Boiling heat and the ever-present threat of rain have historically thrown up a few surprises when the Formula 1 field heads to Malaysia.
This weekend will see the Sepang International Circuit play host to the second round of the 2015 Formula 1 season, where everyone will be looking to catch the leading Mercedes runners after their dominant run two weeks ago in Australia.
Ahead of the weekend however, the other main focus has centred firmly on McLaren’s Fernando Alonso return to racing after …
|2015 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix|
|Date||27-29 March 2015||Lap Length||5.543km|
|Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-11:30||Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 3||Sat 14:00-15:00||Qualifying||Sat 17:00-18:00|
|Race (56 laps)||Sun 15:00-17:00||2014 Winner||Lewis Hamilton|
Session times quoted in Malaysian Standard Time (GMT + 08:00)
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 of late, 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.
The Form Guide
Lewis Hamilton started his 2014 title defence with a commanding victory in Australia, marking a continuation of the Englishman’s late-season form last year that propelled him to his second Drivers’ Championship title when he won six of the last seven races of the season.
Rewind the clock a year ago, and it was Hamilton who was on the back foot, lying 25 points down on teammate Nico Rosberg thanks to a DNF and the German’s win in Australia. Hamilton went on to win in Malaysia (his first in eight attempts) and kickstarted a run of four successive victories over his teammate to claim the championship lead.
The shoe is well and truly on the other foot this year, with Rosberg conceding that he will have to dig deeper to catch his chief rival, who’s enjoying all of the momentum. If he doesn’t respond quickly and authoritatively, it’s hard to see why Hamilton won’t claim a third championship crown.
The ‘best of the rest’ battle looks set to be between Ferrari and Williams, given the form both teams showed in Melbourne. The red cars started strongly with a podium for Sebastian Vettel, but still have some work to do to iron out the kinks, as was evidenced by Kimi Räikkönen’s retirement when his left-rear wheel worked itself loose.
Williams will be back to full driving strength after Valtteri Bottas was declared fit to drive this weekend. The Finn was sidelined from starting the race in Australia when he injured his back in qualifying, leaving Felipe Massa as the team’s sole representative in a thin field.
The in-fighting between Red Bull Racing and Renault has been an ugly off-track side-show following the Australian Grand Prix, and both sides’ recent exchanges in the press will have done nothing to ease tensions between team and engine builder. Renault was confident it had made significant in-roads to Mercedes in both power delivery and reliability, but its ambitions were dented early on in Australia with problems for three of the four cars it powers. With less than two weeks between races, it’s hard to see how much in the way of improvement can be made.
Renault’s reliability woes will play nicely into the hands of Sauber and Force India, after both teams got their cars into the points in Melbourne. Sauber rookie Felipe Nasr was particularly impressive with his fifth-placed finish on debut and will be looking to deliver more of the same in Sepang.
Force India’s run has been less convincing, although its chassis’ deficiencies will be partly off-set by the excellent reliability of its Mercedes engines. Assuming no niggles, expect to see both Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez in the lower points’ paying positions.
Fellow Mercedes-runners Lotus will be kickstarting their 2015 campaign after both of its cars were eliminated on the first lap in Melbourne. The E23 Hybrid looks quick, but had its potential thwarted by an accident for Pastor Maldonado – for once not of his own making – and a driveline failure for Romain Grosjean at the start.
Many eyes will be on the McLaren garage this weekend as Fernando Alonso makes his racing return, with the FIA giving the Spaniard the green light to drive after his concussion-induced absence from Australia. The Honda-powered MP4-30 has a huge amount of ground to catch up in both performance and reliability, but the return of a motivated superstar could see miracles happen in the short-term.
The Manor Marussia team will also be looking to get its 2015 season underway this weekend, with its highly anticipated return to the grid in Melbourne having to be abandoned while its cars were in various stages of assembly thanks to a range of persistent technical and software problems on its hastily-updated 2014 cars. Team Principal John Booth declared his confidence of a “more typical race weekend”, and a major milestone was achieved overnight when the cars were fired up for the first time.
The Grand Prix’s joker card will be the predictably unpredictable weather in the region. Malaysia is well known for its sapping heat and humidity, with roasting day-time temperatures north of 30°C in the day followed by torrential thunderstorms in the late afternoon and evening. The weather forecasts are predicting thundery showers across all three days of on-track action, and they could well impact proceedings as they did last year when qualifying was delayed.
Event organisers have moved the race’s start time forward by an hour to 3:00pm local time, following a recommendation made by the FIA-appointed panel that investigated the circumstances of Jules Bianchi’s horrific accident at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Image via Daimler AG, Motorsport.com