2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Qualifying: Mclaren Lock Out Front Row Again

Back to back Formula1 Grand Prix are always fun and I have shared this excitement of mine on a separate post earlier. Here’s a link to that post Why Back To Back Grand Prix Weekends Are Fun.

The 2012 Formula1 Season is a race old only and there are already some interesting observations that I would like to share regarding the teams and the pecking order and of course the qualifying vs. race tyre strategy.

–          Mclaren have been dominant at the front and certainly have the edge over one lap pace which is why they have dominated qualifying in Australia and in Malaysia. Their toughest competitors in qualifying are the Mercedes AMG and Lotus cars with Red Bull still playing catch up.

–          Ferrari is struggling and is probably the 5th fastest team on the grid but a crucial few tenths ahead of the extremely competitive mid-field pack.

–          There is little to choose from the mid-field pack of Sahara Force India, Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso. As witnessed in qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, a tenth is enough to either have you on top of this mid-field pack or at the bottom.

–          A further few tenths down from the mid-field pack is the Caterham F1 team, who I would classify as the 10th fastest team on the grid. Marussia is about a second or more slower than Caterham, but again, a second or more quicker than the struggling HRT.

–          I would expect this pecking order to remain as-is till Formula1 reaches Europe which of course means that we are up for some really exciting racing!

Lewis Hamilton On Pole At The 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix (Courtesy: Mclaren)

Moving onto tyres:

–          Tyre management is crucial in the long runs and this is where teams and drivers either score over their rivals or struggle. Hamilton is quicker over one lap, but slower in the long runs as compared to Button. This gives Hamilton the edge in qualifying and Button in the races, similarly, this is what hurts Mercedes AMG’s race pace.

–          The highly degrading Pirelli tyres have increased the importance of a good tyre strategy over the weekend and not just the races. We have already seen tyre strategy come into play into Q3 of qualifying. Does this reduce the importance of qualifying? Possibly!

And finally, here are a few observations from the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Qualifying:

(Read the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Qualifying Results)


–          Lewis Hamilton dominated most of the practice sessions in Malaysia and it wasn’t much of a surprise when he put his Mclaren on pole today. As with Australia, his pole lap was a cracker and seemed out of reach till Button came about a tenth and a half closer in the dying minutes of the session.

–          This was Hamilton’s second pole of the season and Mclaren’s second 1-2. The team has been unbeaten in qualifying this season. Interestingly, the two poles scored already in 2012 equal the team’s poles in all of the 2011 and 2010 seasons!

–          This was also Mclaren’s first ever pole at Sepang and for the Malaysian Grand Prix! (Better late than never, literally!)

–          Moving on from the awe of Mclaren’s pace, the Mercedes AMG car of Schumacher too expectedly qualified in the top 3. Schumacher has out-qualified his team-mate Rosberg (P8) in both the races this season and infact this is the first time Rosberg has been out-qualified by a team-mate in his six appearances in Sepang.

–          The Mercedes AMG cars do have the one-lap pace in qualifying, however, as seen in Australia, their race pace is questionable. Though the team has indicated that they have compromised qualifying pace for the race, it will be a tough fight for Schumacher to finish on the podium and I would expect them to go backwards in the race.

–          I would also say that I am slightly disappointed by Rosberg’s qualifying errors in Australia and Malaysia which have seen him about 3 tenths down on Schumacher. A case of breaking under pressure?

–          Red Bull Racing split their tyre strategy with Webber (P4) running on the medium and Vettel (P5) choosing the hard compounds for their qualifying laps. The hard tyre is expected to offer better balance in the early phase of the race when the cars will run on full tanks. I would expect Vettel’s tyre strategy to pay dividends in the second half of the race. Webber should also be in contention so long as he makes a good start!

–          We have six World Champions on the grid this year and for the first time in 2012, all six will be starting in the top 10. The lowest placed driver will be Kimi Raikkonen who will start from P10 after he was slapped with a 5 place grid penalty for a gearbox change.

–          Alonso was the sole Ferrari in Q3 lapping around 1.3 seconds slower than the top order. Alonso (P8) battled to stay ahead of the Sauber of Sergio Perez (P8).

–          And going back to battle at the front, P1 to P8 is separated by only 4 tenths of a second!

Q2 Eliminations:

–          The mid-field battles came to the fore in Q2 of qualifying, with Sergio Perez the only mid-field driver to make it into Q3. The biggest loser of this session was Maldonado (P11) whose off-track excursion led to damage on the side of the car. Presumably, this slowed down the Williams and affected their entry into Q3. Maldonado was only a tenth down on Perez.

–          The gap from P12 to P16 (5 drivers) is just over a tenth and this is the best possible explanation of the super competitive mid-field.

–          This stiff competition would mean that a tenth up or down would result in either being at the top or the bottom of this heap. Toro Rosso experienced this see-saw in Australia (where they were on top) and in Malaysia (where they were at the bottom). Ricciardo starts P15 and Vergne, P18. Vergne was also the fall guy in Q1, after he got eliminated.

–          Sahara Force India drivers who start P14 (di Resta) and P16 (Hulkenberg) were in the middle of this mid-field battle and I expect them to pick up pace and some points in the race.

Q1 Eliminations:

–          P19 and P20 seem to be Caterham’s cemented position for most races. The team is behind the mid-field pack but ahead of the Marussia and HRT.

–          The Marussia on the other hand was beaten by Caterham but ahead of the HRT. The team has done well without any pre-season testing and I do hope that they close the gap to Caterham and make the rear of the grid interesting too!

–          HRT managed to qualify for the Malaysian GP, however, Mark Webber’s scorcher of a lap in Q1 almost caught out Karthikeyan who scrapped through with cooling issues in 24th and last and importantly three tenths inside the 107% time.

–          In the race, I expect the bottom three teams to be in a race of their own!

 The weekend in Sepang has already seen dry and wet sessions, infact, fire made an appearance too in the Lotus hospitality unit. If the race stays dry, I expect the Mclarens fighting the Red Bulls and Lotus for victory. However, if it rains, my money would be on Schumacher or Button to take top honours and Alonso and Hulkenberg to make a race out of it!

Read this week’s most read post Has TATA Made The Wrong Decision With HRT?

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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