2011 F1 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview: What to Expect at Sepang

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2011 F1 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview: What to Expect at Sepang
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After the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the F1 circus takes an eight-hour trip to Sepang for the 13th Malaysian Grand Prix.

While Melbourne was a street circuit, Sepang is a proper race track where the differences between cars will start to become clearer.

The event, however, has been blighted by tumbling ticket sales over the past few years. The neighbouring Singapore Grand Prix has played a major role in this matter with its captivating night race on a street circuit, coupled with live entertainment by world-renowned artists.

Shabby construction and sporadic weather conditions haven’t helped Sepang, with calls for the stadium needing to undergo major rejuvenation. The circuit—which was built in record time to host its first race in 1999—is already witnessing its grandstand canopy exceed its lifespan by displaying its inability to deal with the tropical downpour.

The event has a capacity of 130,000 and recorded just 97,000 over the three days last year, down from 140,000 in 2006.

Dwindling attendances have also seen the Malaysian Grand Prix selling the cheapest ticket on the F1 grid this year, a lowly $19.

Razlan Razali, Chief Excutive of the Sepang International Circuit, suggested a night race to boost numbers before the rights expire in 2015. But there has been no reply from the petition filed to the government to fund a major overhaul to the extent of $59 million.

Getty Images/Getty Images
Dwindling attendances have seen the event incur losses.

All we can do is hope for a dramatic, pulsating race that would draw crowds and save the event. What else can we look forward to?

TRACK AND CONDITIONS:

The Sepang International Circuit is built on the site of equatorial rainforests and, thus, boasts of hot, humid and energy-sapping conditions.

The country also has erratic weather, where it can be bright and sunny one minute, and pouring cows and elephants the other. This has wreaked havoc in the past (2009) and could very well do so again.

Adding to the testing conditions and pushing the drivers to the limit is the twisty nature of the track, which has a mixture of long straights and challenging, fast corners with the necessity of heavy braking. Turn 14 is a good example, which requires you to brake your car while you’re still turning into the corner.

Tire wear will be a critical factor in the race strategy of the teams.

The Malaysian Grand Prix is notoriously regarded as the physically toughest race of the year.

LAST YEAR’S STRATEGY:

The 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix was famous for the tactical masterstrokes hatched up by Red Bull for both its drivers—one in qualifying and one during the race.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
Red Bull conjured some tactical masterstrokes last year.

In pouring conditions during qualifying, Mark Webber gambled by switching to intermediates during Q3 while everyone else continued on the wets. The track dried up as the session progressed and gave Webber pole position by more than a second.

Webber wasn’t so lucky during the race as he watched teammate Sebastian Vettel overtake him in the first lap from P3.  Webber still had a chance to win the race but failed to do so by not modifying his pitstop strategy.

He stuck to the original game plan by staying on his soft tires for as long as possible before making his only stop on Lap 24. Both Red Bull cars were on the same strategy and, by allowing Vettel to pit a lap earlier, Webber missed the chance to get ahead of his teammate.

Vettel went on to win the race while Webber held on to finish second.

THIS YEAR’S STRATEGY:

High speeds and high temperatures are a certainty for this year’s race. Tire degradation comes into the picture, with Pirelli taking its hard primes and soft options to the race.

Preseason tests have revealed that Pirelli’s tyres are much less durable than the Bridgestones used last year.

Drivers observed heavy wear in even the harder variant, which guarantee multiple stops. Melbourne saw a maximum of three stops, Sepang could see more. Sergio Perez is most certainly going to have to make more drives down the pitlane than he did in Melbourne.

Michael Cooper/Getty Images
Ferrari team orders: Been there, done that. (Circa 1999)

The long straights will give an advantage to teams running KERS (hear that Mr Horner?). This also paves way for the use of the adjustable rear wings, or the Drag Reduction System (DRS), which are designed to assist in overtaking.

NOTABLE INCIDENTS:

In the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix in 1999, Michael Schumacher in P2  slowed down on purpose to allow Ferrari teammate and championship contester, Eddie Irvine, to race ahead and kept the McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Häkkinen behind.

After the race, the manoeuvre was found to be illegal by an FIA official and the Ferraris were disqualified, which made Häkkinen the world champion. Ferrari appealed to the FIA Court of Appeal in Paris which later overruled the decision and the Ferraris were reinstated.

The 2002 edition saw a fierce battle at the start of the race between Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, which eventually led to a collision between the two aces. Montoya’s manoeuvre was deemed dangerous by the race stewards and the Colombian was sent to the pit for a drive-through penalty.

Montoya finished second behind teammate Ralf Schumacher. Later, Michael Schumacher himself came to the defence of Montoya, saying that the stewards were a little too harsh on the Columbian.

The 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix was a true testament of Malaysia’s torrential rains, which saw the race being reduced to just 31 laps. As the race did not reach the required 75 percent distance (42 laps) to award full points, half the points were allotted for just the fifth time in Formula One history. After this race, the start time of the Malaysian Grand Prix was brought back an hour to 4PM local to combat low light.

PREVIOUS WINNERS:

Ferrari have been the most successful team at Sepang with five wins since the inaugural race in 1999.

 

 

YEAR

DRIVER

CONSTRUCTOR

2010

Sebastian Vettel

Red Bull

2009

Jenson Button

Brawn GP

2008

Kimi Räikkönen

Ferrari

2007

Fernando Alonso

Renault

2006

Giancarlo Fisichella

Renault

2005

Fernando Alonso

Renault

2004

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

2003

Kimi Räikkönen

McLaren Mercedes

2002

Ralf Schumacher

Williams BMW

2001

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

2000

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

1999

Eddie Ervine

Ferrari

 

PREDICTIONS:

Martin Whitmarsh, team boss of McLaren rightly said, “Sepang is a demanding, high-speed circuit that is likely to showcase the performance of those cars with the best levels of grip and downforce, and which can best manage the tyres at what will be their hottest and toughest test so far.”

Efficiency is the key word.

The McLaren MP4-26 surprised everyone in Melbourne and is one of the fastest cars on the circuit, with the Red Bull RB7 slightly edging the McLaren in terms of speed. The two even share a similar exhaust system, which Red Bull claim was copied at the last minute from their own design after some rather mediocre rounds of pre-season testing for the team from Woking.

However, Ferrari believe that they have the better and more reliable car even if they are not as quick as their rivals. And with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel—who has won here twice in the last six years—you never know what Ferrari might fling up in Sepang.

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