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Lewis gets Malay morale boost

2012-03-22 11:16

TECHNICAL WOES TO END?: Lewis Hamilton's lack of pace during the Australian Grand Prix was ultimately the result of a clutch issue.

John O'Brien

SEPANG, Malaysia - Lewis Hamilton aims to set the record straight at Sepang in Malaysia this weekend after a morale-boosting debrief with his McLaren race engineers.

The 2008 F1 champion qualified on pole for the 2012 Australian season-opener but was unusually slow off the mark and beaten into the first corner by team mate Jenson Button, who went on to win.

Hamilton finished third and was baffled by his lack of pace; his unhappiness was evident after the race.


“It was difficult to understand what happened," he said this week. "Afterwards I sat down with my engineers and we went through all the data. There was a small issue with the clutch at the start so we now understand and know how to improve. It's encouraging and reassuring to understand the reasons for our race pace in Australia – I’m in a really positive frame of mind.”

McLaren took the front row in Melbourne and 2009 champion Button set the fastest race lap so the team is eager to deny Red Bull's double champion Sebastian Vettel a Sepang hat trick.

Red Bull struggled in qualifying at Albert Park in Melbourne but was more competitive in the race with Vettel working his way up from sixth on the grid to take second after the safety car worked against Hamilton.

Vettel and Australian Red Bull team mate Mark Webber showed they were competitive but McLaren reckons its new car will be even more at home on the Malaysian track than it was in Melbourne.


Button won there in 2009 with Brawn and was second in 2011. Hamilton started second but finished eighth after a post-race demotion.

"If you looked closely at us in testing at Barcelona we were pretty good in the high-speed corners," team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. "We looked like we were quickest in those corners and, if anything, Red Bull was beating us in (low speed) traction areas.

"Sepang is a high-speed track and, based on our performance, we believe we will be quite quick there. We fancy our chances, but who knows? Let's see how we go."

Vettel had all the tools he needed to dominate the 2011 championship and Red Bull boss Christian Horner sees no reason why his drivers cannot mount a serious challenge this weekend.

"We knew from winter testing that McLaren was competitive but our race pace was every bit the equal of theirs," he said. "Malaysia is a very different prospect from Australia."

McLaren and Red Bull could be joined by Michael Schumacher's Mercedes, whose rear wing has generated early-season controversy, in the battle for the podium but Ferrari can expect more struggle with their new car.


Double World champion Fernando Alonso drove it brilliantly to fifth in Melbourne from 12th on the grid but he cannot perform miracles. "In Malaysia we will once again be racing on the defensive," Alonso said on Ferrari's website. "There's no other way we can go about it, given that the F2012 is practically identical to what we ran in Australia. We will have to try to adapt it as well as possible, knowing it won't be easy."

That could open up an opportunity for Lotus, buoyed by returning former Ferrari driver and 2007 World champion Kimi Raikkonen, to fight for the big points. However the weather at Sepang can be notoriously difficult to predict and a repeat of the 2009 event, which Button won after torrential rain ended the race after 31 of the 56 scheduled laps, should not be ruled out.

Alonso said: "The forecast is a high chance of rain, for qualifying and the race, but I don't have much faith in the forecast. The only thing of which you can be absolutely certain is that it will be hot, very hot."


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