The Sepang International Circuit tends to give a more faithful impression of the true competitive order than Melbourne.
That should be especially true this weekend as rain played havoc with the schedule in Australia and we had drivers qualifying in very cool temperatures on a drying track on Sunday morning.
The Malaysian weather can be relied upon to throw up some dramatic showers. But the teams are guaranteed warm conditions – to the point of being oppressively hot and humid.
Sepang’s fast corners, abrasive tarmac and high temperatures make it a punishing venue for drivers, cars and tyres. “We would describe Sepang as genuinely ‘extreme': both in terms of weather and track surface,” said Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. “This means that it is one of the most demanding weekends for our tyres that we experience all year.”
Sepang circuit information
|Lap length||5.543km (3.444 miles)|
|Distance||56 laps (310.4km/192.9 miles)|
|Lap record*||1’34.223 (Juan Pablo Montoya, 2004)|
|Fastest lap||1’32.582 (Fernando Alonso, 2005)|
|Tyres||Hard and Medium|
*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix
For that reason drivers will have the harder of Pirelli’s two tyre choices, including the hard tyre which is now coloured a distinctive orange. While graining was a problem in the cool of Melbourne, degradation is likely to be the dominant factor here.
Despite the energy-sapping heat, the circuit is a popular one among the drivers. The first of the modern generation of new-build tracks it’s wide and fast with some tricky high-speed corners.
“After the first section, turns five, six, seven and eight are very quick and fun,” said Sebastian Vettel, who won at the track in 2010 and 2011.
“Turns 11 and 14 are similar, it’s difficult to find the apex of those on every lap, especially as the tyres become worn.”
The 14th corner, the penultimate bend on the lap, is where Sergio Perez’s hopes of wresting a shock victory from Fernando Alonso died when he slithered wide during last year’s race. “It’s very tricky to get right,” said Mark Webber, “but I’ve always enjoyed driving it”.
In Melbourne some drivers lost out on their strategies when they got stuck behind rivals – notably the Ferrari pair. But Sepang’s longer straights and twin DRS detection points should make life easier for them on that score.
Malaysian Grand Prix team-by-team preview
There was ample proof in Australia that the RB9 has plenty of pace. But having locked out the front row of the grid they slipped back during the race as Lotus and Ferrari performed better over a stint.
However Vettel’s pace in the warmer conditions on Friday in Australia suggests that the higher temperatures usually seen in Malaysia could suit them very nicely.
Both red cars were in the thick of the podium battle in Australia. Although the F138 is a clear improvement on its predecessor it seems to share the same trait of being weaker in qualifying than it is in the race.
Both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa had to deal with being stuck in traffic at different stages in Sunday’s race. With a bit more clear air they may have had the speed to keep Lotus from the win.
After a depressing first race weekend with the MP4-28 McLaren are looking on this weekend’s race as a chance to understand more about their truculent car. They hope that Sepang’s less bumpy surface might help them with the chronic ride problems they are experiencing.
Much like Ferrari 12 months ago, a good splash of rain would do them no harm. It played into Sergio Perez’s hands on that occasion as well:
“I had one of the best races of my career there last year where I was able to push Fernando for victory until the closing laps,” he said. “It?óÔé¼Ôäós a fantastic circuit, really fast and demanding. It would be great to pull off another unexpected result for the team this year.?óÔé¼?Ø
Finishing at the opposite end of the points to your race-winning team mates is never a good place to be and there were mixed views within Lotus on exactly why Romain Grosjean could only manage tenth in a race Kimi Raikkonen won.
Grosjean is eager to make amends this weekend: “I want to be scoring 25 points in a Grand Prix for the team,” he said before the race.
He described Sepang as “Probably my favourite track of the whole season. I first raced there in 2008 as part of the GP2 Asia Series and I really loved the circuit.”
“It?óÔé¼Ôäós nice and wide, with fast flowing corners and a lot of undulation which makes it great fun to drive. The last corner is a tricky one, but I enjoy everything about racing there. Well, maybe not the heat and humidity, but at the end of the day it?óÔé¼Ôäós just another challenge for the drivers.”
Mercedes has strong links to this race via title sponsor Petronas. Although Lewis Hamilton was pleased with his fifth place in Melbourne, the team looked capable of achieving more.
Hamilton was on course for a better result until he locked his tyres and spoilt his strategy. And Nico Rosberg’s race came to an early end.
Rosberg looked especially racy during the wet qualifying session and he’s hoping for more of the same this weekend: “It often rains heavily and from my experience with the performance of the car in the rain in Melbourne, wet conditions would certainly be welcomed by me.”
Following the disappointment of Melbourne, Nico Hulkenberg will be eager to finally get his season started, one week later than everyone else.
Head of Track Engineering said Tom McCullough said the team are aiming for a double points finish this weekend.
Adrian Sutil, one of the stars of last week’s race, is among the drivers who are less keen on Sepang:
“It?óÔé¼Ôäós not my favourite track, but it depends on the car. If the car is quick and stable, you enjoy it more, but sometimes you really struggle with the balance, and then it?óÔé¼Ôäós a real challenge ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ the corners are so long, you need a lot of aerodynamic grip. It?óÔé¼Ôäós a track I like to drive, but it?óÔé¼Ôäós not like a Monaco or a Spa.”
Australia was a tough weekend for Williams but they believe they have identified some gains they can make with their car: “The team has regrouped and been working hard to solve the problems we encountered last weekend,” said technical director Mike Coughlan:
“We have a good idea where to focus our efforts and learnt a lot in Melbourne which we will implement in Malaysia to continue working to improve the performance of the FW35 throughout Friday testing and into the weekend.”
Toro Rosso left Australia point-less but both drivers believe they have seen potential in the STR8. Jean-Eric Vergne set the race’s second-fastest lap and only missed out on the points after flat-spotting his tyres.
Team mate Daniel Ricciardo was also encouraged by the car: “I set the fastest lap at that time with the exhaust issue that ended up forcing me to retire. So I think we probably had pretty good speed once we got up to it.”
“I think there’s definitely some potential in this year’s car,” he added. “I think we’ve unlocked a bit of it but there’s still a bit more to go so that’s a bit exciting to know that I think we’ve still got a bit more to get out of ourselves.”
This is a home race for British-based but Malaysian-owned Caterham.
Australia confirmed they have slipped behind Marussia as the slowest team in F1 but Giedo van der Garde thinks the car will be quicker on the harder tyres: “We saw in Australia that our car performed well on the [mediums] so we?óÔé¼Ôäóll look to build on that this weekend.”
With little time between the two races there will be no upgrades for Marussia’s car this weekend. After an encouraging outing in Australia team principal John Booth is eager to raise their sights above merely not being last:
“One race does not make a season and we will need to work hard, particularly in these early races, to continue to take the fight to the midfield, which we have shown to be a target realistically within reach.”
2013 driver form
|Q avg||R avg||R best||R worst||Classified|
|Paul di Resta||9||8||8||8||1/1|
|Giedo van der Garde||21||18||18||18||1/1|
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Images ?é?® McLaren/Hoch Zwei, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, Lotus/LAT, Sauber, Red Bull/Getty