By Patrick Johnston
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The world of Formula One descends on Kuala Lumpur for the often dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix with excitement around the Sepang circuit unusually muted as the country mourns the disappearance of flight MH370.
The Sepang circuit is a stone's throw from Kuala Lumpur International Airport where the Malaysian Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers and crew departed 18 days ago and has since become the home for many associated with the story.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said earlier this week that the Beijing-bound flight had crashed into the southern Indian Ocean with a search for debris ongoing some 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth in Western Australia.
While the Laureus Sports Awards in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday opted to scale down their week of events in response to Najib's announcement, the Formula One party has continued as normal for the 16th staging of Malaysia's premier sporting event.
That meant Chinese relatives of the missing MH370 passengers were forced to change hotels to make way for those involved in the glamour sport, which started its new season in Australia two weeks ago.
The drivers have been quick to offer their support and Lewis Hamilton also has a "#PrayForMH370" message on the side of his Mercedes car this week and he will be hoping it is on display for the entire 56 laps of Sunday's race after only managing a brief three-lap run in Melbourne.
The season opening race was won by the Briton's team mate Nico Rosberg after the German overtook pole sitter Hamilton before the first turn and eased to the chequered flag.
Mercedes appear to have been quickest in adapting to the new V6 turbocharged hybrid engines that have leveled the playing field after years of Red Bull dominance but they remain wary of being labeled championship favorites.
"While we were pleased to come away from Melbourne with a win, we were also left with plenty to think about," Mercedes executive director Paddy Lowe said.
"As is to be expected with such new technology, we are learning more about the car with every lap. This inevitably brings more problems to the surface, all of which require careful management.
"Our priority has therefore been to arrive in Malaysia in better shape mechanically than we left Australia."
One driver in greater need of major progress is four-times defending world champion Sebastian Vettel, who failed to finish in Melbourne after reliability issues dashed his hopes of a 10th race win in a row after only a few laps at Albert Park.
Vettel's pre-season had been struck by big question marks over the Red Bull's Renault-powered unit but the German saw a few shoots of optimism ahead of the Malaysian race which he won in controversial style last year after defying team orders.
"We still have a lot of work to do with the car but it was encouraging to see that our pace was better than expected in Australia," said Vettel, who won 13 of last season's 19 races.
"Hopefully we can build on that and start collecting some strong points in the next two races."
His new team mate Daniel Ricciardo thought he had sealed a brilliant second place finish on his Red Bull debut at his home grand prix but the podium place was taken away from him by the FIA after the Australian was deemed to have broken fuel rules.
Red Bull have appealed the decision with a verdict due after next week's Bahrain race in the Manama desert.
McLaren's Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen was promoted up to second in Melbourne following Ricciardo's disqualification with team mate Jenson Button joining him on the podium in a bright start to the season for the team that had a 2013 to forget.
However, the Briton said the car lacked race pace to challenge for victory on the notoriously quick Sepang circuit where afternoon thunderstorms are again predicted, which could play havoc on the undulating track.
"Even if we don't yet have the pace to take the fight to the front runners, we should have a car that's decent in every sector, and which we'll be able to hustle through the race," the 2009 world champion said."
(Editing by John O'Brien)