Formula 1

Lewis Hamilton looking to maintain momentum at Malaysian GP

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Lewis Hamilton will be looking to build on his victory in Australia as Formula 1 stays East for the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The Briton was flawless as he led all but one of the 58 laps in Melbourne and has his team-mate Nico Rosberg rethinking his strategy as the two Mercedes were in a class of their own Down Under.

Now though the season heads to a very different setting and into the heat and humidity of Sepang.

A modern classic

Located just outside the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the Sepang Circuit was the first of the modern generation of racetracks designed by Hermann Tilke yet - over its now 17-year existence - has built a reputation of being one of the few modern venues liked by both the drivers and fans.

With its swooping sequences and plentiful areas for overtaking, it demands almost everything from the cars and drivers.

Hot, humid and often wet

This year the heat has been turned up a little more as an earlier start time means the sun will be a little stronger than the late evening starts of the past couple of years but being in the tropics one of the most unpredictable aspects of this race remains, the weather.

As the start time was pushed later it took the on-track action to much more within the typical window for thunderstorms and as the races in 2009 and 2012 proved when it rains anything can happen.

Qualifying too has been wet for the past couple of years at this track and early weather forecasts are suggesting we may see the Pirelli Cincuratos for the first time this weekend.

An Asian success story

Malaysia's arrival on the calendar back in 1999 really symbolised Formula 1's shift to the East, it was only the third race in the region after Japan and Australia but since then seven races have been added ranging from Turkey and the Middle East to China and South Korea but this race has been one of the most successful.

The appeal of the race has been knocked down a peg or two by its close neighbour Singapore, who's night race is now arguably the most successful race in the Far East and that has called into question the future of the race at Sepang but I for one hope this great venue remains on the calendar for years and years to come.

F1 needs Sepang thriller

From a sporting perspective there is quite a lot riding on the Malaysian Grand Prix. Some were left disenchanted by the rather dull race in Australia and all the side-stories with the depleted grid and the court case at Sauber.

Therefore there are hopes that the season can really kick into gear at Sepang and deliver a close, exciting race.

Rosberg needs to hit back against Hamilton

It will very much be Mercedes that are the team to beat and over a single lap proved just how far they are ahead in qualifying but the race was a different story as Ferrari were much closer on average over the 300km.

As mentioned its up to Nico Rosberg to not allow Lewis Hamilton to get away too soon in their championship duel, the German had no real reply to the world champion in Australia but will be looking to strike back in Australia.

Settled Vettel faces stiff Kimi challenge

The ease of which Sebastian Vettel has settled in at Ferrari was one of the most telling things for me in Australia.

The former Red Bull driver looked as if he had been at Maranello for years as he got in and drove an excellent race to beat Felipe Massa to the final podium place.

His team-mate Kimi Raikkonen also looks far more at home in the SF15-T than he did last in last year's Prancing Horse.

The Finn was showing equally impressive pace as he fought back from a difficult start in Australia before eventually retiring with a loose wheel following his final pit-stop but the scrap between the two friends will be one to watch at Sepang and beyond.

Bottas and Alonso set to return 

The long straights should also mean Williams are able to put up a much stronger fight to Ferrari with their low-drag body and Mercedes power unit and hopefully they should be able to call upon the services of Valtteri Bottas who had to pull out of the first race with a back injury.

Also returning should be Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard is currently clearing the hurdles to make his return to driving since his testing accident in Barcelona last month.

It will also mark his race return with McLaren as the team look to build from what they learnt in Australia.

McLaren progress to be measured

A tuned down Honda engine allowed Jenson Button to complete a race distance albeit two laps down and around five seconds off the pace but such is the pace of development that we can expect progress to have been made in the two weeks since the opening round of the season.

The heat and humidity will provide the sternest test yet for the new Honda V6 turbo hybrid, however, and that could make simply making the chequered flag for the second straight race just as big of a challenge as it was just over a week ago.

Red Bull woes promote midfield battle

There is a raging battle in the midfield which is pushing up for some of the higher points paying positions thanks to the troubles at Red Bull.

Just like McLaren, the Milton Keynes-based team had one car fail to make the start in Australia as oil pressure caused Daniil Kvyat's RB11 to lose fifth gear but that was the least of their issues as the Renault power unit hugely underperformed and left Daniel Ricciardo struggling to pass a Sauber for the entirety of his home race.

Their lack of pace likely caused much of the tirade that team boss Christian Horner went on after the race calling on the FIA to take measures to equalise the field but their focus really must be on turning their form around because a team with the money invested into F1 like Red Bull does should be expected to move forward once the early issues are resolved.

But much of that does depend on if Renault can fix the drive-ability issues and try and close the power gap but for Sepang it could go from bad to worse for them as Lotus, Sauber and Force India close in.

Lotus and Sauber nearest challengers

Of the other midfield teams Lotus showed the most promise before it all went downhill within just a few hundred meters in the race Down Under.

Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado could easily be a part of the battle with Red Bull and Sauber for seventh place or higher and their Mercedes power unit could be the thing that gives them the edge at Sepang providing they stay reliable.

At Sauber, the off-track distractions earlier in the weekend were put aside in a strong race for Felipe Nasr as he made a very impressive debut. He has made a seamless transition from GP2 to Formula 1 and looks to already have team-mate Marcus Ericsson comfortably in his pocket.

The improvements of the Ferrari power unit are the biggest reason for their return to form, following a dismal 2014, but the car is solid as well and is allowing them to score points early on.

They will need to keep doing that, however, as development could be their biggest weakness over the course of the season therefore another strong race in Sepang is needed.

Force India and Toro Rosso may struggle 

Force India are more of an unknown quantity at this stage, development of the VJM08 began so late in testing that they will only improve with every race.

Whether they can improve enough to battle for points in Malaysia is uncertain but should there be high attrition again then they will have a part to play.

Toro Rosso follow much the same path as their senior team with the performance of the Renault power unit integral to their overall performance.

As with the other rookie Felipe Nasr, both Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen both made a mockery of the worries some had before the season, particularly Verstappen, but I fear they may struggle to be anything other than the main target for McLaren and the final team in this preview at Sepang.

Manor hoping for typical race weekend

And that final team is Manor Marussia for whom the opening race really came too early for them despite a heroic effort from the team back at their Dinnington base.

Software was the reason they were unable to get out on track in Australia as they use 2014-spec Ferrari engines, however the team is hoping to make it out on track and have a 'typical' weekend at Sepang.

Will Stevens will continue to be joined by Roberto Merhi despite the Spaniard's need for sponsorship seemingly the most important factor as to whether he stays with the team all season.

Hamilton remains favourite

Back at the front and it remains all about Mercedes and all about Lewis Hamilton who looked unbeatable in Melbourne and if he can maintain that form could well be unbeatable in Malaysia, an intriguing weekend, hopefully with plenty of exciting racing, awaits.

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Felipe Nasr
Manor Marussia
Formula 1

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