Malaysia a change of pace, perhaps?

March, 21, 2012

Once again, Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park provided some measure of chaos, uncertainty and surprise.

The bulk of the shakeup came in qualifying, where both Red Bulls sat in the third row and the most successful team in the sport's history, Ferrari, failed to reach Q3 for the first time since Malaysia in 2010, nearly two years ago.

Lotus driver Romain Grosjean initially impressed in his F1 return with a third-place slot on the grid, and it appeared as if the team would have another strong run in Melbourne. The fates quickly indicated otherwise, however, as Grosjean lost three positions early and then collided with Pastor Maldonado, ending his race.

Ultimately, the day belonged to Jenson Button, who captured his third win in Australia, now his most at any grand prix.

A sublime start off the grid meant Button was in control early, and the pace of this year's McLaren was on full display. Button is a notoriously early starter, with 10 of his 13 career victories coming before July. Six of those have come in March and April alone.

Even a safety-car period could not hinder Button's progress, as he executed a fantastic drive throughout. Runner-up Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull perhaps said it best to reporters, "Congratulations to McLaren and to Jenson, I think he drove a fantastic race and was unbeatable today."

It will be interesting to see if McLaren can win in Malaysia this weekend as well, as the team has not taken the first two races of the year since 2003.

While qualifying shook up the grid from last year's relatively predictable order, the race seemed to shuffle out any irregularities. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton rounded out the podium, while Red Bull's Mark Webber finished fourth and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso checked in fifth after a very remarkable drive.

Also impressive was Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen in his F1 return. A dismal qualifying effort left him deep in the grid, but he rebounded nicely for a seventh-place finish. He adds to the list of notable drivers who have missed at least a season, yet scored points in their first race back; Niki Lauda, Alain Prost (won) and Michael Schumacher to name a few.

Raikkonen could be strong in Malaysia, as he's won at Sepang twice (2003, 2008). The 2003 edition was the site of his first F1 win, and it came with a margin of victory of over 39 seconds.

Malaysia has witnessed utter dominance by Vettel each of the last two years, as the young German has led more than 96 percent of the laps run.

But McLaren should provide considerable competition, especially from Button. As for Hamilton, Sepang has not been a kind host; he's never won there and has led just two laps (both of which came in his rookie year of 2007). Last year was especially painful, as he was nailed with a post-race penalty for excessive blocking on Alonso. This time around, he may well have the car to beat, so a strong finish is crucial.

It's a difficult race, as the track features a variety of twists and turns as well as double straights surrounding the grandstands. It's also extremely hot, with temperatures often easily tipping over 90 degrees. Coupled with high humidity, this is an event where offseason conditioning can pay dividends.

Webber could very well be the man to lay down the pace this weekend, as he has posted the fastest lap at Sepang in each of the last two seasons. In fact, since 2009 no one has claimed the fastest lap more often than Webber, who has 13. He's still seeking his first victory in Asia at the top level, and perhaps that will come at Sepang.



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