If last week’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix gave us a teaser of how the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship season will pan out, then this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will certainly give us an even better insight.
There’s no question that the Australian Grand Prix was a fabulous event, but in fairness, it’s a semi-permanent circuit and it tends to throw up odd results. A race on a purpose-built circuit like Sepang – the traditional host for the tropical country’s race –will always give a better indication of the performance of the cars up and down the grid, where aerodynamic efficiency and cooling will be a key factor in the relative performance of the twenty-two cars on the grid.
But let’s take a more detailed look at how we think the weekend will pan out in our bumper Malaysian Grand Prix Preview…
|2013 FORMULA 1 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX
|Date:||22-24 March 2013|
|Race Lap Record:||1:34.223, Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams BMW FW26) – 2004|
|Event Schedule:||Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-11:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 3||Sat 13:00-14:00|
|Race (56 laps, 310.408km)||Sun 16:00-18:00|
|Past 10 Years’ Winners:||Fernando Alonso (Ferrari F2012)||2012|
|Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault RB7)||2011|
|Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault RB6)||2010|
|Jenson Button (Brawn GP Mercedes BGP001)||2009|
|Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari F2008)||2008|
|Fernando Alonso (McLaren Mercedes MP4-22)||2007|
|Giancarlo Fisichella (Renault R26)||2006|
|Fernando Alonso (Renault R25)||2005|
|Michael Schumacher (Ferrari F2004)||2004|
|Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes MP4-17D)||2003|
|Ralf Schumacher (Williams BMW FW24)||2002|
The Sepang International Circuit, a 45-minute drive from Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, was the first in a spate of Hermann Tilke-designed tracks to grace the Formula 1 landscape, and it certainly made a favourable impression when it made its debut in 1999.
The circuit’s incredible width, the mix of high- and low-speed corners and long straights are very much part of the Tilke blueprint familiar to many F1 fans, who’ve now seen more of these track configurations popping up in more unusual locations across the world in the following fifteen years.
The wide straights that feed onto tight corners have always given fans excellent wheel-to-wheel racing – and the odd collision! – which is supported with a decent mix of hairpin bends and high-speed switchback corners.
Suffice to say, its facilities have perhaps not enjoyed the necessary level of funding in recent years, and maintenance standards have slipped in the last few years. However, it remains a popular venue for the Formula 1 fraternity, even if it isn’t particularly well-supported at the ticket gates.
No doubt offering an insight into the difficulties of establishing a foothold in a country where there is comparatively little in the way of motorsport heritage, the race largely serves to promote Malaysia as a viable and popular international tourist destination.
Take a look at our Sepang Circuit Guide:
As we mentioned before, the circuit’s design has always fostered races where overtaking has been the norm, rather than the exception. However, that is not to say that the past twelve races held here have been edge-of-your-seat thrillers either. There are generally battles up and down the field to keep the fans interested.
Last year’s race at Sepang 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 Fernando 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.
So what were some of the highlights from previous races at Sepang? Let’s relive a few of the better races…
1999: The inaugural race at Sepang saw Michael Schumacher make his return to racing after being laid off with a broken leg. He thrashed the entire field in qualifying and then surrendered victory to his team-mate Eddie Irvine, who had inherited the mantle of title contender in the German’s absence. Schumi drove a very wide Ferrari to keep Mika Häkkinen at bay in third place. Ferrari was later disqualified for allegedly illegal barge boards, a decision that was later overturned after appeal.
2001: The first of the Malaysian races to be affected by a tropical downpour, the soaked track saw many drivers flying off into the gravel traps. Ferrari made the clever decision to fit intermediate tyres – while almost everyone else opted for wets – which paid off handsomely when the track dried, allowing Schumi to win as he pleased. Fellow rain-master Jos Verstappen drove a brilliant race in the unfancied Arrows to run as high as second, but he faded to finish just outside the points.
2002: A first-corner tangle between Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya saw the Colombian earn a (dubious, many felt) drive-through penalty for his troubles. Ralf Schumacher took a fine win on a one-stop strategy, which would be Williams’ sole race win of the season.
2003: After the last season spent enduring bad luck and a less-than-competitive car, McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen took the first of his eighteen F1 career wins. Despite it being his only win of the 2003 season, his consistency would see him in the title hunt until the end of the season, although a fourth consecutive crown would go Schumacher’s way…
2009: Another torrential downpour would hit the circuit mid-race, causing the race to be red-flagged and half-points awarded to the eventual winner, Jenson Button. The first-time twilight scheduling of the race – made with the full knowledge that this was the time when monsoon showers were most prevalent – earned plenty of criticism.
