SEPANG: The outbreak of the war in Iraq has cast a pall over the proceedings at the Petronas Malaysian F1 Grand Prix but it will be business as usual for the 10 teams taking part when the first qualifying session gets underway at the Sepang F1 Circuit today.
With the new qualifying format and regulations, this year's fifth edition of the Malaysian GP promises lots of suspense and excitement for the fans.
The drivers now have only one flying lap to book their grid positions while they also cannot change tyres, refuel or change the set-up of a car between Saturdya's qualifying session and the race.
McLaren's David Coulthard, who won in the opening race in Melbourne, will be first out on track today, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya from Williams BMW and Coulthard's teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Their timing will decide who comes out first tomorrow, with the slowest today coming out first and the fastest last.
After tomorrow's qualifying – again, only one flying lap will be allowed – the 20 cars will pushed back into parc ferme (under guard).
Besides the one-shot qualifying format, the points structure has also been changed to award the top eight finishers, instead of six previously (10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1).
Team orders have also been banned and so is pit-to-car telemetry. All these changes should help keep the championship open for longer than last year, when Michael Schumacher wrapped it up in record time.
The 34-year-old Schumacher, however, is confident the rule changes will not affect his dominance of the F1.
“I just can't wait for the race to start. I hope we will have an interesting race in Malaysia. Although I am still unsure of how the conditions will turn out to be this time, given the new regulations, I am confident we will be in a hunt for a win,” said Schumacher, whose team missed out on a podium finish for the first time in 54 races in Melbourne.
Schumacher, looking to win an unprecedented sixth world title, will have a lot of reason to do well this weekend. As the most successful driver here, he has a stellar qualifying record and has started all previous Malaysian GP on pole position.
He has also won twice – in 2000 and 2001 – and could have achieved a hattrick if he had not handed victory to Eddie Irvine under team orders in 1999.
Besides the rule changes, the fast-changing Malaysian weather could add to the excitement and unpredictability of the race.
The weatherman has predicted hot and humid temperatures but afternoon showers are everyday affairs in Malaysia.
“Racing in such hot and humid conditions demands a lot from the racing driver. But I have no problem. The heat does not bother me much,” said Schumacher.
Montoya, who will be hoping to secure his second Grand Prix win in Malaysia, will be praying for the rain to stay away.
“The hot weather should suit our package. I hope it stays dry because if it rains, it really rains – and things could be pretty messy,” said Montoya, who finished second here last year.
BMW enjoyed their first one-two finish victory in last year's Malaysian Grand Prix with Ralf Schumacher taking the chequered flag and the pair will be a major threat again, together with the McLarens.
Coulthard's win was a great start for the McLarens after a woeful season last year when they finished third behind the Williams.
“The result in Melbourne was a fantastic start to the season,” said Coulthard. “We have proved that we have a competitive pace and I am looking forward to a strong show here.”
He has prepared well to deal with the intensely humid conditions by spending the last 10 days in Australia and Thailand.