The Track: Technical and Demanding
The Sepang International Circuit, located just 50 miles from the center of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, is regarded as one of the most impressive race tracks in the world. Designed by famed track designer Hermann Tilke, Sepang opened in 1999 and hosted its first Formula One race the same year. It was one of the first modern F1 tracks in the subsequent trend toward newer courses and facilities for F1 racing.
The 15-turn, 3.44-mile clockwise track is highly technical, perhaps the most technical on the F1 calendar. Sepang has two long back-to-back straights connected by a “hard on the brakes” hairpin at the pit entrance. The circuit also offers complex turn combinations, sweeping high-speed corners, and a track width conducive to overtaking.
Sepang’s Turn 1 is a narrow, constant-radius right-hand “carousel” followed immediately by a tight left-hander that leads onto a long right-hand sweeper. Getting the first two corners right is vital as drivers set up for an exit that allows getting the power down as quickly as possible in the run up through the sweeping third turn. The end of the front straight leading into this series of turns is also an overtaking area. That section of the track will be one to closely watch this weekend.
The Turn 15 hairpin, which sits between the matching, almost parallel final and front straights, is an important corner for setting up the run down the front straight. It is common to see brakes locked and flat-spotted rubber here as drivers dive inside and attempt to overtake by late-braking. Another factor to consider, as German publication Auto Motor und Sport is reporting, is that these straights will be the two designated Drag Reduction System (DRS) zones at Sepang this year, making negotiating the hairpin all the more exciting.
Notable Race History
The 1999 inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix, dominated by Ferrari, is perhaps best remembered for its ensuing controversy. Teammates Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher took the top two spots for Ferrari but were later disqualified because of a technical violation. The decision was later overturned on appeal but the race signaled Schumacher‘s full recovery after sustaining injuries in the British Grand Prix earlier that year.
Petronas, the Malaysian oil company headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, has sponsored the event since its inception in 1999.
The race was initially run at the end of the F1 calendar but in 2001, it was moved to the beginning of the season to follow the opening Australian Grand Prix.
Juan-Pablo Montoya holds the fastest race lap at 1:34.223 driving for Williams in 2004.
Michael Schumacher (with Ferrari) and Fernando Alonso (with Ferrari, McLaren and Renault) have each won three Malaysian Grand Prix and defending F1 drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel will be driving for his third, and seemingly inevitable, Sepang victory.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix victor Kimi Raikkonen is a two-time winner at Malaysia, winning in 2003 (his maiden F1 race win) with McLaren and again in 2008 with Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton captured the 2012 pole for McLaren with a time of 1:36.219. If rain stays away during qualifying, we may see a slightly slower pole time as DRS will not be allowed outside the two designated zones during practice and qualifying. Last year, despite having just one DRS zone designated for the race, drivers could activate the system in any high speed areas they deemed appropriate. Slightly softer Pirelli tires this season may make up the time difference from any lost opportunities for drag reduction.
Last year’s race saw Fernando Alonso hold off the charging Sauber driver Sergio Perez for a remarkable win driving what many considered a troubled F2012 design. Ferrari has won the Malaysia F1 race more than any other manufacturer with six victories (to accompany their seven poles) out of the 14 F1 races at Sepang.
Rain has always been a factor for the Malaysian Grand Prix as the region’s tropical climate is generally hot and very humid (in the vicinity of 80 percent) and given to torrential rains at any time. The 2009 race was called after just 33 of the scheduled 56 laps due to rain delays, which led to insufficient daylight after wet conditions subsided. Jenson Button, driving for Brawn, was declared the race winner. However, because the race was not at least 75 percent complete when called, the top eight drivers in the field were awarded half points.
Rain was also a factor in 2012. The safety car came on track as conditions worsened and the race was eventually red-flagged for just under an hour due to a torrential downpour.
Currently, the weather outlook for this weekend’s event appears to be mostly dry on Friday with an increasing chance of scattered showers by Sunday and high temperatures in the low 90s.
The Tires: Hard and Harder
Pirelli has chosen the white medium (option) and orange hard (prime) tires as available rubber for the Malaysian race weekend. Their tire offering suggests the wear challenges presented by a demanding track like Sepang.
What People Are Saying
Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, withdrawn from the start of last weekend’s opener in Melbourne, qualified 16th and finished 9th at Malaysia in 2012 driving for Force India. He spoke of the challenges at Sepang with Formula1.com. "Compared to Melbourne, the track in Malaysia has different characteristics. It’s a fast track with long high-speed corners, which should suit our car well. For the drivers, Malaysia is always a challenge because of the high temperatures and the humidity. Lastly there is always a chance of rain, which can be interesting, especially at the start of the race.”
When asked on Lotuscars.com of his preference on weather conditions for the race, Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, stated, “I think most of us are hoping for dry because the wet can be a bit of a gamble sometimes, and a dry race here should give us a very good indication of how the different cars compare. Malaysia should give a more reliable illustration than Australia. Sepang is my favourite track and if we get it in the dry it will be a good challenge.” In the 2012 race, Grosjean spun off track early and finished 24th after slotting his Lotus seventh on the grid during qualifying.
Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery also told Formula1.com, “We would describe Sepang as genuinely ‘extreme;’ both in terms of weather and track surface. This means that it is one of the most demanding weekends for our tyres that we experience all year.” He went on to say, ”Last year, three stops proved to be the winning strategy in a mixed wet and dry race, with a thrilling finish between Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez that was all about tyres. We’d expect three stops again but once more it’s likely to be weather that dominates the action.”
NBC Sports Network Coverage
NBC Sports Network will air Friday’s second practice session (P2) live at 2 a.m. EDT and Saturday’s qualifying, also live, at 4 a.m. EDT. Sunday’s live broadcast of the Malaysian Grand Prix will air at 4 a.m. EDT.