Let’s pick the bones out of the Malaysian grand prix. The first talking point has to be the circumstances in which the race was red-flagged: this outcome was down entirely to the time at which the race was started. Not only did such a late start mean that there would be insufficient light if the race went on much beyond 90 minutes, but the climate around the circuit is such that early evening is, as I understand it, a time of day at which rain is particularly likely. For the sake of a slightly earlier start – even an hour would be sufficient to address these problems – it is surely worth jeopardising viewing figures in Europe slightly. The alternative is what we had today: the viewers don’t get a full race. All told, the extended period of drivers and teams fannying around on the pitlane, with nobody having any idea what was going on, made F1 look like a total shambles. Fascinating though it was for the dedicated viewer – and watching a global conversation via Twitter as it all unfolded on TV certainly added an interesting new dimension to F1 – to the casual viewer it must have seemed inexplicable and stupid. It should not be allowed to happen again.
The other conclusions we can draw from the race seem to be much more positive. There certainly seems to be more overtaking this year: whether this is because of the new aero regs making it easier, or because the cars are so close together anyway, is hard to tell. The former must be playing a part, as is the variety of KERS and non-KERS cars through the field.
KERS itself seems to be a decidedly mixed blessing: while Ferrari claim it gives a two-tenths advantage over a single lap, it seems not to be benefiting them in qualifying: presumably it must be very precisely used to get this time boost. It also seems that KERS cars’ extra weight makes them awkward when braking: Ted Kravitz identified this in relation to Alonso, who several times lost places because he got his braking wrong, but it also seemed to apply to Nick Heidfeld in the BMW and to Raikkonen in the Ferrari. That said, it does seem to allow drivers to defend against, or power past, non-KERS cars very effectively: I believe Brawn are the only team with no plans to run KERS at all this year, so could this leave them with a problem by the end of the season, assuming other teams catch up to their pace more generally in that time?
Alonso seems to be slipping into a Trulli or Webber role this year: he’s quick enough to muscle the car further up the grid than it should be, but in the races he ends up having a train behind him. Meanwhile his team-mate Piquet is undoubtedly being made to look even worse by having such a strong team-mate, but even so I wasn’t surprised to hear Eddie Jordan repeating my speculation that he might be replaced mid-season (hi Eddie!).
Jenson’s race was once again highly accomplished: he has the fastest car, but he is able to pump in fast laps when necessary, can take places to make up for an iffy start, and retains his composure in the most difficult of circumstances. The received wisdom from many pundits that he’s “not quite in the top class” of F1 drivers is, in my view, extremely harsh: the attributes above can equally be applied to Michael Schumacher.
The Brawn car, however, does seem to have some niggly problems, most notably the gearbox: Barrichello has needed a replacement, and Button had an iffy start this weekend and a dodgy pitstop last weekend, apparently for the same reason. And the reliability fears expressed ahead of this weekend didn’t emerge, but only because we didn’t get a full race distance. Still, Ross Brawn will no doubt ensure the team is well across these minor concerns.
Meanwhile, Heikki Kovaleinen needs to start having a good season: two first-lap exits is not good, particularly when the second was wholly self-inflicted. Nick Heidfeld’s lucky podium also belies what may be the start of a difficult season for him, as his qualifying wobble from the middle of last year seemed to reappear. Both drivers may need to make shoring up their positions within their respective teams their main priorities this season; the fact that neither team seems to be mounting the championship challenge they had anticipated may just take the pressure off slightly.
Two races in, we now have a slightly better view of the relative paces of the teams. Toyota, Red Bull and perhaps BMW will be disappointed if they don’t take race wins this year; Ferrari may also be able to do it, although they seem to be making some wayward calls just now. I was also intrigued to notice that their “traffic light” system for pit stops has been reinstated, which I actually think makes sense; mistakes can happen with lollipops as well as with automated systems, so it never struck me as right to blame that system alone for Ferrari’s late-summer difficulties last year.
It has been a breathless start to the season, with F1 alternately providing high class drama and low-rent farce. Let’s hope the diffuser row does not provide more of the latter by banning the “trick diffuser” solution, and that we will have chance to get our breath back befoe China in two weeks’ time.