2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview

If last week’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix gave us a teaser of how the 2012 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 twelve teams 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…

 


The Circuit

2012 FORMULA 1 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX 
Sepang Circuit Map
Date: 23-25 March 2012
Lap Length: 5.543km
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
Qualifying Sat 16:00-17:15
Race (56 laps, 310.408km) Sun 16:00-18:00
Past 10 Years’ Winners: 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, located just outside 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 next ten 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, but 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:

 


Memorable Moments

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.

The 2011 race saw Sebastian Vettel clinch back-to-back victories after his relative cakewalk at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. The German won by 3.2 seconds from Jenson Button, while Nick Heidfeld claimed the final podium finish of his long career with a fine drive to third as Lotus Renault GP enjoyed its brief early-season form.

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.

    ‘Jos The Boss’ is mighty at the 2001 race!

  • 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 McLaren the pace-setter? After Red Bull’s relative whitewash of proceedings in 2011, fans rejoiced at McLaren’s front-row lock-out and 1-3 finish in Melbourne. The Silver cars seemed to have the edge over the Red Bulls for much of the weekend, and it’s led many to suggest that the cars from Woking will be out in front once again this weekend. It’s equally amusing to note that everyone would be moaning and complaining if Red Bull Racing had landed a qualifying lockout and a 1-3 finish in Melbourne. How quickly times (and opinions) can shift…
  • How will the Pirellis cope? Despite Pirelli developing softer tyre compounds during the off-season, its rubber held up rather well at last weekend’s season-opener, and there was little difference in lap-time between the ‘soft’ and ‘medium’ compounds on offer. 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 – Sauber again looks strong in this facet – might enjoy an advantage…
  • 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 and 2009 races will be well aware of Mother Nature’s best handiwork, 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. The weather forecasters are saying it’s a near certainty that it will be a wet weekend…

So what do the Richard’s F1 readers and contributors think will happen this weekend?

Matthew Lennon
Matt Lennon, RichardsF1.com IndyCar Correspondent

“McLaren fired the opening salvo in the Constructors’ Championship, which appears to indicate we’ll see a two-team race for honours in 2012.

“Red Bull Racing and McLaren will keep each other honest this year, but the question will be who can put themselves in the ‘balance of power’ position. I expect Sepang should suit the Red Bulls because of its emphasis on aero grip, and with Adrian Newey leading the team’s design troops, it’s not hard to understand why.

“It will be interesting to see how the weather and humidity has an effect and if Pirelli’s tyre choices will keep the grip levels high and the lap times low.”

Jen 
Jennifer Smith, RichardsF1.com Feature Writer

“As we head into the second race of the season, my interest is further back on the grid.  Both Alonso and Raikkonen are double winners here (along with Vettel) and are sure to be hunting to place amongst the McLarens and Red Bulls, even if they’re not quite ready to be contending for the win.  Grosjean showed great promise in Australia but didn’t get the opportunity to show his hand in the race and Maldonado had a phenomenal drive until he put it into the wall on the last lap so I’m also excited to see what they can do among all the more experienced drivers and world champions!  On top of all that, the forecast is (unsurprisingly) for storms all weekend.  Malaysia has a reputation for sudden and intense downpours that play into the hands of any driver with a good instinct for when to make the tyre change call.  Overall potentially a very exciting weekend ahead.”

Joseph
Joseph Sheu, RichardsF1.com Technical Contributor

“What a fantastic start to the season! The Aussie GP is barely over, and we’re already looking for the second race of the season in Malaysia.  McLaren seems to have a great qualifying set up, and also consistent race pace, whilst RBR seemed to be a bit behind the eight-ball in qualifying, but definitely stepped up their performance in the race. In Malaysia though, the drivers, teams and cars are faced with different challenges. The temperature would be higher than the cooler conditions in Melbourne, and this may show up any cooling inadequacies in the cars, driver fitness as well as tyre management issues. Sepang is also a higher speed track, with longer straights, wider turns and more run off areas, all of this means drivers are tempted to take more risks in seek of greater rewards. Aerodynamically it is also dramatically different to Albert Park. What we do know is the likes of McLaren, Mercedes GP (with their front F-Duct, no less) and maybe even Torro Rosso would be looking to exploit their high speed prowess in Malaysia. Red Bull did have a strong showing here last year, but without an apparent secret weapon this year, it may prove to be difficult for the Austrian team. All I know is, I can’t wait!”