Sepang Talking Points
This year’s event will really bring three talking points to the forefront:
Is Lotus the tyre master? While the black and gold cars may have been marginally off-the-pace (admittedly in very unusual Sunday qualifying conditions a week ago) in terms of one-lap pace, the situation changed over a full race distance in Melbourne. Its predecessor, the E20, was known for its easiness on tyres, and that seems to have carried over into 2013 and the E21. While Räikkönen’s rivals struggled to keep their tyres alive and were forced into a three-stop race in Melbourne, the Finn stuck to a two-stop gameplan to claim one of the ‘easiest’ wins in his career. Will the same form guide play out here?
How will the Pirellis cope? Despite Pirelli developing even softer tyre compounds during the off-season, its rubber held up rather well at last weekend’s season-opener (in the case of Räikkönen, at least). But one could reasonably expect that Malaysia’s high ambient temperatures and the circuit’s higher-speed corners will cause more pit stops in the 56-lap race. Those who have shown the ability to nurse their tyres – hello Lotus! – might enjoy an advantage again this weekend…
Will the tropical weather play a part? It doesn’t just rain in Sepang, it positively hoses down. Those of you who remember the 2001, 2009 and 2012 races will be well aware of Mother Nature’s best handiwork in the tropics, and fans who are keen on rain spicing up the action won’t be disappointed if it pays a visit at crucial stages this weekend, provided it doesn’t cause massive disruptions to the actual running of the race. The weather forecasters are saying it’s a near certainty that it will be a wet weekend, but that’s the forecast virtually every day in KL…
So what do the RichardsF1.com writers think will happen this weekend?
“Is 2013 the year of the tyre? Albert Park gave us an amazing display of how sometimes things can be a little crazy in F1 and what we expect isn’t what we always get. The question is though, is this an aberration, or will we see the Red Bull domination reassert itself on the hot, sticky track that is usually Malaysia? There is no doubt that McLaren is behind the pace and I doubt one week is enough to get them up to scratch – even if Button and Perez like the rain. It will also be interesting to watch what Sutil does, getting the Force India to lead the race a couple of times is no easy feat… Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the Iceman and Kimi clearly is a wizard on his tyres, so perhaps he can make it work for KL again? Who else would have unlocked the magic of Pirelli by the weekend? We can only wait…” – Yassmin Abdel-Magied, RichardsF1.com V8 Supercars Journalist
“Another Australian Grand Prix done and dusted, and although the post-race blues may have kicked in for some Aussie racegoers, we were still witness to a fantastic weekend, regardless of the four-seasoned weather. Heading towards the Malaysian GP, I think we’re going to see an interesting qualifying session regardless of the weather. Teams haven’t had a full dry qualifying session yet, so if the rain stays away we get to see the teams full packages. If not, it’s sure to jumble up the field. For me, the new dark horse of the field is Mercedes. We were led to believe that they weren’t going to be successful this year, ultimately deciding to plan for the new engine regulations next year. But looking at the pace they revealed in qualifying, with Rosberg topping the charts in Q1 and Q2, and Hamilton qualifying third, they could prove a serious threat providing they work on their reliability.” – Josh Kruse, RichardsF1.com Journalist
“Lotus has certainly eliminated the ‘under the radar’ excuse from its book should it find itself in a strong position when push comes to shove early this year. Kimi drove a calculated and perfectly executed race as a former World Champion would be expected to do. Malaysia, however, is a totally different beast, being a purpose built circuit instead of a street circuit. As a result, the faster, sweeping corners, wider straights and more overtaking opportunities could deliver an entirely different race. The humidity of Malaysia will also play a factor, which will likely see the softer tyres used more in qualifying than in the race due to their shorter shelf-life. Ferrari and Red Bull are still feeling out their challengers, while McLaren has found itself off the pace somewhat and will need another race to see whether their car is really as bad as Melbourne made them look.” – Matt Lennon, RichardsF1.com IndyCar Series Journalist
“The Iceman ruled Melbourne and opened the season with a very interesting race. Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus all showed signs of pace. Malaysia should be a completely different test, with longer straights, and higher temperatures. Lotus and Mercedes appeared to be kind to their tyres in Melbourne, but will that trait carry over into the heat and abrasion of KL? Only time will tell. KL is also a place which is known for the temperamental weather, which always throws a spanner into the works. I’m excited!” – Joseph Sheu, RichardsF1.com Features Writer
