Formula 1

All eyes will be on Mercedes in Sepang (©GettyImages)
All eyes will be on Mercedes in Sepang (©GettyImages).

Malaysian GP Preview: Mercedes set to blaze in the Sepang heat

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After a tremendous opening chorus to the 2014 season just over a week ago in Melbourne, F1 is heading back East for the second ensemble in the heat of Malaysia.

Now 15 years old, this race, held at the Sepang Circuit, has grown and grown and in my opinion is quickly becoming the first modern classic on the calendar.

What is special about this Grand Prix is that it rarely fails to deliver an exciting spectacle, the flowing corners and long straights make it a nightmare to engineers to set up the cars while the tropical climate makes it even more demanding on the drivers, who lose several kilos in body weight during the 56-lap race.

This year, however, that heat and humidity will not only take its toll on the drivers as the cars and their new V6 power units will also need to be kept cool.

The past few years the strength of the sun heating everything up has been slightly reduced with the race moved to a later 4pm starting time, as oppose to 2pm at most European races.

But by moving the action to the late afternoon that has also put the race into the peak time for another of Malaysia’s famous weather traits, its monsoonal downpours.

Since the race was moved in 2009 only the 2011 edition has not been hit by a wet qualifying, a wet race or both with the 2009 and 2012 GP’s known for the long suspension during the race as rain has made the track undriveable.

So looking ahead to this weekend’s race the two things these new cars could do without, excessive heat and the potential for water to get in the systems will be exactly what Sepang will offer.

Before the season started, and all the worries about how many would finish the Australian Grand Prix were aired, I actually pointed at Malaysia at the more likely race for a very high retirement rate.

Certainly the teams most nervous heading to Malaysia will be the four Renault-powered outfits with Red Bull and Lotus struggling with overheating cars in temperatures quite a few degrees below what is expected at Sepang.

The other teams, whether they be Ferrari or Mercedes-powered will also find themselves having to adopt their cars in a bid to keep the systems cool. In the early years it was not uncommon to see cars have holes cut into them during the weekend to give the engines room to breath and I wouldn’t rule out seeing a return this year.

In among keeping the cars reliable, they will also have to remain competitive and this is where those who did the most running preseason will shine.

Certainly the works Mercedes will remain the car to beat with Nico Rosberg looking to continue the momentum while Lewis Hamilton will simply be looking to make up for his Melbourne disaster.

Williams too should remain competitive, though the weather played it’s part in mixing up the grid in Australia, providing it remains dry in Sepang, then I expect Felipe Massa to not suffer the same setback he had in Melbourne while Valtteri Bottas will to add to his fifth place from Down Under.

McLaren too will be in the mix, with Kevin Magnussen looking to assert is superiority over Jenson Button but one question maybe whether Red Bull can stay near the front.

There are several reasons for this, one being the aforementioned issues with cooling and whether they can keep the RB10 as reliable, the other being the controversial fuel-flow saga.

Though it will be a few weeks yet til we discover if Daniel Ricciardo’s car was legal or not in Melbourne, surely Red Bull have to ensure they do stick within the FIA boundaries in Malaysia.

Some would say that would essentially admit guilt in the case however with keeping Mercedes within as closer touch as possible early on, the world champions wouldn’t want to risk losing yet more points if they achieved them.

The battle within the team also promises to be an interesting one, with the events of the so-called ‘Multi-21′ controversy from last year likely to be brought up and after a very difficult first weekend in Melbourne, Sebastian Vettel will be wanting to reassert his place as the clear number one ahead of Ricciardo.

Ferrari appear stuck in a tough position at the moment way off the leading pace and unsure quite how to move forward.

Team Principal Stefano Domenicali insists the team shouldn’t worry about the failings it seemingly has with the F14-T and instead focus on fixing them, however how long with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen give the team before a few toys start being thrown out the pram?

They appear stuck in a midfield scrap currently with Force India and Toro Rosso who made up for a poor preseason to complete a double points finish at Albert Park.

That battle will likely continue though again the reliability of the Renault unit will be the important factor in how competitive the junior Red Bull team are.

The same applies to Caterham who had a terrible first race in Melbourne while Marussia will have their eyes set on another double finish and potentially catching the very slow Sauber cars ahead.

Finally at the back of the grid is Lotus. The Enstone team has admitted there will be no real progress made until the European season starts in Spain in May, and that until then the next few races will in short be extended test sessions.

It really isn’t what Romain Grosjean wanted or deserved after his tremendous drives last year and his new team-mate Pastor Maldonado insists he still made the right move to leave Williams (yeah right).

Frankly I don’t see much hope for them but they won’t be alone in becoming victims of the Malaysian heat.

During the race in 2009 that was abandoned after a heavy rain storm Kimi Raikkonen was famously seen stood eating an ice-cream as everyone waited to see if the race would restart.

This weekend the man who sells the Magnum ice-creams might do quite a roaring trade among the drivers this Sunday as finishing the race in Melbourne will seem like making beans on toast compared to the five course banquet it may take to reach the chequered flag in Sepang.

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