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Pressure mounts on Red Bull

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Jonathan Legard | 12:17 UK time, Friday, 2 April 2010

Formula 1 thrives on extremes, and the two races so far this season have demonstrated that to the full.

The Australian Grand Prix was everything that the Bahrain opener was not. Rain, overtaking, collisions, safety car, different strategies and a surprise result ensured that Melbourne 2010 has already earned its place on the shelf reserved for classic races.

With such a stormy forecast for the weekend here in Malaysia, get set for F1 to deliver another high-octane drama.

Even if the thunderstorms hold off and Sepang stays dry, there's every prospect of positive headlines.

This track encourages close racing. There are at least three decent opportunities to pass into slow-speed corners at the end of long straights.

Despite the contrast between the first two events, the plotlines of the season are beginning to emerge - and if the race stays dry they should become clearer still on Sunday

There's the battle between the grid's fastest two teams, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Currently, the constructors' championship table doesn't reflect their title billing, with Ferrari four places and 52 points ahead.

Three-time world champion Niki Lauda will tell you that the Milton Keynes team has already dropped too far behind to end the season as champions.

Red Bull are understandably disregarding such a dismissal - there are still 17 races, including this one, on the calendar. But the series of problems suffered by both their drivers in Friday's two practice sessions will only increase the pressure within the Red Bull garage after the disappointing result in Australia.

Mark Webber watches as his Red Bull is removed from a gravel trap after an engine failure in Friday practice at the Malaysian Grand PrixWebber's engine failure in Friday practice was the latest in a series of problems for Red Bull. Photo: AFP

For Mark Webber to lose an engine out of his season's allocation of eight at only the third race recalls the tightrope existence that Sebastian Vettel had to endure last year, when the German had no new engines in reserve for the final four events. And there are two more races this season than in 2009.

Vettel, meanwhile, encountered difficulties with his power steering and brakes.

Red Bull's failures this season have so far been unrelated but they're adding up and not going away. Brawn proved the value of reliability last year. And the more Ferrari's world championship leader Fernando Alonso is allowed to accumulate points, the more likely another Red Bull will again fall short in the title race.

Webber's early end to the second session meant he had no running on the softer tyre, which needs careful management to avoid overheating in these higher track temperatures.

The Australian is well accustomed to recovering strongly but it's a setback he could do without after a frustrating start to his championship challenge.

Because Vettel's race performances from pole position have been so compromised, Red Bull's tyre wear over a race distance is also unknown.

Sepang is a much more punishing circuit on tyres than Bahrain, where Alonso and Ferrari were so confident of catching Vettel before his spark-plug failure unravelled any prospect of a chase to the chequered flag.

This a very different venue to the previous two and should reveal more about the competitiveness of Melbourne's winning team, McLaren.

Their fear was that they would suffer again, just as they did in Bahrain, from a lack of aerodynamic downforce in the slow-speed corners, in contrast to Red Bull and Ferrari.
But running light and heavy fuel loads, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton reported improved performance with a new floor and front nose on their cars.

Hamilton fairly swooped through the high-speed corners flat, finding a balance to his liking more easily than his team-mate, and going consistently faster.

Any aerodynamic weakness looked to be offset by their speed along the three straights. McLaren are set to repeat their showing in Australia, where they were 14km/h (8.7mph) quicker than Red Bull on top speed.

It's as if their "F-duct system" - which reduces drag and therefore increases speed on the straights - works like a mini power boost.

Both Ferrari drivers were struck by McLaren's Friday performance but it's the developing dynamic between Alonso and Felipe Massa which holds the attention.

There are plenty who believe this partnership will explode sooner rather than later, expecting trouble after last Sunday's race when the faster Alonso was held up by Massa.
But the Spaniard has been at pains this week to emphasise his credentials as a team player, insisting he was happy to confirm third and fourth places, instead of trying to attack the field ahead.

Massa, for his part, hasn't acknowledged there was an issue. "We were racing," he said, buoyed by two successive podiums on his racing comeback.

Nevertheless, there exists a fragile alliance which will come under increasing strain if the Brazilian is able to sustain a championship push alongside his more exalted team-mate.

Robert Kubica highlighted the paddock perception that Alonso holds the power when he said that his second place in Australia would have been under greater threat if there had been a "faster driver" in pursuit.

Kubica was again prominent on Friday, with another set of aerodynamic upgrades for the Renault. Tyre warm-up, which was their bugbear in Melbourne, isn't an issue in Malaysia, and the team expect another top-10 qualifying performance from the Pole.

One engineer even suggested Renault could threaten Mercedes, where Nico Rosberg again shaded Michael Schumacher around one of the F1 legend's favourite tracks.

The pair ran different programmes, with the main thrust for qualifying scheduled for Saturday when the seven time champion is determined to make more of an impact.

Schumacher has been noticeably more cheerful this week, despite predicting that the team's form may not pick up as promptly as previously hoped.

His race performance in Melbourne, where he finished ninth, has also been put down to a delay with a tyre blanket costing him valuable time during his second stop.

If Schumacher gets a clean start on Sunday and there's rain during the race, it will be fascinating to see how much of the old magic can be reproduced. He was spellbinding when winning in the wet here with Ferrari in 2001.

Getting the strategy calls correct will be crucial if storms lash the track late afternoon as they have done all week.

Will the softer tyre last half a race distance in these temperatures so that the leaders can pit only when the rain comes? Will any team be able to read the conditions as cleverly as Timo Glock last year when his call for intermediates propelled him onto the podium for Toyota while all around him were on extreme wets?

Malaysia has the potential for just as much drama as Melbourne.

POST-QUALIFYING UPDATE AT 1600 BST ON SATURDAY:

Red Bull yet again proved their pace in qualifying thanks to Mark Webber's gamble on the intermediate tyre in another Malaysian monsoon. But converting pole position into the team's first victory of the season looks like being fraught with uncertainty because of the expected weather conditions as much concerns over reliability.

Thunderstorms are predicted for the late-afternoon start (1600 in Malaysia, which is 0900 BST) so the pit-wall strategists look like having to really earn their money in ensuring their cars are on the right tyres at the right time.

With so many of the top drivers such as Hamilton, Alonso and Button out of position near the back of the grid, there should be plenty of overtaking. It could be even more dramatic than last weekend in Melbourne.

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