After what was an extraordinary weekend last week in Australia, the teams head north-west for the second round of the championship at the Sepang circuit, just outside Kuala Lumpar in Malaysia.
The circuit made it's F1 debut in 1999 after funding by the Malaysian government, and has proved to be a popular addition to F1. It became the benchmark for F1 in terms of facilities for both the F1 personnel and fans—so much so that following the inaugural race there the teams felt the facilities at the following round in Suzuka were cramped despite being classed as one of the biggest in F1!
The pitlane length and profile (i.e. corners in the pitlane entry) contribute to the determination of the optimum fuel strategy. The pitlane loss at Sepang is approximately 22 seconds, the fifth most penalising pitlane in the Championship.
To complete a normalised distance of 5km around the Sepang circuit requires 2.38kg of fuel against an average of 2.42kg per 5km across all circuits this season, making the circuit the fifth least demanding track of the year in terms of fuel consumption.
As for the track itself, it is mostly a mix of medium and high speed corners. While there are tight corners which require good traction, two fast chicanes and long sweeping corners dominate the circuit's character. It is also very wide, reaching 20 meters at it's widest point, so plenty of room for overtaking.
And, unlike Melbourne, the circuit is used regularly all year round to events like MotoGP (racing and testing), Formula Nippon, GP2 Asia and various national formulae. Let's take a closer look at the circuit now and see where time can be gained and lost
Turns 1 and 2
Like Melbourne, the first two turns can be counted as one. The drivers approach the first corner at 190mph and brake heavy into a long, sweeping but tight first turn. Over the years we have seen some incidents at this turn—most notably the clash between Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya back in 2002. But it's at Turn 2 where most of the dramas have happened. From Turn 1 it's a small swirt of the throttle before braking into Turn 2, which is a tight, second gear left-hander. During the first race here we had two notable events with different outcomes—Pedro Diniz and Damon Hill collided on the first lap, then David Coulthard defied convention and passed Michael Schumacher with an ambitious move. Schumacher was also involved in another incident in 2003, nudging Jarno Trulli into a spin and receiving a penalty for his troubles. Traction coming out of the turn is very important as this will determine the speed right down to Turn 4.
Turns 3 and 4
Turn 3 isn't considered by many of the drivers as a corner, as it is a flat-out blast towards Turn 4. It is similar in ways to the sweep down to the hairpin at Hockenheim, and the advantage of this is that turbulent air shouldn't be as much an issue and this should create a possibility for a chance to overtake—although this shouldn't be an issue with the new regulations. Turn 4 is a second gear, 90-degree right hander which seems simple at first but can be tricky to take. The cars tend to understeer as the drivers initially turn in, making clipping the apex hard, but in order to get a good lap they have to clip the apex, so with the new regulations permitting the driver to change the front wing angle twice a lap expect it to be used a lot here, especially during qualifying.
Turns 5 and 6
The first of the two fast chicanes on the circuit and the two corners that the drivers enjoy the most. Despite the short run from Turn 4, the drivers are already hitting 150mph as they turn left into Turn 5 and they sweep into the corner, dealing with g-forces of 2.5 in the middle of the corner. Then it is immediately right into Turn 6 - something which some drivers over the years have failed to achieve as it is easy to understeer wide and across the grass. It is important for the drivers to keep up a high minimum speed here in order to achieve a good lap time, and on a good lap the drivers will be hitting around 165 MPH as they exit Turn 6.
Turns 7 and 8
Yet another set of corners that can be counted together, and a very impressive set of corners. The drivers approach Turn 7 at around 170 MPH and touch the brakes and flick down 3 gears, turning right as hard as they can to clip the apex of the corner. Then Turn 8 follows immediately, not even allowing the drivers time to straighten the steering wheel as they must continue turning right and clip the apex once again. If a car is set up good then they will be able to take Turn 8 full throttle, whereas a car with problems will need to take a small confidence lift. However not every driver who takes it full throttle can make it through here unscathed - Robert Kubica spun here in 2007, and Felipe Massa spun into retirement at the same corner a year later
The slowest corner on the circuit can be more tricky than it first seems. The cars brake heavily on the right hand side before turning in, once again clipping the apex, before trying to get as much as traction as possible exiting the corner. Bizarrely, this is the most popular spot on the circuit for the leaders to lap slower cars, and over the years has seen some overtaking moves - some successful (notably Schumacher and Barrichello in 2001 in drying conditions) but mostly unsuccessful (Irvine on local hero Alex Yoong back in 2002).
Turns 10 and 11
As the drivers exit Turn 9 they enter what seems to be a never-ending Turn 10, constantly sweeping right and building up speed, while dealing with g-forces of up to 3g. Then they enter Turn 11, which has a tricky entry as the drivers are braking, turning and downshifting into the corner. Once again, it is important yet difficult to clip the apex of the corner, letting fans and rivals know who has a good setup on their car and who will struggle. It is important to run wide onto the kerb at the exit of the corner as this will allow the driver to build up as much speed to carry into the next corner.
Turns 12 and 13
The second of the fast chicanes may not be as fast as the first, but is more tricky to drive. As the drivers turn left into Turn 12, the track dips away slightly from them, causing the back end to get light and sometimes a bit loose. Then it is straight into Turn 13, which is very similar to Turn 10 as it is a long sweeping right hander, and also the braking point into Turn 13. It is quite easy to make a mistake on the exit of the corner - as Takuma Sato and Fernando Alonso can testify as going off there in qualifying in recent years.
The penultimate corner on the track is quite possibly the most important as it leads into the best overtaking spot on the circuit. As I said before, the braking area for this corner is in the heart of Turn 13, and it is diffcult for the driver to get turned in. However, the drivers must get the car turned in as quickly as possible in order to build up as much speed as possible for the back straight—a good exit from this corner could mean a gain in position going into the next.
The final corner, and the widest part of the circuit at 20 M. The drivers brake heavily into the final corner from 195 MPH and shift down from seventh to second gear, hitting a minimum speed of 54 MPH. It is also the scene of many overtaking moves over the years—the most memorable being Haikkinen on Herbert in 1999, Schumacher on Button in 2002 and 2003, and the three-way battle between Nick Heidfeld, Mark Webber and Ralf Schumacher in 2005. But not all overtaking moves here are successful—Giancarlo Fisichella and Mark Webber had a very messy conclusion to their battle in 2005 with both retiring on the spot. The exit of the corner is vital for two reasons—the first being that the entry to the pit lane is just before the exit and therefore any time gained here will be gained in the pits, and secondly the speed out of the corner determines the speed down the pit straight.
So there it is—your guide to Sepang. It is celebrating it's 11th F1 race this weekend, and with only three previous winners in the field it is unlikely that past form could be a factor here. But after the domination of the Brawn team in Australia, who wants to bet against them again this weekend?