The longest-standing of prolific circuit designer Hermann Tilke’s creations on the F1 calendar, Sepang is a popular track with the drivers for its fast, sweeping curves and challenging layout.
The downside is the stifling conditions in which they must race, with temperatures often exceeding 35 degrees Centigrade and humidity off the charts. Sepang is famous for rain which appears almost from nowhere, often dumping colossal amounts of water on the circuit and adding to the challenge facing the drivers.
Making its debut on the F1 calendar in 1999, the first winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix was Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, who was fighting with Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren for the lead of the driver’s championship. Irvine needed to win to keep his chances alive and did so, only to be disqualified along with Michael Schumacher - who had made his return to racing after breaking his leg at the British Grand Prix. An infringement of the technical regulations regarding the Ferrari F399’s bargeboards led to the team appealing their disqualification and the cars were reinstated, taking the championship fight to Japan where Irvine lost out to Hakkinen by finishing third.
Five of the six world champions competing in F1 this year are previous winners of the Malaysian Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher (2000, 2001, 2004), Kimi Raikkonen (2003, 2008) Fernando Alonso (2005, 2007), Sebastian Vettel (2010, 2011) and Jenson Button (2009) all taking victories in Sepang. The man missing from that list, Lewis Hamilton, has a best finish of second, behind then McLaren team-mate Alonso in 2007.
It’ll be a toss-up between two or three stops in the dry, but much depends on the weather. High-speed corners will quickly wear the tyres of any car that isn’t well-balanced.
A good mix of high- and low-speed corners mean a compromise between top-end speed and grip is needed.
With only four of the track’s 15 turns taken in third gear or less, the average lap speed is high with two full-throttle blasts, down the back straight and over the start-finish straight.
Several fast, sweeping turns really sort the men from the boys, requiring a car that sticks to the road and a driver who is precise and smooth.
There are several overtaking spots during the lap, and the ability to use of DRS down both long straights will add to the opportunities.
The drivers love the circuit and if it rains, it can really shuffle the pack. In 2009 Jenson Button won the race parked on the pit straight because of a monsoon which lasted so long the sun set and the race had to be called off.
Having been resurfaced in 2007 the track surface at the Sepang International Circuit is quite smooth, with no major bumps to speak of. In addition the profile of the kerbs is quite low, with the entry and exit of Turn 2 a place where you’ll see cars using as much kerb as possible to gain laptime. One of the first setup issues to be overcome is an initial tendency to understeer in the fast Turn 5-6 section, with traction out of the slower corners a key component to getting a good lap. The brakes take a bit more of a pounding than in Australia, but nothing that will create particular headaches for the teams. Setting the ratio for seventh gear can be tricky with top speed being reached either on the run to Turn 15 or Turn 1 - according to the wind direction.
It was two wins in a week for Sebastian Vettel, dominating the race from pole position and giving an early indication of his approach to races - namely to get out in front, build enough of a lead to avoid his pursuers using their DRS to attack, and control events thereafter. Even a mid-race rain shower couldn’t knock the young German off his stride as he finished ahead of Button’s McLaren and the Renault of Nick Heidfeld. Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso clashed on track with Alonso losing his front wing, although both drivers were penalised after the race.