Malaysian Grand Prix 2016: 5 Bold Predictions for Sepang Race

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2016

Malaysian Grand Prix 2016: 5 Bold Predictions for Sepang Race

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    The 16th round of the 2016 Formula One season will take place at this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang International Circuit, where Mercedes can claim a third consecutive constructors' world championship.

    The Silver Arrows have enjoyed their strongest season yet in 2016, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton winning all but one race between them.

    As reported by ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson, Mercedes' 222-point lead ahead of the final six races means the team only need to finish within seven and 22 points of Red Bull and Ferrari, respectively, to retain the title.

    With their title sponsor based in Kuala Lumpur, Mercedes would love nothing more than to cap their period of dominance by winning Petronas' home race in an event sponsored by the oil company.

    But these dream scenarios rarely work out as planned, especially at a circuit as challenging as Sepang.

    Here are our predictions for Malaysia, featuring a change of luck for Rosberg, a surprise winner, the driver to watch in the wet and the backmarker in desperate need of a top-10 finish.

Half Points Will Be Awarded After the Race Is Stopped Due to Torrential Rain

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    What would you say has been the most significant Formula One race over the last decade?

    The 2008 Brazilian GP, which in the space of 15 breathless minutes encapsulated all the many ups and downs of the pinnacle of motorsport? Austin 2012, when F1 began its latest attempt to crack the United States after a five-year absence?

    Japan 2014, when Jules Bianchi became the first driver in more than two decades to die as a result of an accident in a grand prix? Or, more recently, how about Spain 2016, when Max Verstappen became the youngest-ever race winner at the age of 18?

    One event that should be included in any discussion over the most important day in recent history is the 2009 Malaysian GP, which remains the last race to see half points awarded after a monsoon led to it being halted after 31 of the scheduled 56 laps.

    The race's effect on that year's world championship was minimal, but its consequences in terms of F1's safety-first approach in wet conditions are still being felt to this day.

    A fortnight after that race, the Chinese GP started behind the safety car. And almost ever since, any race with a sprinkle of rain before lights-out has started under safety-car conditions—to the point where the drivers were left to trundle behind the pace car on a rapidly drying track in the early stages of this year's British GP.

    Rain has a knack of influencing the result at Sepang, although you would have to go back to 2013 to find the last race to be affected by showers.

    With that in mind, we're expecting Sunday's race to make up for that dry spell with a biblical mid-race downpour, forcing the FIA to wave the red flag at less than 75 per cent race distance.

    During the stoppage, F1's self-appointed health-and-safety officers—Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button—will be shown consulting their fellow drivers on the grid before it is decided the race will not be restarted.

    That move will leave the watching world disappointed, but it will raise the prospect of the championship battle between Rosberg and Hamilton—as with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost in 1984—being decided by just half a point.

Nico Rosberg Will Slip from 1st to 3rd After a Late, Austin 2015-Style Mistake

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    If Mercedes could pick the ideal grand prix to secure the world championship, Malaysia would only be behind Germany and Britain in their list of perfect places.

    Kuala Lumpur, after all, is the home of the Petronas Towers, named after the oil company that has been the team's title sponsor ever since the Silver Arrows returned to F1 with their own team almost seven years ago.

    With the Malaysian GP switching from March to early October for 2016, Mercedes have the opportunity to cap their period of dominance by clinching a third consecutive constructors' title in style with a win for either Rosberg—who, like Petronas, has been there from the start—or Hamilton, their world champion.

    Hamilton has three pole positions and five podiums—including one win—to his name at Sepang, but Rosberg has excelled at the circuit in the past. 

    He qualified third in just his second F1 appearance for Williams in 2006, led the early laps of the '09 race, claimed his first Mercedes podium in 2010 and added to that tally in 2014 and '15. 

    And given his recent form of four poles and three victories in the last five races, the German should enter this weekend as the favourite for yet another win.

    Rosberg will leave the Mercedes and Petronas executives rubbing their hands with pole on Saturday and—unlike in Monaco and Silverstone this season, when his challenge dissolved upon his first contact with water—he will adapt well and retain the lead when dark clouds gather above the circuit.

    But the ghosts of Austin 2015 will return in the latter stages when Rosberg will make a mistake in the fast, dipping, left-right sequence of Turns 12 and 13, running wide in the same way Sergio Perez did while chasing Fernando Alonso for victory in the 2012 race.

    The slightest error will drop him from first to third, horrify his team, puncture his confidence and give Rosberg the half a point that may—for better or worse—be crucial when this season comes to an end.

Sebastian Vettel Will Win to Bring Back Memories of 2015

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    There were mixed feelings at Ferrari in the aftermath of the Singapore GP.

