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Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Tuesday, 6 April 2010 11:54 UK

Red Bull face fight to stay ahead of McLaren

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel

Malaysian Grand Prix in 90 seconds (UK users only)

By Mark Hughes
BBC F1 commentary box producer

After the Red Bull 1-2 in Malaysia, several intriguing questions remain.

Was Mark Webber potentially faster than his victorious team-mate Sebastian Vettel?

If McLaren and Ferrari had not misjudged the weather during qualifying, could they have prevented Red Bull from taking its first win of the season?

Will the improvements that are coming to McLaren in China leapfrog the car to the front of the grid?

Starting from pole position, Webber left the door open into the first corner and Vettel instantly slipped through. It was the decisive move that effectively won the race, and Webber was hugely disappointed with himself afterwards.

In the early stages, it appeared as if Webber was in fact faster as he pressed Vettel hard, but could he have pulled away had he not made that first corner misjudgement? The truth is almost certainly not.

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber
Vettel never relinquished his lead after overtaking Webber on the first corner

In this situation - two closely matched team-mates with overtaking not a realistic option, and no real competition from behind - the roles of the drivers in first and second place are pretty much predefined.

The lead guy has to look after his tyres so they are in good shape when he really needs them to be - approaching the pit stops he might be vulnerable, so he ideally wants to open a margin over the following car.

The pursuing driver will be looking to force an error, his only hope of making a realistic passing move.

Within the team, the leader gets strategic preference on the timing of the stops i.e. he will be brought in first, allowing him to use the grip of his new tyres to pull further clear while his team-mate is still on his worn rubber.

So, the second-place man cannot get ahead unless the leader has suffered a problem during his stop or made a slow out-lap.

The only thing he can do is sit behind and apply pressure. If that takes more out of his tyres and makes him slower approaching stop time, so be it, because he wouldn't normally be able to pass at the stops anyway because of his strategic disadvantage.

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There is nothing lost in pushing hard early, as long as there are no other cars close enough to take advantage - and in Malaysia there weren't; the third-placed Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was over half a second per lap slower than the Red Bulls.

As a result, Webber could push as hard as he liked in trying to find a chink in Vettel's defences. But it never appeared and a slight delay getting the wheel gun off Webber's right-front just made the outcome even more certain.

McLaren, meanwhile, arrived in Malaysia with significant upgrades to their diffuser, which team boss Martin Whitmarsh reckoned was worth 0.3 secs per lap.

Throughout practice, the cars looked very fast indeed, with Lewis Hamilton quickest in both Friday sessions and only narrowly pipped by Webber's Red Bull on Saturday morning.

The car's usual straight-line speed advantage from its 'F-duct' was used slightly differently to previous races and although still very quick down the long straights, it wasn't by the same margin as in Australia.

Instead the device had allowed the team the luxury of using more wing angle for greater downforce, very important in the fast sweeps of Sepang's middle sector, but we never got to find out if this combination truly had the pace to mix it with the Red Bulls in qualifying.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton and Button happy with positive drives

As Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button came through the field on race day they were for a time the fastest two cars on the track, but that was because the pace being set by Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull wasn't his ultimate - for reasons discussed above.

Now, the intriguing thing regarding McLaren is that they hope to have new suspension parts in time for China that will allow an aerodynamically-enhanced qualifying performance, the car running with an optimally low ride height which will then return itself to the higher ride height required when 150kg of fuel is put into the tank on race day.

It's a system McLaren believes Red Bull has used since the start of the season, a claim denied by Red Bull.

Ferrari's pace, meanwhile, looked similar to McLaren's in Malaysia and was similarly disguised by the team's choices during qualifying.

Fernando Alonso, despite being troubled throughout by a downshift problem, was exceptionally fast. His fastest lap was set as he rejoined on his new soft tyres after his pit stop and was only 0.1 secs slower than the best of the race, set by Webber's Red Bull.

Again however, there are the same provisos. The Red Bulls, running 1-2, were so far out front they had no need to be pressing to their maximum.

Their track position allowed them to be run their delicate engines easier, whereas Alonso was absolutely flat out trying to make up places - almost certainly a contributory factor to the Ferrari's engine failure two laps from the end.

While the McLarens and Ferraris may have made ground up on Red Bull's performance, all the evidence suggests that the RB6 was still the fastest car, just as in the first two races.

But with McLaren's new suspension system is believed to be worth a further 0.3s in China, can Red Bull bring similar improvement to its car to stay ahead?

Mark Hughes has been an F1 journalist for 10 years and is an award-winning author of several books



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Malaysian Grand Prix

RaceLast updated: 15 Nov 2012 12:35 UK
Position Country Driver Race Time
1 germany S Vettel 1:33:48.412
2 australia M Webber 1:33:53.261
3 germany N Rosberg 1:34:01.916
4 poland R Kubica 1:34:07.001
5 germany A Sutil 1:34:09.471
6 great britain L Hamilton 1:34:11.883
7 brazil F Massa 1:34:15.480
8 great britain J Button 1:34:26.330
9 spain J Alguersuari 1:34:59.014
10 germany N Hulkenberg 1:35:01.811

see also
Vettel storms to Malaysian GP win
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
Hamilton pleased with fightback
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
Philosophical Webber rues lapse
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
Massa plays down title advantage
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
Malaysian Grand Prix photos
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
Malaysian GP as it happened
04 Apr 10 |  Formula 1
McLaren & Ferrari rue rain errors
03 Apr 10 |  Formula 1


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