Rencken: Malaysian GP preview

2013-03-22 07:31

SEPANG, Malaysia - Formula 1 was agog when Malaysia was announced as a Grand Prix host for it was a country with no motor-racing culture. 

In 2013, 15 years later, its business model is operating in Korea, China and the Middle East at superstadiums in the Sepang mould paid for by their respective governments as tourism and vanity projects.

The Sepang International Circuit is now a paid-up member of the F1 circus (plus, of course, MotoGP) and has become the traditional host of the second F1 race each season.


In 2013, seven days (plus three time zones changes and an expected doubling of temperature) separate the season-opener in Melbourne from Malaysia’s second (of 19) round, so it is very much a matter, literally and figuratively, of "out of the frying pan and straight into the fire" for the contestants.

Melbourne was not particularly hot – although searing temperatures earlier in the week were a major concern – but the fact that teams had not been able to fully test Pirelli’s 2013-spec rubber during the three pre-season sessions and rain-interrupted practice (and qualifying) sessions Down Under made the event very much a suck-it-and-see race for the 11 teams – as shown by the race result.

Racing in Malaysia is another matter: the equatorial track provides one of the season’s biggest challenges and not only on account of the oppressive 38-degree heat and high humidity; tropical storms which unleash their full fury on the 5.5km Sepang circuit can arrive without notice.

Rain usually hits the area once a day, drops the size of quail eggs flushing rubber from the racing line to leave the surface "green". A dry line emerges quickly due to high ambient temperatures but drainage at Sepang is difficult due to the circuit having been built on a swamp.

The previous races had no pace car interventions though rain interrupted each.  


Sepang’s deformed-paper clip, 15-turn (5L/10R) layout endows the wide track with two long straights followed by hairpins and the FIA has put these characteristics to good use by denoting two DRS zones, their detection/activation points ahead of each straight.

An overtaking fest is on the cards subject, of course, to the weather playing ball.

The track is ultra smooth - if slightly undulating due to its swampy foundation - and ranks among the harshest on tyres due to the incredible track temperatures (60 not unknown) while lateral loadings are the second-highest on the trail due to the g-forces achieved in the long, flowing curves.

Pirelli has, as per 2012, specified Hard (orange sidewall) and Medium (white) and expects a mix of two and three-stop strategies as in Melbourne. The 2012 race - unexpectedly won by Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) from then Sauber driver Sergio Perez - was rain-interrupted, but most teams had planned for three stops.

The Hards have a high working range as opposed to the Medium’s low range, a mix providing an ideal combination, one able to cater with any (dry) eventuality. The durability of the Hard is close to last year’s Medium, resulting in lap times around half a second quicker than on 2012’s equivalents.

Adding to Sepang’s challenge is its brake rating – although officially graded ‘medium’, turns 1 and 15 are approached at well over 300km/h, 200 of which are shed within 100 m, a retardation rate of more than 5g. Due to the high speeds ducts need to be sized correctly to provide the best compromise between aerodynamics on the straights and cooling for the eight hard-braking events.


Following Kimi Raikkonen’s emphatic win in Melbourne, his Lotus team starts on a roll, the victory having had as much to do with the Finn’s precise style as with the E21 being easy on tyres – traits that will prove vital in Sepang.

The 2007 champion could be compromised on single-lap speed in Malaysia versus the rest – although not as much as in the cool of Australia, where he qualified seventh – due to the car’s slower tyre "switch-on" but as this is likely to be a race of attrition, with race pace and consistency crucial, he is well-equpipped.

Team mate Romain Grosjean had a steady race to 10th despite car issues, proving that not only is the French-Swiss driver rebuilding his career but also that the Lotus is a points contender in any hands.
However, although reigning (triple) champion Sebastian Vettel could manage no better than third, there was little doubt that Red Bull Racing’s RB9 was the quickest car in Australia, the Germany taking pole with a run in hand. However the car works its tyres extremely hard and seems to lack consistency – could we be in for a repeat of 2012, when Vettel failed to take the flag for the first four races despite having out-and-out the quickest car, and then not again until September?

Mark Webber suffered a torrid race in the second Red Bull, eventually finishing sixth on home soil after kers and telemetry issues, but his front-row start points to a formidable combination. Another Red Bull grid lock-out on Sunday, even if the cars fade in the race?  


Which leaves Ferrari in a good place, for Fernando Alonso is extremely happy with the interim performance of F138 – as proved by his fine, though opportunistic, second in Melbourne. Felipe Massa has also upped his game to "podium contender".

Pre-race, Alonso said his car was “200 times better” than F2012; Massa rated his Australian performance as “10 times better (than 2012)”, so things are looking up for the Reds. Which leaves the two silver teams: Mercedes and McLaren (note order). The former, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, had a mixed race in Australia, the car off the pace en route to Hamilton’s fifth, with Rosberg retiring with electrical issues.

The team needs to up its game if it wants to keep the mercurial Hamilton sweet.

McLaren has bigger problems, its two cars finishing ninth and 11th with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez respectively. Worryingly, the team had no idea why the MP4/28 was recalcitrant, its immediate predecessor having had winning speed from the start. Could this be the new car’s second and last race? The team is believed to be seriously considering dragging the MP4/27 out of retirement and upgrading it to 2013 regulations which demand a new front wing design and little else.

The March 24 race will start at 10am (SA time), qualifying at 10am on Saturday, March 22.

Stay with Wheels24 for the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend!