It's apparent following the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne that the Sebastian Vettel-Red Bull combination is still the one to beat in F1. Also that McLaren have made tremendous strides since pre-season testing to slot into a clear second. Behind these two, however, things get a little complicated. Vitaly Petrov may have finished third at Albert Park in his Renault but teams like Ferrari and Mercedes hadn't shown their strongest hand as yet.
This seems to have been confirmed following the first two practice sessions at the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang. Times set in practice sessions are not always indicative of what's to come in qualifying but a pecking order seems to have emerged that could be carried forward in qualifying and on raceday.
Mark Webber laid down the gauntlet by topping both practice sessions on Friday. In both sessions he was followed by a McLaren driver, which didn't come as a surprise to anyone. Behind the McLarens and Red Bulls, however, was the old warhorse, Mercedes' Michael Schumacher. Finishing third in the first session and fifth in the second practice session will give the former seven-time world champion hope of improving upon his dismal show at the season opening race.
Trying to stop Schumacher from being the best of the rest will be Ferrrai, Renault, Williams and Sauber. The key for each of these teams will be managing tyre wear over the course of the 310 kilometer race. Pirelli's motor sport director Paul Hembrey has already stated that he expects to see greater tyre wear in Sepang as compared to Albert Park. The main reason for this is the flowing and undulating nature of the 5.543 kilometer track. Hembrey has stated that he expects to see drivers making up to three and maybe even four tyre stops during the race.
More tyre stops aside, overtaking is expected to be more frequent at Sepang as well thanks to the circuit's two long straights where the Drag Reduction System (DRS) will prove more effective than it did at Melbourne.
It allows a driver following a car to reduce the angle of the rear wing of his car, reducing the resistance to the airflow over the car. With the main straight alone being over a kilometer long, look out for this system to come into its own.