Following the exciting and intriguing 2014 season opener in Australia, focus now switches to the Sepang International Circuit and this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
The first round of the new F1 era gave us a glimpse of the potential competitive order, with Mercedes currently at the front of the pack. However, rival teams are determined to catch up with McLaren and Williams looking to be in the mix, as well as Ferrari. Red Bull’s pace was better than expected in Melbourne and surprised many.
Reliability will be even more important in Malaysia, particularly due to the warmer temperatures and higher humidity levels that make the race the most challenging on the calendar. F1 drivers have already had to slim down due to the minimum weight limit, but they can lose up to 5% of their body weight during the 56-lap race due to the physical demands of the track and climate.
Of the current crop of drivers, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are the most successful around the 3.44-mile track. The former has won the race for three different teams – Renault in 2005, McLaren in 2007 and Ferrari in 2012 – while the latter has won all of his for Red Bull Racing (2010, 2011, and 2013).
Last year’s race was highly controversial after Vettel ignored team orders and overtook Mark Webber to win the race, breaking the now infamous “Multi 21” command that he was given during the race. The Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were also told to hold position in third and fourth.
The race may take place in some of the warmest conditions on the 2014 schedule, but rain is always a threat and when it arrives, it is often torrential. It sparked chaos during the early stages of the 2001 round, the third ever Malaysian Grand Prix, and the race was forced to be red flagged in 2009 due to the conditions and fading light as a result of the newly-introduced later start time.
The track is a firm driver favourite and is undoubtedly one of the best designs from Hermann Tilke – who has been responsible for seven track layouts on the 2014 calendar. A permanent fixture on the F1 schedule since 1999, it consists of 15 corners. It is a challenging one for the drivers with a mix of high-speed bends, tight hairpins and long straights; causing a compromise with car set-up.
A lap of the track starts on the long pit straight where the first DRS zone will be positioned in 2014. It is one of the widest on the calendar which creates lots of side-by-side action at race starts. The first corner is a long, slow right-hander that used to be taken in second gear, although the new V6 Turbo engines and eight-speed semi-automatic gearboxes look set to change that.
It is followed almost immediately by turn two, which is an even tighter left-hand turn and drops downhill. Because of the quick change in direction, a driver who has been overtaken and has the outside line for the opening corner then has the chance to reclaim the place into turn two. A long flat-out burst follows with the high-speed turn three kink, before a short straight.
The first sector ends just before the braking zone for the fourth corner, which is a 90 degree right. Another burst of power leads cars onto the high-speed left-right of turns five and six. With the decreased downforce levels for 2014, this complex could be particularly tricky. The seventh and eighth corners make up a long, medium-speed, double-apex right. Despite the largely smooth track surface, there is a bump through this section of track that can unsettle the car.
Yet another straight follows before the heavy braking zone for the left-hand hairpin of turn nine. This is a strong overtaking opportunity, and it leads on to the barely-there right of turn 10. The 11th corner of the circuit is the last of sector two and used to be taken in third gear.
The right-hander is tricky because drivers have to brake and turn simultaneously. Turn 12 is a flat-out left before one of the hardest corners on the F1 calendar. Turn 13 and 14 make up a long and gradually tightening right, with braking and turning taking place at the same time once again.
It is particularly tricky to negotiate in wet or damp conditions. A good exit from this turn is crucial for the long back straight that leads to the final turn: a tight and slow hairpin with the pit entry to the right.
Pirelli will bring the hard and medium compound tires to Malaysia, due to the abrasive track surface and higher temperatures. There are still plenty of unknowns heading into the race weekend, but the big question is: can anyone stop Mercedes?