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Thunderstorms, tyres and training: The ultimate Malaysian Grand Prix guide

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RACE STRATEGY HIGHLIGHTS FROM 2012

The 2012 race will be remembered for Fernando Alonso’s brilliant win in the wet, and also how close he came to being beaten by Sergio Perez in his Sauber. Everyone bar the HRT drivers started on intermediate tyres on a wet circuit, and with the rain getting heavier most pitted for full wets between laps 1-5, save for Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne who stayed out on intermediates and caught a break when the race was red-flagged on lap 9, having run behind the safety car for two laps due to worsening conditions.

Vergne’s ability to stay on the road meant he earned himself effectively a free stop as regulations stipulate drivers must start on full wet tyres behind the safety car – this set him up for an eventual 8th place finish from 18th on the grid. After a 51-minute stoppage the race resumed and pitstops for intermediates took place almost straight away with a leading trio of Alonso, Perez and Hamilton. Perez was the fastest car on the track at this stage, running intermediate tyres on a drying track for 26 laps. Sauber played it too safe in the decision-making for the third stop, failing to recognise Daniel Ricciardo setting fastest sector times on the slick tyre and waiting an extra lap before pitting Perez, losing seven seconds to Alonso at a time when the Sauber had been right on the Ferrari’s tail.

With the Ferrari on medium tyres and Perez on hards, the Sauber again came back at the Ferrari and with six laps to go Perez was looking at ways of passing Alonso, before dropping the car at the third-gear right-hander onto the back straight and losing a chunk of time. Thereafter he settled for second place, still a fantastic result for Sauber but a win was there for the taking with a little more ambition in the strategy and a cooler head from Sergio.

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WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2013
Owing to the wet conditions last year’s pit strategy cannot be used as a benchmark for this year, and even if it does rain the conditions are so unique that the race must be run as best suits the parameters at the time. In the last dry race in 2011, there was a mix of two, three and four-stop strategies with Sebastian Vettel the victor. The pitstop time at Sepang, 21 seconds, is seven seconds shorter than in Melbourne which opens up the possibility of doing three stops and, if you can run unimpeded by other traffic, is the quickest way to victory.

Two years ago, Vettel’s stops were on laps 13, 25 and 41, dividing the race into four fairly even stints. Hamilton and Webber, starting second and third respectively, stopped four times – Webber’s was fairly uniform with stops on laps 10, 22, 32 and 43 and earned him fourth place, while Hamilton ran practically the same strategy as Vettel but crucially stopped four laps earlier than the German for his final stint, committed to doing 19 laps on the hard tyre and couldn’t make it last, pitting again for fresh rubber four laps from the end, dropping to eighth. He finished just behind Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber, who was the best-performing two-stopper with a run from 10th on the grid punctuated by stops on laps 17 and 36, giving him stint lengths of 17, 19 and 20 laps. Central to the success of any strategy will be the ambient and track temperatures.

WHO BOASTS THE BEST RECORD IN MALAYSIA?
With three wins and two podium finishes at Sepang, Fernando Alonso holds the best record of any driver in the current field. Last year’s win – somewhat fortuitous as the much faster Sergio Perez fell off the road at a crucial point on a drying track – served to kickstart the Scuderia’s season and Alonso went on a great run of form, leading the championship until after the mid-season break.

Our winner in Australia one week ago, Kimi Raikkonen, has tasted victory in Malaysia on two separate occasions. His success in 2003 was also his debut win in Formula One, jumping Alonso’s Renault at the first stops and staying in the lead to the flag. Sebastian Vettel enjoyed back to back wins in 2010 and 2011 here, while Jenson Button also won here in a monsoon-hit 2009 race which was stopped after 31 of the scheduled 56 laps and became only the fifth race in history to be awarded half-points.

TRACK CHARACTERISTICS

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Tyre wear: 6/10
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.

Downforce: 6/10
A good mix of high- and low-speed corners mean a compromise between top-end speed and grip is needed.

Average speed: 7/10
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.

Track difficulty: 7/10
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.

Overtaking: 8/10
There are several overtaking spots during the lap.

Spectacle: 7/10
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.

DRIVER'S VIEW - KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS)

"Malaysia has been good and bad for me in the past; I’ve had a few bad races there but I’ve also won twice at the circuit including my first Grand Prix victory so it’s nice to go back to where it all began with my first win. For sure I will always remember that my first win came in Malaysian Grand Prix in 2003. It’s a difference place, it’s going to be much hotter there so it’s very difficult to say how the cars will feel, who will be fastest after having just one race. I think we have to do two or three races before we really know who is where and what’s going to happen. It’s probably going to rain again in Malaysia at some point but it will be a different circuit, different conditions. Our car worked well in Australia at least and usually – at least last year – in hot conditions it’s been good for us so hopefully it will turn out to be a good weekend."

PAUL HEMBERY, PIRELLI MOTORSPORT DIRECTOR

"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. For the first time we see our new Orange hard compound in competition, with this colour chosen to make it more easy to distinguish from the white medium on television. The nomination we have for Malaysia is the same as last year, but the compounds themselves offer more performance and deliberately increased degradation this season, 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. Even when it isn’t raining, the drivers can expect humidity in the region of 80% and ambient temperatures of more than 30 degrees centigrade."

PREVIOUS RACES

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James Frankland

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