Wednesday 25 March 2015

Sepang Preview: Sign of the times

Sepang was the future once. When the then-gleaming new venue for the inaugural (in the F1 World Championship at least) Malaysian Grand Prix arrived on the calendar in 1999 it was heralded immediately as a giant leap ahead; the new way of things. It was after all the very first of the Hermann Tilke-designed, built from scratch, vast towering facilities, in the creation of which it seemed little had been skimped.

Sepang is known for distinctive architecture, but also
sparse crowds
"Sepang f1" by Eriang87 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA
 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
And so it was to prove given that sort of venue so predominates these days. Many of the fingerprints that are clear here - a long straight book-ended by tight corners intended to provide overtaking opportunities, a high speed esses section, and giant and innovative paddock and grandstand architecture - have been found at nearly all of the new and Tilke-penned venues that have popped up since. Perhaps this association with what's new explains why even though this weekend will be F1's visit number 17, Sepang still feels a lot like a Johnny-Come-Lately presence.

Some even now consider Sepang as Tilke's best too, in layout terms at least. The track has every type of corner and plenty of challenging high speed stuff. But its popularity as a stop-off varies. Not least because of the sapping local humidity that draws the life out of competitors and observers alike. And perhaps further explaining the feeling of newness around the place the event hasn't really gone anywhere over its now lengthy existence. Like many of the new rounds the local enthusiasm seems kept well under control, the cavernous grandstands usually are sparsely-populated and the facility more generally gives the impression of not being used much between the appearances of the F1 circus. Ann Bradshaw indeed once commented that 'when you go back to it for a race, you feel the staff have arrived the day before, opened the offices, chased the spiders away and said here we go again'.

But still, someone somewhere in the country must think it's all worth it, as the vast hosting fees continue to be paid, and as we know that in itself goes just about all of the way to guaranteeing that the event lives on.

And another thing in Sepang's credit column is that it has a happy knack of delivering entertaining races, and often surprising results too. This is in part due to another local staple - flash rain storms which dump deluges on the track at little notice and at inopportune moments; this can and has jumbled - and ruined - many a weekend. Another factor that can and has jumbled and ruined weekends is the torturous right and left loop that starts the lap. After exiting it on lap one things can look very different to the grid order from a few seconds earlier; a few tend to be without an intact front wing, four inflated tyres and the like. The tight corners at the end of the long straights also encourage plenty of dives for gains of position. This is a place it seems where things happen.

The opening right-left of the lap can be
 troublesome - especially on lap one
"2011 Malaysian GP opening lap" by Morio - photo taken by
Morio. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia
Commons -
Which is just as well, as in Melbourne in round one matters were of the very familiar sort. Mercedes was at least as far ahead as we got oh-so used to it being last year, while at Sepang the long straights and bit-of-everything nature should ensure that the Mercs are at least as far ahead again. Malaysia's capacity for the unusual likely is their only threat. It'll need to be doing its worst even then to stop them.

As for which Merc comes out on top, we know that Lewis Hamilton had his team mate Nico Rosberg well under control in Australia's race, despite the latter's proximity, and we can recall that in Malaysia last year Lewis took his stable mate to the cleaners. With rain around too it may be an even greater advantage to Lewis given his well-known ability to improvise.

We shouldn't necessarily conclude that's that however as Sepang has long been happy hunting ground for Nico. One thinks of him sticking his Williams third on the grid here way back in 2006 in only his second Grand Prix, leading confidently in 2009 as well as in 2010 qualifying second and finishing third. And as we also all remember it required a team order to keep him behind his team mate Lewis in 2013. While in round one in Melbourne Nico started the weekend looking the quicker, before the wind picked up and rather knocked his set-up out.

More generally - and Mercedes apart one presumes - the pecking order might look different here than it did in round one. The Albert Park circuit is an unusual one, prone to providing red herrings, while the Sepang challenge is more standard and therefore possibly more of a portent. For an example of this 12 months ago McLaren left Melbourne with a double-podium finish and the lead of the constructors' championship, only for the fast turns in Malaysia to reveal that once again the Woking lot was in for a trying campaign. So those for whom Australia disappointed will be clinging to this notion as we speak.

The Mercedes should have the place to themselves,
just like in Melbourne
Photo: Octane Photography
The long straights should play into the hands of those with Merc power, especially Williams which will be seeking a bounce back after an ever-so-slightly underwhelming time of it by its now exalted standards a fortnight ago. And you suspect we'll really get a gauge of the progress Ferrari has made with its own unit, after encouragement in testing and in the opening round.

Then there's the less encouraging time of it for Red Bull, with its struggles with its Renault unit in Melbourne plain for all to see and outwardly the relationship hardly has improved since. Christian Horner looked positively afraid when someone asked in Australia how the RB11 would fare on Sepang's extended full throttle sections.

Another reason for Sepang's capacity to surprise is that it challenges reliability too. The high ambient temperature strains machinery which already is in its more vulnerable early part of the year. And in Melbourne the number of cars conking out was higher than anticipated. Many eyes will be on this in Malaysia, and special Sepang cooling packages can be expected as ever.

Then there are the tyres. In testing it was said that the Pirellis were a bit tougher than before and Melbourne's running seemed to back the idea up - with easy one-stoppers pretty much all round and little obvious wear or degradation. The compounds brought to Malaysia are yet harder - medium and hard rather than soft and medium - but with good reason as the long, fast, high energy corners ask a lot of the rubber, as do the abrasive surface and high temperatures. If the Pirellis are more durable then this weekend will severely test the matter. And strategists may be glad too if they are as with the local threat of rain they tend to try to err towards more flexible approaches with fewer stops.

So this weekend you feel will answer a few more questions of the lay of the 2015 F1 land - once again the Sepang venue will signpost the future. But when it comes to the big question of which team is out front, well we know the answer to that one already.

1 comment:

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