Ben 
Ben Waterworth, RichardsF1.com Feature Writer & ‘The Qualifying Lap’ radio show host on Edge 99.3FM 

“Well, after only one round it seems early to be making predictions about the ‘silly season’, but it’s really make-or-break for Felipe Massa. How many chances can Ferrari keep giving him? He hasn’t been the same since his accident in 2009 and the fact he hasn’t been on the podium since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix must really be beginning to worry those at Maranello.

“Being out-qualified in Melbourne by your team-mate who binned it after only a couple of laps to me speaks volumes on the massive gap between Alonso and Massa. It really cements his place in a team in which really he probably didn’t deserve a spot at in the first place. Massa must use this weekend in Malaysia as his ‘Round 1’ and really boost his credentials at Ferrari, or I don’t think he’ll last the entire season in that scarlet car.“



The Form Guide

How good was the season-opener in Melbourne? We had a mixed-up grid and some shock performances from some drivers in the field; it was the perfect tonic after last year’s theme of utter domination from the Red Bulls and Sebastian Vettel. But how much will Melbourne’s result be indicative of the rest of the season? Not very, we feel…

As we highlighted in our circuit profile earlier in this preview, Sepang is one of the toughest venues the drivers will visit this year. It’s sweltering conditions will test man and machine to the very limit; reliability will be put to the test, while the drivers’ and team members’ fitness and stamina will be stretched to breaking point.

In contrast to Melbourne, the Sepang circuit is heavily aero dependant, and the form guide we saw in Australia may not necessarily be reflected in the tropics this weekend. For some drivers and teams, Melbourne may have masked their true performance, while for others, it may have served to flatter it.

Button was a deserving winner in Australia, can he claim his second Malaysian Grand Prix win?McLaren showed it had a slight advantage over the rest of the field in qualifying and race trim in Melbourne, and this will give the frontrunning Red Bull team every reason to be nervous, even after just one race. Jenson Button looked mighty in Australia, and his early advantage really seemed to rattle Hamilton who, after the race, looked and acted like a beaten man. He’s going to have to step up this weekend and show a much greater level of maturity than we saw last weekend.

The Red Bulls will be strong here, although we won’t know their true pace until the RB8s start running around on the circuit. Mark Webber has historically been a demon qualifier here, but his starts still need work – he’s consistently losing too many places off the line and undermining his Saturday efforts because he can’t juggle the clutch and the wheelspin.

Kimi's race pace was impressive, can he repeat the feat in Malaysia?The dark horses will be Mercedes and Lotus, with both teams failing to deliver on their potential in the race (due to a mixture of incidents and unreliability) despite some excellent qualifying pace. Nico Rosberg didn’t quite get it together in qualifying and he lacked a bit of that killer instinct during the race, while Michael Schumacher looked very exciting in the sister Mercedes before its gearbox packed up. At Lotus, Romain Grosjean was simply stunning in qualifying but lost out when he was knocked out on the second lap, while Kimi Räikkönen staged a great recovery drive after his Saturday woes to finish in the points.

Speaking of recovery drives, Fernando Alonso’s fifth place last weekend was an excellent drive in what is clearly a dreadful car. He wrung every last drop from the F2012 to get it where he did, but team-mate Felipe Massa had another shocker, and questions will be being asked if he cannot run closer to Alonso’s pace this weekend.

Massa is a man under enormous pressure at FerrariSauber, Force India and Toro Rosso all claimed minor points’ finishes last weekend – a commendable result – but if the Mercedes and Lotus runners all made it to the finish, then they’d be scrapping for the places outside the points. Let’s not kid ourselves, none of these teams had enough race pace to challenge the sharp end of the field.

Williams was unlucky not to emerge from Australia with some points after showing some decent pace in Melbourne; it will be interesting to see how they fare on the much higher-speed Sepang circuit. Was Melbourne’s pace a flash in the pan?

Caterham’s Australian pace suggested that the team still has some way to go before it can challenge the lower midfield and vie for some points, but it needs to get the development race happening quickly if it doesn’t show an improvement this weekend. Being the team’s home race, this is a critical event for the team.

Nonetheless, all of this fortune-telling will go up in the air if the weather turns wet in qualifying or the race – then it could be anyone’s game!

 


Don’t forget to enter your F1 Predictions!

The second round of the 2012 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!

As we saw last weekend, some of our contestants elected to claim their ‘double up’ early on, giving them a headstart over the rest of the field. Are you confident enough in your predictions to use yours this weekend?

To enter your predictions, 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!



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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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