Circuit Length: 5.543 Km
Lap Record: 1:34.223 = 211.782 km/h - J. Montoya (Williams BMW) 2004
Melbourne, post-race press conference: a questioner asks Sebastian Vettel if he has seen the weather forecast for Sepang, where apparently it is going to rain on Friday… and Saturday… and Sunday: will this affect his strategy? “Have you been to Malaysia?” Seb retorts. “It rains every day there!”
Sepang, first used in 1999, is one of Tilke’s more forgiving tracks. It’s wide all the way round and is familiar from the sharp, downhill Turn 1-2 complex and the long straights that converge for Turn 15. Those two straights are the DRS zones so overtaking should happen into Turns 1 and 15. For the first time we will see orange come into play: that’s the colour on the sidewalls of Pirelli’s Hard compound, which will work in tandem with the white Medium tyres, the hardest two in the company’s range. “We would describe Sepang as genuinely ‘extreme’: both in terms of weather and track surface,” says Pirelli’s Paul Hembery. This means that it is one of the most demanding weekends for our tyres that we experience all year.” Average speed is a tad under 200 km/h, top speed just over 310 and 59% of the lap is at full throttle.
The Malaysian climate! Last year the race was suspended for almost an hour after just nine of the scheduled 56 laps. Of course (see above) it rains a lot, but even when it doesn’t the high ambient humidity is a nuisance for the engine specialists: it displaces oxygen and means a reduction in power output.
Answer: Iceman! Kimi Raïkkönen arrives fresh from his brilliant Melbourne victory for Lotus Renault. Not only that, but the Flying Finn has already won at Sepang – twice. A decade ago he did the business as a McLaren driver, taking the first of his 20 Grand Prix wins to date; in 2008 he won again, this time for Ferrari. Typically, the stats don’t mean a lot to the 33-year-old Kimi: “I would not say that circuit is more important for me – it’s not that special for me - but it’s quite a nice place to race at,” he says. “I like it and the challenge is always at the highest level in the beginning of the year in the heat.”
But the fire is also burning bright within the Ferrari camp after Fernando Alonso’s strong second place in Melbourne, with Felipe Massa backing up in fourth. “It was important to see both our drivers deliver strong performances, as it provides a great basis on which we can build a competitive season and I’m pleased for both of them,” said team principal Stefano Domenicali. “Seeing Ferrari heading the Constructors’ Championship is a great reward for the people who have been working so hard, both here at the track and back home in Maranello.” Ferrari were the first winners at Sepang with Eddie Irvine; they were also the most recent with Alonso’s success in 2012, the Spaniard’s third in Malaysia – all with different teams.
And let’s include Mercedes, for whom Lewis Hamilton claimed fifth place in Melbourne on debut in his Silver Arrow after qualifying an excellent third. Nico Rosberg also topped the time-sheets in practice before falling out of the race early on, but with one of their partner sponsors based in Malaysia the German team will be looking for a similarly strong performance at Sepang – especially as this is their 60th race with Petronas on the side of the cars. Their engines have won twice, in 2003 and 2007. “Sepang is one of my favourite tracks on the Formula One calendar,” says Rosberg. “The layout has a little bit of everything with the slow and fast corners making a nice mix.”
It might seem strange to count Red Bull Renault in this category. After all, they were red-hot in qualifying when Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber locked out the front row; but they cooled off in the race, especially Webber (why always Mark?) when his preparations on the warm-up lap were disrupted by a problem with the car stemming from the new, highly complex ECU. It brought an apology from the supplier, McLaren: “The electronic units themselves ran without incident in Melbourne, but there was a software-related issue that meant that Mark Webber's Red Bull Racing car's garage data system had to be re-started during the formation lap. That disrupted his preparations for the start of the race, for which Mark and the team has our apology. We are working together with them to prevent any recurrence.”
That allows us a convenient segue into McLaren Mercedes themselves, for whom Melbourne was close to a disaster: 10th and 15th in qualifying, 9th and 11th in the race. With no turn-around time before Malaysia they can hope for little better, unless the weather and track conditions play into their hands. At least Sergio Perez will have a warm, fuzzy feeling from last year’s sterling performance there in a Sauber. “For me, Sepang holds many happy memories – I had one of the best races of my career there last year where I was able to push Fernando for victory until the closing laps,” the Mexican recalls. “It’s a fantastic circuit, really fast and demanding. It would be great to pull off another unexpected result for the team this year.” We should also include Toro Rosso Ferrari after a less than earth-shattering start in Australia, where JEV and Dan qualified 13th and 14th, the Frenchman finished 12th and Dan didn’t finish at all. They’re locked in their own little duel this season but they need to keep pace with other midfield runners – Williams, Sauber, Force India – or risk falling back to levels they thought they had left behind.
Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes); 1:36.219 = 207.389 km/h
1st: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 2:44.51.812
2nd: Sergio Perez (Sauber Mercedes): gap 2.263s
3rd: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes): gap 14.591s
Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus Renault); 1:40.722 = 198.117 km/h on lap 53
Webber / Ricciardo Watch
Mark made the Sepang front row in a Jaguar in 2004; he has been on pole once at Sepang, in 2010, and on the front row again in 2011 with Red Bull. His only podium finish was in 2010, when he finished second to Vettel. Last year was Dan’s first outing at Sepang; his Toro Rosso qualified 15th and advanced to 12th at the finish.