Will Gray

Gray Matter: Red Bull’s Malaysian must-win

Will Gray

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After just two races the season is still settling into a pattern - but the Malaysian Grand Prix will be crucial for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull if they want to stay in the long-term title fight.

It is often said that a fast start to the Formula One season is crucial for a team or driver wanting to secure the championship - a case of get the points in the bag early, build a cushion and defend.

It worked last year with Button and Brawn, it worked with Alonso at Renault and it worked countless times with Schumacher at Ferrari. And it should be working this season with Vettel and Red Bull — only things have been far from perfect for the German and his British-based team.

Vettel, while outwardly keeping calm and cool, must be fuming inside at the points he has already lost through mechanical failure on his Red Bull machine in Bahrain and Australia.

"S*** happens," he flippantly said in the paddock today. "For sure it's not good and if you want to fight for the championship it's better not to have those kind of things, but we're just two races into the season.

"Would, could, should is so nice but it didn't happen. In the end there's a lot of positives we can take from the first two races. We have a very strong car in qualifying and race conditions. For various reasons we didn't finish. For sure at the moment it's frustrating and the whole team you could see was down."

There are, of course, many ifs and buts, but had Vettel not been let down by the lack of reliability while in the lead of both races, he would almost certainly have collected top points for two wins and the championship table would already have a dramatically different look.

Vettel was so in control of both races, it is likely that if he had kept going he would have had little effect on the race going on behind him and the positions behind him would have finished the same.

So, if things had worked out, Vettel would be on 50 points with his closest rival Alonso on 28, Massa 27 and Button 24. Instead, Alonso is on 37 points with Massa 33 and Button 31 — and Vettel only has 12.

But Vettel can take some satisfaction out of the situation — because with him out of the picture Alonso and Ferrari had the perfect opportunity to 'do a Button' and race off into the distance, wrack up the points and get ready to defend. Ferrari has done well, but it has not quite capitalised on the opportunity as much as it could have.

The Italian team has looked strong since testing, and their back-to-back win in Bahrain was the perfect start. In Australia, Alonso suffered wheelspin off the soggy grid and slipped back. Massa made it stick and moved to second, but Button's clever call for tyres and Kubica's even more stunning start snatched first and second and the Ferrari pair were left to squabble for third.

There is clarity that while McLaren took an arguably lucky win, their car was not as strong in the hot weather of Bahrain and if that trend returns — and McLaren are already playing down their chances ahead of Malaysia — then it should be Red Bull leading Ferrari at the front once again.

Which is why it is so crucial for Vettel and Red Bull to pull themselves together and get points on the board.

Ferrari look slick, and Alonso is confident. And if Red Bull have any failures then he will surely be ready to pounce.

Vettel says he is not concerned about reliability, despite the previous problems, but failure is not the only thing that could challenge Red Bull, the hot weather could also play a part.

The Red Bull car is thought to be tough on its tyres and has so far been relatively untested in hot conditions, but this weekend could be different.

In Malaysia, the tyres are expected to be marginal — meaning that unlike Bahrain, where the one-stopper was the winner, a gamble on two stops could be the right way to go. That could bring strategy more into play, so there could be more elements for Red Bull to deal with than simply getting their reliability right.

Many championship-winning campaigns begin in the opening few races, but with Red Bull clearly ahead and Ferrari not yet fully capitalising on their advantage, this race is crucial. If Red Bull get it wrong, Ferrari could start to move into the position Brawn had last year. If they get it right, they're back in the game.

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