Teams hit 'reset' for Sepang
SEPANG, Malaysia - The 2012 Australian F1 GP may have been a walk in the (Albert) park for Jenson Button and McLaren but so different will be the conditions waiting this weekend for the Malaysian race that the 12 teams have hit “reset”.
Sunday’s 56 laps of the 5.543km Sepang circuit will be the 14th there; back in 1999 the event marked Formula 1 tzar Bernie Ecclestone’s first foray into new markets. Since then F1 has embraced China, the Middle East, Singapore and India with varying levels of success; the in Turkey remains a thorn in his side despite Istanbul’s track being voted one of the best by drivers and fans.
NEVER A PACE CAR
Malaysia, however, is a success story: three teams - Mercedes via title sponsor Petronas (the national oil company), Lotus through Lotus Cars, owned by local car company Proton, and Caterham, headed by Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes - have strong connections to this country. Local boy Alex Yoong drove in F1 for many years and BMW/Sauber introduced Petronas to F1.
The race is remarkable for various reasons, not least that it has never required the pace car’s deployment except 2009, when the track was flooded by a downpour and halted. There’s also the incredible heat and humidity, with the former regularly exceeding 40°C resulting in cockpit temperatures of +50°C as 80% humidity saps energy and destroys concentration. Pity the pit crews in fireproof overalls, without breeze for two hours…
Not only humans are taxed: engines are required to run at full throttle for 59% of each lap, the longest foot-flat burst lasts for 11 seconds. Transmissions are subjected to 54 gear changes per lap, panning out at more than 3000 during the race, but brakes have a relatively easy time with the circuit graded medium) on brake energy.
Track surface temperatures above 60°C are not unknown, leading to peak tyre temperature readings of 130°C, with the left rear tyre being particularly stressed due its inner edge being subjected to lateral forces of more than 3g. The tyres have 15 (five left, 10 right) mainly sweeping turns to survive - four taken at less than 100km/h - and although none is taken in excess of 250km/h the demands are such that sole tyre supplier Pirelli has specified its Medium (White) and hard (Silver) compounds.
END OF THE BUMP
Although the surface in Malaysia provides plenty of grip, any rubber laid down during test sessions is frequently washed away by heavy rain which falls almost daily. The surface is smooth (resurfaced 2007) and the wide variety of curves dictates medium downforce.
The track layout is not dissimilar to Barcelona - where the teams completed 60% of pre-season testing - with changes over 2011 restricted to additional debris fencing on the outside of Turn 1 and the removal of the bump in the grass which caused Vitaly Petrov’s Renault to aviate spectacularly when he went off-track in 2011.
The FIA has specified only one DRS zone, its detection point (where the following car needs to be within a second of its quarry) just before the final hairpin (Turn 15) and the zone on the main straight. Lots of overtaking can be expected going into Turn 1.
Championship leader McLaren is on a roll after the previous week’s Australian GP yet highly unlikely to have things all its own way. Post-race consensus in Melbourne was that the McLarens performed optimally while Red Bull’s cars had not qualified to full potential.
After 2011 champion Sebastian Vettel forced his way through the pack from sixth he was able to run at the McLarens’ pace, so much so that McLaren’s Jenson Button was forced to dig into his MP4-27’s (marginal) fuel reserves. Ditto team mate Lewis Hamilton who dropped from pole to third at the finish while Red Bull’s Mark Webber’s (fourth, from fifth on the grid) underscored that Red Bull was there or thereabouts.
FERRARI HOLDING PATTERN
Mercedes was mighty impressive in qualifying, but pre-race there had been rumours that cars were marginal on tyre wear, and so it proved - even in Melbourne’s coolish temperatures - which must be a worry for drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg in the punishing conditions expected.
Ferrari is in a holding pattern as it gets to grips (!) with its twitchy F2012, with Fernando Alonso’s hard-earned fifth in Melbourne being solely down to his genius at the wheel. Team boss Stefano Domenicali told Wheels24 on Sunday that the team had “found the problem, now the priority is to sort it as soon as possible”. Thus the Scuderia’s management headed to Maranello for a series of debriefs between Melbourne and Malaysia…
The other team with an eye on the podium is Lotus, which starred in qualifying via Romain Grosjean, then had the pleasure of seeing returnee Kimi Raikkonen prove he had lost none of his skill after two years away in World rallying.
The most telling statistic ahead of Sunday’s start is that, of the six World champions on the grid, five (Schumacher, Raikkonen, Alonso, Button and Vettel) have won here, with all bar Button repeat winners. So, McLaren has every incentive to repeat its Melbourne success, while the rest have myriad reasons to make up for being routed in Australia. These factors alone should ensure the GP is a classic – even before torrential storms on Saturday and Sunday are factored in.
Free practice will be on Friday (March 23). The race, 56 laps of the 5.5km Sepang circuit near Kuala Lumpur, will start at 4pm their time, 8am GMT and 10am South African time on Sunday, March 25.
Stay with Wheels24 for the Formula 1 weekend.