It’s hard to believe it, but this year will mark the fifteenth running of the Malaysian Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Since its inclusion on the calendar in 1999, the Sepang venue has brought us some very exciting races and great memories, and the purpose-built Herman Tilke circuit set the bar high when it came to track facilities in the 2000s. In fact, it was among the very first Tilke designs to be included on the Formula One calendar.
And as we approach the fifteenth running of the race, let’s take a look at the history of the circuit as well as re-living some memories along the way!
Malaysia has enjoyed a strong motor sport history, with numerous racing series taking place in the country throughout history. Formula 2 had a stop over in ‘Malaysia’ during the mid 60s, which actually took place in Malaysia-ruled Singapore. Other series, such as Formula Atlantic, Formula Holden and Formula Pacific also were prominent in the country in the coming decades.
However the idea of a Malaysian Formula One came in the late nineties, and after Tilke was commissioned to design the circuit, it was built in only thirteen months for a reported cost of $200 million. On the 7th of March 1999, Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Doktor Mahathir Bin Mohamed opened the circuit and the first ever Grand Prix was held at the circuit seven months later.
That race was memorable for so many different reasons. Not only was the circuit lauded with praise for its state of the art facilities and incredible track, it was also the scene of one of the most controversial sagas of the 1999 season that very nearly decided that year’s World Championship.
A dominant Ferrari took a 1-2 victory, with championship contender Eddie Irvine leading home his returning team-mate Michael Schumacher (who had missed six races due to a broken leg) to take the title chase against rival Mika Häkkinen to the final race in Japan.
However, a post race scrutineering session found the team’s barge boards to be illegal and Ferrari was promptly disqualified, handing the win and championship to Häkkinen and McLaren. A protest soon followed with Ferrari reinstated as victors, and Häkkinen would duly have to defeat Irvine at Suzuka to win the Drivers’ crown. Ferrari, however, took out the Constructors’ Championship.
The race itself was a massive success and took home ‘Best Grand Prix of the Season’ in numerous award ceremonies at the end of the year. The Malaysian Grand Prix had made an immediate impact.
The 2000 race was moved from the penultimate race of the year to the finale, as the Malaysians anticipated an exciting season finale between championship rivals Schumacher and Häkkinen.
However, the German had managed to wrap up the championship at the prior race in Suzuka, leaving him to romp to his ninth victory of the season and help Ferrari claim back to back Constructors’ Championship crowns. The race was probably more memorable for the rather interesting red wigs worn on the podium by Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Ross Brawn.
The following year saw the third calendar change in as many years for the Malaysians, as they were moved to what would become a near-permanent slot as second race of the season in March. It would go on to be the first of many wet races in the history of the Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher continuing the Ferrari dominance at the circuit and winning the race. It very nearly didn’t happen, however, for he and his team-mate Rubens Barrichello both went off into the gravel as the track became wet, and stormed through the field for a dominant Ferrari 1-2 after craftily taking on intermediate tyres when the rest of the field opted for full wet rubber.
After years of Ferrari dominance, the 2002 race would finally would see a car that wasn’t red claim victory. With local driver Alex Yoong on the grid in his Minardi, the fans flocked to the Sepang to cheer on their hero. Despite it not being a Ferrari win, it was still a Schumacher on the top step – this time is was Michael’s younger brother Ralf taking the victory for Williams.
Schumacher claimed victory with a crafty one-stop strategy to steadily move up the order at the expense of his two-stop rivals, while his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya was controversially handed a drive-through penalty for a first-corner collision with Michael Schumacher. The Malaysian stewards faced criticism for the decision and the FIA introduced new rules at the end of the race to allow stewards more power in such decisions.
The 2003 season saw a change of the guard in Formula 1 with a wide variety of new rules introduced to attempt to close the pack up after years of Ferrari dominance. After coming off the back off a very topsy-turvy season opener in Australia – won by McLaren’s David Coulthard – teammate Kimi Räikkönen would continue the outfit’s hot streak by claiming his maiden Grand Prix win ahead of Rubens Barrichello and Fernando Alonso, who claimed his first ever podium finish.
