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On the back of a very exciting Australian Grand Prix which went some way towards shutting up the critics of F1, the circus finds itself competing in Malaysia just a week after the thrilling race in Melbourne.

Guaranteed to be swelteringly hot and humid, the Malaysian Grand Prix is one of the greatest tests of a driver’s fitness and stamina on the Formula 1 calendar. The conditions are a supreme test of driver fitness and compromise in the packaging: allow too much cooling for the very stressed cars and you’ll compromise the aero horribly; go down the aggressive path and you risk an engine failure…

If it isn’t the heat and humidity, then the weather is also a serious factor. It just just rain in Kuala Lumpur, it buckets down in torrents. Forecasts for this weekend’s event are already giving indication to these conditions, and fans could be set for another incredible weekend to spice up the Formula 1 show!

The Circuit

2010 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix
Malaysia
Date: 28 March 2010 No. Laps 56
Lap Length: 5.510km Race Distance: 308.582km

Lap Record: 1:34.223 – Juan Pablo Montoya (2004, Williams BMW)

Sepang was the first of the “Tilkedromes” to be built for the Formula 1 circus, and it made it debut in 1999, becoming the first non-Japanese Asian Grand Prix venue in Formula 1.

Its incredibly width, smooth surface, long straights and sweeping corners have quickly become hallmarks of the Hermann Tilke design that race fans see replicated in his subsequent F1 venues at Bahrain, China, Turkey and Abu Dhabi.

The wide, long straights that lead into heavy braking tight corners are designed to, and have succeeded in, providing plenty of wheel-to-wheel action in the ten years of F1 racing at Sepang, with plenty of passing and collisions to thrill the fans.

However, in a country with little in the way of motorsport culture and just one driver who has made it to the top echelon – hello, Alex Yoong! – crowd attendance figures have generally been poor.

However, those who do attend are almost always guaranteed an exciting race on what many feel is one of Tilke’s better circuit designs, with several passing opportunities existing around the 15-corner lap.

The track presents a difficult compromise for engineers, who need to balance the need for mechanical grip warranted by the swift changes in direction around the circuit with aerodynamic efficiency for the two long straights.

The History Bit

Sepang’s first Formula 1 race in 1999 has set the tone for pretty much every event since held at the equatorial venue.

Michael Schumacher made a stunning comeback from his leg-breaking accident at Silverstone and played the unusual role of subordinate Number 2 driver to his team-mate Eddie Irvine, who had a realistic chance at the championship title. The German took a stunning pole position and fended off Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren to allow Eddie to take victory.

The 2001 race was among my favourite races to be held at Sepang, and gave us our first glimpse of the havoc that can unfold when the heavens open in Malaysia. Shortly after the race start, the track was awash as a sudden storm hit, and many drivers – including Michael Schumacher – fell off the track. With his typical luck, the German kept his Ferrari out of the barriers and limped to the pits, making the unusual decision to run with intermediate tyres while almost every other runner ran with the full wets. Sure enough, the circuit dried and the race came back to Schumacher, who brilliantly climbed through the field en route to one of his finest wins in changeable weather conditions:

Subsequent years saw memorable wins to Ralf Schumacher (2002) and Kimi Raikkonen (2003), who both emerged victorious in spite of the evident superiority of their Ferrari rivals.

At last year’s race – the first twilight race in Malaysia scheduled to boost viewing figures in Australia – the race organisers and Formula One Management failed to take into consideration the likelihood of tropical downpours in the evening, and it was no surprise to find the race shortened before 75% race distance had been completed, and half points being awarded for the first time in a Grand Prix since 1991. That race was more about survival than tactical prowess, and it was an unusual podium made up of Jenson Button, Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld.

With rain looking more certain to feature this weekend, will we be seeing a repeat?

What to expect?

Having seemingly had race victories snatched from them in the opening two rounds, Red Bull Racing will be desperate to get their Championship challenge properly underway and will be looking for solid (and reliable) performances from its RB6 cars. Further mechanical failures for Sebastian Vettel will really start to hurt his championship ambitions, and if Mark Webber repeats his errant over-driving like we saw in Australia, then his prospects of staying with the drinks giant will start to look a little shakier.

Ferrari currently leads the Championship standings on both counts, and while not particularly quick in Melbourne, it should find the Sepang track better suited to the F60’s temperament. Expect Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa to figure this weekend.

McLaren has shown that it does not have the raw pace needed in qualifying, and therefore finds its race strategy hampered by starting from further back than the car’s long-distance pace would suggest. Jenson Button has typically performed well at Sepang and his smooth driving style should be well-suited to the circuit. Lewis Hamilton will need to bounce back from a difficult weekend in Melbourne and concentrate on the job of racing. It’s better to leave the job of bitching about team strategy to the likes of Rubens Barrichello!

With Petronas backing, Mercedes GP will also hope to properly kickstart its championship aspirations, although the car is currently about fourth-quickest of the leading quartet of teams. However, throw in a bit of rain, and that Ross Brawn-Michael Schumacher combination could definitely spring a few surprises. I, for one, would have loved to have seen how Schumi’s race in Australia would have gone were it not for that first-corner fracas.

Should the expected wet weather play a role, then it’s quite a lottery for the remaining teams, of whom many will have a decent shot at a points; finish if they can keep out of the gravel traps. The wet-weather specialists like Rubens Barrichello and Adrian Sutil will certainly be likely to strut their stuff if the conditions are right for them to show their prowess.

Lastly, the Malaysian-owned Lotus Team will be making its Sepang debut, and we certainly hope that national pride will spring the team further forward in its quest for championship progress.

We’re really looking forward to bringing you all the action from this weekend’s event!

[Image via Autoblog]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.

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