for tomorrow's race, which is physically demanding due to the high-speed nature of the track and also the swelteringly hot temperatures. He was not particularly quick, but just had enough pace to eventually finish at tenth.

McLaren once again was pretty ordinary and fell out at the end of Q2 when reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen only managed thirteenth and fourteenth on the grid. With all the off-the-track stories that have been going around regarding McLaren, it must have had a mental effect on the team as far as motivation and concentration is concerned, specially on Lewis and team-principle Martin Whitmarsh. Obviously McLaren have sacked their technical director Dave Ryan following the incident at Melbourne, but whoever is to blame for that incident, as a team what McLaren did amounts to cheating for just one extra point. Lewis could have easily come into Sepang with six points in hand from Melbourne as a result of his fourth position finish and a head-start on arch-rivals Ferrari who could not score a single point in the season opener. But what he and his team did is history.

On the other end of the field, the Brawns, the Toyotas and the Red Bulls were constantly swapping provisional pole positions between themselves. But in then end, Button in his Brawn-Mercedes seemed to have that little bit of extra edge that secured him a back to back pole position, a first in his entire career. Jarno Trulli did look very quick as well, and in my opinion he will keep challenging Button tomorrow all the way to the chequered flag. Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull-Renault, qualifying in third, was the only one of the front-runners to be without the rear diffusers or KERS. That tells you how good Red Bull was in designing the aerodynamics of that car! But as a result of his ten-place grid penalty, Vettel will be starting the race in thirteenth. The other Brawn of Rubens Barrichello, who qualified fourth, will be starting the race five places behind in ninth as a penalty of making a change in gearbox before coming into Sepang. As a result of this, Glock, Rosberg, Webber, Kubica and Raikkonen all move two places up the grid from what they originally qualified in.

Tomorrow's weather forecast is still saying chances of heavy showers over the Sepang International Circuit near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Massa and Vettel will probably be hoping for some rain as both of them will be looking to make up some places up the field. Raikkonen was probably running a slightly heavier fuel load than the cars in front of him, because in the practice sessions and in Qualifying 1, he definitely seemed to have some good pace. This is also the first time in this season that the teams are using the new Bridgestone hard compound tyres, which are different from the hard tyres used in Melbourne. These new ones are slightly softer and so reduces the difference between them and the super-soft option tyres. So it will be interesting to see how that and all the rest that has been going on in Formula 1 over the last week or so plays out tomorrow.

It will definitely be a juicy race at Sepang tomorrow and coverage of the Malaysian Grand Prix starts live on BBC One at 9:00 am BST here in the UK and 8:00 am GMT for the rest of the world. Stay tuned!

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