“After some surprising performances in Australia, I think everyone will still be feeling uncertain going to Malaysia with what to expect from the drivers and the cars. Raikkonen’s level-headed attitude paired with an alternative strategy paid off in Melbourne and could well pay off again in Sepang, while all the other teams rush to address their weaknesses found in Australia. With very little time between races for any development, we can expect to see the track conditions to be a big influence A typical forecast of hot and humid with chance of storms will most likely see the teams forced to use three – or possibly all four – types of tyres over the weekend. Fans will be hoping there won’t be any significant storms which have red-flagged the race in the past, due to the fact that this is another late afternoon race where it’s possible to lose the light before recommencing.” – Jen Smith, RichardsF1.com Features Writer
“I will be heading to Malaysia for the second year in a row, so I’m excited to be able to be in the paddock this year and get a first hand glimpse into all the action from the circuit! I picked Kimi Raikkonen as this year’s World Champion and he got my prediction off to a perfect start with his incredible victory in Australia. The circuit at Sepang is obviously completely different to Melbourne, and with Ferrari looking strong I think this might be the weekend for Alonso to kick start his Championship campaign with victory. He drove an incredible race at Sepang in 2012 in difficult conditions, and I think this weekend – no matter what the weather – Alonso will be right in the hunt.” – Ben Waterworth, The Qualifying Lap radio show host
The Form Guide
Kimi Räikkönen’s strategy-supported win in Melbourne certainly had the rest of the field scratching their heads as they packed up and headed north to Malaysia for this weekend’s installment of racing. It has certainly raised plenty of questions about the competition at the sharp end of the field, and no doubt plenty of them will be answered in the stifling heat and humidity at Sepang.
The Finn was back to his best form in Melbourne, nonchalantly describing the win as the easiest in his F1 career and sending out a real warning to rival teams and drivers who have championship ambitions in 2013: Kimi is back and ready to fight.
Malaysia’s heat should further highlight the apparent advantage that Lotus enjoys in the tyre wear stakes. If the teams were unable to make their tyres last in the rather autumnal conditions in Melbourne, then what hope do they have in the tropics?
But the game changing factor, as it always is here, is rain. Lots of it. Those who recall last year’s incredible race will remember how the tropical downour threw the form guide completely out of the window, and gave Fernando Alonso a well-deserved win in what was then a very poor Ferrari.
After a very ordinary showing in Melbourne and rumours that it would switch back to its 2012 design, McLaren will be praying for rain once again. The MP4-28 is clearly not hooked up, and to walk away from Melbourne with just two championship points must be pretty galling for the Woking squad. Maybe the smoother track surface and more aero-dependent nature of the Sepang circuit will suit the silver cars? It seems unlikely at this stage for anything more than a scraping of points.
Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and Mercedes were all outfumbled by Lotus’ tyre strategy, and will be hoping for more consistent weather conditions in practice to hone the set-ups of their respective cars heading into qualifying and the race. If they can get their tyre management on par with Lotus, then they could give the black and gold cars a run for their money.
Force India will arrive in Malaysia with sky-high confidence after a nice ten-point haul in Melbourne, proving the VJM06 was a solid midfield runner that – on its day – can run with the leaders. Adrian Sutil gave no indication that he’d been out of the cockpit for a year, and he will be looking for another strong run after what was clearly one of the best driver of his career a week ago.
Williams, Sauber, and Toro Rosso will be hoping for much more substantial results after iffy weekends – for differing reasons – in Melbourne. None quite showed the pace perhaps expected of them last time out, but maybe the warmer climate could help unlock their potential a little more.
In any case, we have far more questions than answers heading into KL, but there’s one thing we’ll certainly agree on: it’s going to be another exciting event!
Don’t forget to enter your F1 Predictions!
The second round of the 2013 RichardsF1.com F1 Predictions Competition is now open, and you can enter your predictions for the race right here to be in the running for some great prizes throughout the season and at the end of the year!
The cut-off to submit your predictions is no later than five minutes before qualifying starts, so make sure you’re in it to win it!
No one opted to use one of their two available ‘double up’ options first time out in Melbourne, and we’ll all be out to catch and overhaul seph, who enjoys an early (albeit small) lead in what will also be a long and enthralling battle in our Predictions Championship.
To enter your predictions for the Malaysian Grand Prix, click here.
As always, RichardsF1.com will be bringing you the best of the on- and off-track action this weekend, so make sure we’re your first port of call for your Malaysian Grand Prix fix!