SEPANG, April 2 – Whether Brawn GP can sustain its sensational start to the season will be the key focus of the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, along with the fate of heavyweights McLaren and Ferrari.
Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello handed the rookie team a 1-2 finish in Melbourne last weekend in the team’s maiden race, upsetting the established order.
New rules that have allowed the return of slick tyres and an increase in the aerodynamic downforce to help cars grip the track worked in Brawn’s favour, and sets the stage for an intriguing race around the 56-lap Sepang circuit.
Ross Brawn, who bought the team from Honda Racing in March, is confident their run will continue.
"Obviously we’ve got a very good car and the team having now won a race it’s going to give them the confidence to go forward," he said.
"Who knows. Maybe there’s another fairy tale."
But Britain’s Button is not getting carried away, warning that other teams are hot on their heels with encouraging competitive signs from Toyota, Williams, Red Bull and BMW Sauber.
"I have a feeling that other teams are going to be on us very quickly and when we get to a different type of circuit, maybe in Malaysia, some other cars which weren’t so competitive in Melbourne will be," Button said.
He expects those that are using the new Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, which recover the energy generated by the car’s braking process for extra power, will do better at Sepang.
"We haven’t got KERS because we can’t afford to develop it at the moment, but from what I’ve heard, people who are running KERS think that there is an advantage of two to three-tenths of a second on the circuits that have long straights," he said.
The intense heat and humidity will also be an important factor, with each driver expected to lose at least three kilograms (six pounds, 10 ounces) in body weight during an exhausting race.
Thunderstorms have also been forecast, adding another element.
Designed by Hermann Tilke, Sepang is one of the most technical circuits in Formula One. Its combination of long high-speed straights, and tight, twisting turns make the track complicated, but also perfect for overtaking.
Finn Kimi Raikkonen won last year but the Ferraris were off the pace in Melbourne and Felipe Massa knows they need to get their act together quickly after both drivers failed to finish in Australia.
"In my opinion, apart from the Brawns, we are competitive, but we have to work perfectly to get to the front," said the Brazilian, runner-up in the 2008 championship race to Lewis Hamilton.
"In Melbourne, it was very difficult to get the tyres to work, partly because the track surface did not provide much grip. The solution for Malaysia? Work and work hard."
Britain’s Hamilton was overjoyed to finish third last week after starting 18th on the grid in an uncompetitive car, but warned not to expect the same this week from McLaren.
"Firstly, we shouldn’t get carried away by our podium in Australia," said the world champion.
"Yes, we had a fantastic race but we’re all aware that our car isn’t capable of repeating that sort of performance on sheer pace alone.
"And Sepang is one of the tougher tracks on the calendar, one where we will probably be further from the frontrunners."
One man who already knows he won’t be starting on the front row is Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, who crashed his Red Bull into Polish driver Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber in the final laps in Australia.
His act of madness cost him a 10 grid place penalty in Malaysia.
Like last week in Australia, the Malaysian race has been pushed back two hours and will start at 5pm local time to satisfy European television audiences.