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Friday, April 3, 2009
Rain could throw wrench in Brawn run

By Dan Knutson
Special to ESPN.com

Only one force can stop Brawn drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello from winning Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.

It won't be the 18 other drivers or the nine other F1 teams. The only thing that can usurp the domination the Mercedes-Benz-powered Brawn GP cars showed in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix -- where Button and Barrichello qualified first and second and finished first and second -- will be rain.

"If it doesn't rain, then Brawn should win," said Williams driver Nico Rosberg, "and if it does rain then things might look a little bit different. But the rain is the only chance that we all have, I think, to change that in some way."

And it is almost certain that it will rain on race day. Daily tropical downpours are common in Malaysia at this time of the year. The weather forecast for many afternoons often contains just one word: thunderstorms.

And with the start time of the 2009 race being moved back from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. the chances of a late afternoon deluge are even more likely.

The new Brawn GP team, born from the organization that Honda put up for sale, took the F1 world by storm. With the management buyout to Ross Brawn happening at the 11th hour, the team got in only two preseason tests before heading for Melbourne, Australia.

The Brawn cars dominated those two tests, and then cleaned up again in the Australian Grand Prix.

"They are better than everybody -- it is true," two-time world champion Fernando Alonso said. "And it's hard to believe that one month ago they were sitting at home, and now they are ready to fight for the world championship."

Jenson Button
Jenson Button had no trouble staying at the front of the pack in his Brawn GP car at Australia.

Other drivers agree.

"It is pretty obvious that Brawns are clearly the quickest car," BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld said when ESPN.com asked him in Malaysia to assess the competition. "Unfortunately for everybody, it looks the same as it was in testing. Most of us hoped that somehow miraculously that by the first race that they would be slower.

"It is clear that they are leading the pack, and I expect them to be the strongest team here again.

"We are in an OK position," he continued. "There are a couple of teams pretty close together. We are in the pack behind Brawn but in Melbourne we were not leading it.

"But, then again, we have seen in the last couple of years that Melbourne does not always give us the best picture. I hope that here we will look stronger than in Melbourne. I was surprised by the pace of the Williams in Melbourne. I thought that we were similar or a little bit quicker than Toyota, but that was not the case. Let's see how it is here on a normal track."

Heidfeld's teammate Robert Kubica also believes that the road course in Malaysia will give a better indication of how the other teams compare with Brawn than the street/park track in Australia.

"I am not expecting big miracles, but it might be that somebody will show much better pace," Kubica pointed out. "We saw last year with Ferrari struggling in Australia and here they were clearly the fastest. I am expecting some teams to close the gap."

Button takes a cautious view of his car's speed.

"It is difficult to say after one race, really, that we're unbeatable," he said. "Red Bull was obviously quick, quicker than what we expected, in Melbourne. I didn't think that they would be the team that would be up at the front. I also think that Ferrari will catch up, they always do. Those two teams are the teams that are going to be competitive and also BMW.

"It's a very strange mix with teams this year. It seems to be very close; we seem to have a slight advantage and then everyone else is very close and in the mix. It makes it exciting and I think different people will stand out at this race."

The Toyotas were fast in Australia. Starting from pit lane, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock finished third and fifth. Trulli was subsequently dropped to 12th as a penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton in a yellow flag zone. But in Malaysia that ruling was reversed after officials reviewed new evidence and reinstated Trulli to third.

"I think we are only a couple of tenths [of a second per lap] slower than them," Glock said of the Brawns. "The question is -- were they showing their true pace in Australia?"

The Brawn car was designed around a Honda engine, and the last-minute switch to a Mercedes V-8 went seamlessly.

"What really has surprised me," Glock said, "is that the Brawns have had no technical problems."

Brawn co-boss Nick Fry says the team was not holding anything in reserve in Australia.

"I cannot say we were sandbagging in Australia, as we were going as hard as we could," he told Autosport. "And we could easily have been beaten, but if we smarten up our act we may be able to get a big of an advantage for this [Malaysian] weekend. Who knows?"

Robert Kubica
BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica is one of those drivers hoping to find a little more speed in his car this weekend.

With the temperatures and humidity both in the 90 range, the Malaysian Grand Prix is one of the most grueling races of the year on both man and machine.

"The Malaysian Grand Prix is always a really tough race but if you can cope well with the heat and humidity, it is a track that the drivers enjoy," Barrichello said. "It's a real engineering challenge to find the right balance and you need to have a car with good aerodynamics to find time around the lap.

"The intense heat puts pressure on the engine, brakes and the drivers as the temperature can rise above 120 degrees in the cockpit. So you have to be well-prepared and ensure you are fully hydrated."

Team owner Brawn is optimistic.

"We have a very good and stable car which should go well around the Sepang circuit," Brawn said. "As in Australia, we will need to maximize the practice running that we have on Friday to develop the setup, and we will be faced with the usual reliability concerns caused by the high temperatures that we expect in Malaysia."

In 2007 and 2008, when the Honda was extremely uncompetitive, Button always hoped it would rain and thus turn the race into more of a lottery and give him the chance of twisting a good result out of the race.

As fervently as he wanted rain in the past two years, he now hopes it is dry on race day in Malaysia.

"When you've got a quick car you obviously want it to be dry and you don't want any safety cars," he said. "You don't even want a breath of wind. So for sure I would rather it was just dry this weekend. But looking at the weather forecast it's going to be storms in the afternoons and obviously it's a five o'clock race.

"It makes it more difficult and a bit more challenging for sure, but we'll take it in our stride and hopefully have a good car in the wet. We haven't tested in the wet yet with our car, but it's a good car and we've just got to hope it works in the wet.

"The only thing we've got to work out is the front wing angles and what-have-you because previous cars we've had we've had to adjust massively for the wet conditions. So hopefully we're going to have some wet running before the race."

Hamilton When it's wet for sure it makes it more of a lottery for everyone. It becomes more of a challenge for everyone. It's not necessarily the fastest cars that can win.

-- McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton

In just two years in F1, Lewis Hamilton has established himself as one of quickest drivers in wet conditions.

"When it's wet for sure it makes it more of a lottery for everyone," the reigning world champion said. "It becomes more of a challenge for everyone. It's not necessarily the fastest cars that can win. It's who can keep the car on the track and who is in the right place at the right time, so for sure anyone from the back can have the same opportunity as the one at the front."

The late 5 p.m. start in Malaysia, as in Australia, was set so that the races were not televised too early in the morning in Europe. But in Australia it created tricky driving conditions.

Sport car endurance racers around the world are used to driving in the long shadows of late evening and early morning. And any NASCAR driver can tell you about having to steer into a low-lying blinding sun and deep shadows. For most of the F1 drivers, however, it was a new experience.

"In Australia it was a big issue," Kubica said. "The visibility at the end of the race was quite poor, especially in the last sector of the lap. So it was quite dangerous. I would say even very dangerous.

"Here [in Malaysia] by postponing the race you have a much higher probability of rain. If it will be cloudy and rainy most probably it will be very dark. If it is sunny we might have similar problems as in Australia with very low sun. And then the visibility is very bad."

A massive thunderstorm clobbered the track just after 3 p.m. Thursday -- the start time of the race on Sunday in past years.

"If it rains like this [on Sunday] we will have to organize a boat race!" quipped Sebastien Bourdais.

Perhaps Brawn will win a Boat Grand Prix as well.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.