Rain the focus of Malaysian Grand Prix

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The Independent Online

Organisers will be watching the skies, rival teams will be eyeing the Ferraris, and local fans will be cheering on their own new team at this weekend's Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix.

The main talking point in the F1 paddock at Sepang is the chance of rain, after last year's tropical downpour which forced the race to be abandoned after an hour, with only half the usual points awarded.

That abandonment forced a revision of the starting time, with this year's race brought forward from 5 p.m. to 4 p.m local time. That will lessen the chances of the arrival of rain, which tends to come in the late afternoon, while also allowing for a re-start if the race is stopped. Last year, by the time the storms had passed, it was too dark to contemplate a re-start.

Rain and scattered thunderstorms are forecast from Friday onward, which makes it difficult to predict which team will thrive in the conditions. The last round in Australia had some light rain, but the cars have not yet been tested in truly wet conditions with the heavy fuel loads required this season.

Should it remain dry, Ferrari looks the team to beat, based both on performance this season and historical precedent in Malaysia.

After two races, Fernando Alonso leads the championship with 37 points from Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa on 33.

Alonso's total would have been even higher if not for being spun in contact at the first corner in Australia and having to fight his way through the field from last after the first lap to finish fourth.

After some lean times with Renault, Alonso was already getting back the feeling that saw him win two world titles.

"I want to be world champion at the end," Alonso said Thursday. "Every time I get in the car, my head is on November, and having the trophy."

He still regards the Red Bulls, McLarens, Massa, and even the currently struggling Mercedes cars as having the potential to deny him that third crown.

"For the championship right now, the eight drivers are all contenders and all in the fight."

Ferrari has an enviable record over the 11 years of the Malaysian Grand Prix, with five wins and seven pole positions.

Alonso also has some history of his own here, winning in 2007 for McLaren.

One team that may be happy for this weekend's race to be abandoned at half-distance, as it was last year, would be Red Bull. Both in Bahrain and Australia, Sebastian Vettel led comfortably mid-race only to to be stymied by technical failures.

As a result, the German has only 12 championship points instead of the 50 he probably would have had if the car had lasted. Teammate Mark Webber had also got little reward with six points.

However Webber scotched suggestions that Red Bull's hopes of winning the constructors' championship were already over, after just two of 19 races.

"There are 750-odd points left," Webber said. "The championship is not over this weekend I don't think. It finishes in November, so there's a long way to go.

"No one is trying harder than us. Thank God there are 17 to go and we'll capitalize on that."

Red Bull's speed over the opening races had raised eyebrows at other teams, with suggestions the team is using an adjustable suspension to lower the ride height in qualifying and raise it for the race. While the team denies it, rivals have been eyeing the cars very closely but have yet to lodge the formal complaint required to prompt an FIA investigation.

"Our car technically has passed all the regulations so far," Webber said. "If we get pulled up on something, obviously things will change."

McLaren's drivers come into the Malaysian race in different frames of mind. Reigning world champion Jenson Button was rewarded for a bold early tire change in Australia, taking the victory.

Teammate Lewis Hamilton will be glad to put Australia behind him, after being pulled over by local police for dangerous driving, qualifying poorly, and then fuming at his team after the race for forcing him into an additional pitstop which he felt cost him second place.

Its not just the leading teams that will be the focus of attention in Malaysia, but also newcomers Malaysian-run Lotus.

The team has modest goals for the opening stage of the season — finish races and outperform fellow newcomers Virgin and Hispania — and is about two seconds per laps off the top teams. However, it is sure to be among the leaders in merchandise sales and crowd enthusiasm at Sepang.