    Vettel's rear-suspension problem in qualifying had robbed the team of their best chance of a victory in 2016, while the pit wall's panicked strategy call cost Kimi Raikkonen the podium finish his driving deserved.

    Yet, on Vettel's side of the garage, Ferrari produced their most complete race performance of the season at Marina Bay, allowing the four-time world champion to finish a comfortable fifth—just 27.6 seconds adrift of the race-winner—despite a lack of safety-car interventions.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Roberto Chinchero, Vettel has insisted the Prancing Horse can still win a race this season as long as they "get everything right," and that last big push for a victory will begin in Malaysia, where the team will introduce a range of upgrades in an effort to transform the SF16-H car into a winner.

    With Red Bull already ending the development of their RB12 chassis to focus on next year's regulation changes, there is a possibility that Ferrari—still strangely reluctant to give up on their 2016 program—could end this season as the closest challengers to Mercedes.

    And, in Vettel—the most successful driver in Malaysian GP history with four wins—the team have the perfect driver to take the fight to Hamilton and Rosberg.

    After qualifying third, Vettel will split the Mercedes drivers at the start and pressurise Rosberg into an error toward the end of the race, poaching the lead and claiming a first victory in more than a year.

    Eighteen months after his love affair with the Prancing Horse began at Sepang, he will rescue Ferrari from the shame of a second winless season in three.

Carlos Sainz Jr. Will Star for Toro Rosso in the Wet to Finish in the Top 5

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    With Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo both nicely settled at Red Bull for the medium- to long-term future, all Carlos Sainz Jr. can do is wait.

    Wait for the rivalry between the Red Bull drivers to explode in the intense heat of a title battle, or for one of them to be swayed by a rival outfit. Wait for one of the leading teams—think McLaren-Honda or Ferrari—to take a chance on him.

    And wait for a wet race to give him the platform he needs to show what he can do.

    As impressive as he has been since arriving in F1 at the beginning of 2015, Sainz—whose career-best finish remains the sixth place he achieved in this year's Spanish GP—is yet to secure the standout result and produce the spectacular performance that would confirm his status as a future world champion.

    Renowned for his car control and his displays in wet conditions in the junior categories, Sainz has been classified no higher than seventh in the three rain-affected grands prix he has finished to date.

    But, make no mistake, it is a matter of time until his day of destiny arrives.

    The two long straights in Malaysia—as well as the kinked stretch between Turns 2 and 4—are set to hurt Toro Rosso, whose 2015-specification power unit is now by far the weakest on the 2016 grid.

    Yet a promising qualifying performance in Singapore, where Sainz and Daniil Kvyat were both classified in the top seven, suggested the team are now beginning to optimise a major upgrade package introduced in Germany, and the STR11 car will excel in the fast, flowing sweeps of Sepang.

    Sainz will come to life when the inevitable shower appears, passing cars here, there and everywhere and forcing his way into the top five by the chequered flag.

    At last, his career will take off.

Jolyon Palmer Will Finally Score a Point for Renault to Keep 2017 Hopes Alive

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    Despite failing to score a point in his rookie season, Jolyon Palmer is satisfied with his recent performances behind the wheel.

    During the August break, the Renault driver told Autosport (h/t Eurosport) how he is "driving to a similar level" to when he won the GP2 feeder series in 2014 and has been "getting stronger and stronger" with each passing race.

    But he also said his spin while running 10th in July's Hungarian GP was not his fault when it was plainly obvious to everyone else it was a case of driver error, so it is difficult to judge just how well he is driving at this stage of 2016.

    One thing we can be sure of, though, is that since his breakthrough in Budapest, Palmer has challenged Kevin Magnussen on a more regular basis, outqualifying his team-mate in three of the last five races.

    On a rare occasion the team were good enough for points, however, it was once again Magnussen who delivered, coping with a faulty drinks bottle to finish 10th in the most physically demanding race of the season in Singapore.

    Should Renault be unable to persuade an established driver to join them for 2017, one of their current drivers will almost certainly be retained alongside Esteban Ocon next season.

    And given Magnussen's habit of dragging the team into the points, a top-10 finish is a matter of urgency for Palmer.

    Of the five races between now and the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, Sepang is the only circuit where the plucky Brit has some previous racing experience, having competed in Malaysia, albeit without much success, in GP2 in 2012 and '13.

    The layout of the Kuala Lumpur track, as with most venues in 2016, will not favour the underpowered and undeveloped R.S.16 car.

    But if the rain falls, Palmer—with his career on the line—will stay out of trouble and tiptoe around each of those 15 turns to claim his first F1 point.

    Or half a point, as the case may be.

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