Ferrari once again returned to dominant form in 2004, and Michael Schumacher would claim a third (and final) victory at Sepang. It was another wet race that saw several interesting battles spread throughout the field, but would be a sign of things to come for a season in which Ferrari would set numerous records for their strong winning ability. The race was notable though for Mark Webber qualifying his unheralded Jaguar on the front row, while Jenson Button finally broke through for his first ever podium finish in his BAR Honda.
The 2005 season saw Ferrari’s stranglehold on the sport broken with the FIA moving to impose a raft of new rules, not least of which being that drivers had to race on a single set of tyres. Ferrari was nowhere near a championship contender and the season saw a long standing battle between the McLaren of Kimi Räikkönen and Renault of Fernando Alonso. After teammate Giancarlo Fisichella won at Australia, Alonso took his turn in Malaysia to claim a lights-to-flag win ahead of the impressive Jarno Trulli who secured Toyota their first ever podium.
With the single tyre set rule being given the shove after a single year, the 2006 race at Sepang was a duller affair. This time is was Fisichella who tasted the winner’s champagne ahead of Alonso – giving the Renault team its first 1-2 finish since 1982 – while Button was on the podium again.
Another 1-2 result followed in 2007, and this time it went to McLaren, who secured their first quenelle (and win, for that matter) since the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix 18 months before. The team’s new line-up of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton would claim the spoils while polesitter Felipe Massa fell to fifth place.
The tenth running of the race saw reigning champion Kimi Räikkönen claim his second win at the venue after an exciting first-lap duel with Ferrari teammate Massa. Defending racewinners McLaren had a poor weekend, with drivers Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen docked five grid places apiece for qualifying infringements – Kovalainen fought his way onto the final place on the podium behind the BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica.
The 2009 race was the most enthralling in the event’s history and memorable for a host of reasons: from Nico Rosberg’s storming start to take the lead, right through to Räikkönen and THAT ice cream. The race was suspended by a heavy tropical storm at mid-distance, and after a lengthy delay it was decided to call the race off. Half points were awarded, with Jenson Button ‘lucking’ into back-to-back victories for the reborn Brawn GP team, counting his blessing that the fast charging BMW of Nick Heidfeld and Toyota of Timo Glock couldn’t showcase their quicker speed.
But ask anyone about the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix and the first thing they will mention is ‘Kimi and the Ice Cream’, given footage of the Finn chomping on a Magnum while the race was red-flagged! So iconic would this moment become, that on his return to the sport in 2012, Kimi would supply everyone in the media centre with an ice cream at the Malaysian Grand Prix as a nod to that moment.
The 2010 race heralded a new decade and a new team who would shape the dominance of the sport: Red Bull Racing. After Mark Webber claimed an excellent pole position with clever tyre selection in a rain-affected session, it would be teammate Sebastian Vettel who would lead home a team 1-2, with Nico Rosberg securing Mercedes’ first podium of its F1 return in third.
It was Red Bull Racing all over again in 2011, with Vettel again doing the honours. This time he beat home Jenson Button’s McLaren, who won out after a long battle with teammate Lewis Hamilton and Alonso in the Ferrari. Nick Heidfeld finished third in the Lotus, while his teammate Vitaly Petrov generated plenty of TV air time for his airborne accident late in the race when he was launched over the exit kerbs in spectacular fashion.
Last year’s race will go down as, quite possibly, one of the greatest Grands Prix in Formula 1 history. A torrential storm soaked the track as the race began, and by the seventh lap the Safety Car was brought out before the red flags were unfurled just two laps later. After an hour’s delay, racing was thankfully resumed, and it was Alonso who took control early on, although his mirrors were filled with the Sauber of Sergio Pérez. The Mexican drove sensationally and looked on course to claim a famous win until a late mistake ensured victory would be Alonso’s.
Will the 2013 event prove even better? Visit the RichardsF1.com website to find out, as our feature writers Ben Waterworth and Samuel McCrossen will be on hand to bring you all of the latest news and analysis from the Sepang International Circuit as this website’s internationally-accredited representatives!