The Malaysian Grand Prix was all about making the right decisions, particularly in qualifying.
We have seen in all three races so far that qualifying is having a significant effect on race outcome, because the options for doing something completely different on race strategy are reduced with the refueling ban. Cars which qualify out of position struggle to make up the places, while midfield cars who are able to take advantage can go on and score big points in the race because overtaking is hard.
Force India’s Adrian Sutil managed to keep Lewis Hamilton behind him despite the McLaren having an advantage of 8.6km/h on the straight.
Engineers from other teams can understand why Ferrari and McLaren might think that the track was set to improve, but not why they wouldn’t go out and set a time anyway. It was an unnecessary risk simply to save a set of intermediate tyres of which each driver has four sets allocated.
The conditions in qualifying were ideally suited to the 2010 intermediate tyre, which is softer than last year’s and therefore has good warm up. However had the teams been forced at any stage to run them on a drying track (as in the opening laps in Melbourne) they would have found that the abrasive surface of Sepang chewed them up more quickly than Albert Park..
The teams had enough data to make the calls they made in qualifying and once Q2 started things fell into a more normal pattern, obviously with the potential for Mercedes to get to the front of the grid some and for midfield teams to take advantage of McLaren and Ferrari’s misfortunes. Predictably it was Force India, Renault and Williams who did so.
The other teams were quite surprised by this move, given the heavier rain at the time. It had been heavy enough for the race director to suspend qualifying. If that was a race situation a safety car start would have been employed and that mandates the use of the full wet tyre. What surprised engineers from other teams, though, about Webber’s decision was that it seemed risky given the potential reward. Red Bull was likely to be on top anyway so why risk throwing the car into the gravel and starting 10th on the grid?
Webber looked a hero for making that choice, because it put him ahead of Vettel on the grid, but perhaps it indicates that the team were not clear what would be the better tyre and expected others to go with the intermediate again.
On Sunday the McLaren and Ferrari drivers had a decision to make on what tyre to start the race on. Hamilton, Massa and Alonso all decided to start on the hard tyre and run a long first stint. Alonso explained the decision, “Seeing what happened in the previous days, it made sense to expect rain and so we made the first stint as long as possible, but unfortunately, it (rain) did not happen. Today, we gave Red Bull a little gift: if we had qualified in a normal fashion then we would certainly have given them a hard time.”
Button was the odd one out on the soft tyre. The degradation on the soft tyre on race day was 0.05s per lap on the option (which is 1.4 secs over a half race distance) and 0.01s per lap on the hard, which is much less than anyone expected, including Bridgestone, who anticipated that the soft tyre would lose almost 2 secs a lap over a half race distance, based on practice. Comparing the race to the long run data from Friday practice, where the degradation was higher, it seems that the drivers are taking it easy in the race, especially the opening laps.
The difference from Friday was that the hard was a bit quicker relative to the soft, so a better tyre for Alonso, Massa and Hamilton to start the race on. This was partly due to the track improving and the hard being run later in the race and the fact that the drivers could abuse the hard tyre more without the front left graining problems that many cars suffered in the early laps on the soft.
The battle between the two Red Bull drivers was decided at the start, when Sebastian Vettel passed Mark Webber into Turn 1. Although this season there is theoretically an advantage in being the car behind and pitting early, which will allow you to get a golden lap on the new tyres, while the leader is doing an in lap on his old tyres, at Red Bull the leading car is prioritised, as Webber explained,
“The start cost me the victory and then when the first car is leading, he sort of has priority or the luxury when he can stop, ” he said. “It was clear. Obviously if I stopped first there was a big chance I could jump Sebastian but that would not have been fair for the guy who was leading. It was really down to the start and who had track position in the first stint.”
It was this etiquette which caused Webber to lose so many positions in Australia has he had to wait until Vettel had pitted before pitting himself. With Vettel retiring anyway, this cost Webber the race.