The days of future past
The days of future past
Sepang was the future once. When it arrived in 1999 it was the great leap forward. Bernie Ecclestone hailed the venue for the Malaysian Grand Prix immediately as ‘the best in the world’.
It was a template too. The built-from-scratch all-mod-cons Hermann Tilke typology is now familiar. This was the first.
The template stretches to the circuit layout – a long straight book-ended by tight corners (this track has at least two of them indeed) intended to provide overtaking, with a variety of types of turn elsewhere including a high speed esses section.
Even its motivation was as would become grimly samey – the Malaysian Prime Minister wanted to promote the country as an industrial and business destination and bankrolled the event to this end.
The motivation perhaps made it ill-starred however, adding to the sense of a top-down imposition rather than planting seeds. Ann Bradshaw commented one year 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’. Like many of the recent-ish new rounds local enthusiasm has seemed persistently tepid – the cavernous grandstands invariably are sparsely populated.
The place started to show its age too. Even its evangelist Bernie opined some years later that the venue was ‘like an old house that needs a bit of decorating.’
And, in something that seems an aptly doleful conclusion, this is F1’s final Sepang visit. A combination of the poor crowds, a new popular nearby Singapore event and most pointedly the law of diminishing returns of such things sealed its fate.
But still many have looked forward to races here, as they tend to be entertaining. Overtaking is more frequent at this track than most. Plus the long run after the start then the immediate tortuous opening complex jumbles the order as well as is the scene of plenty of grief – last year Sebastian Vettel got no further than the opening turn while Nico Rosberg was spun to the back.
Then there is a local perennial – astonishing flash thunderstorms that arrive with little warning and ruin (or rather soil) best laid plans.
Mercedes could scarcely suppress their smiles leaving the Singapore gathering just passed, but the team might not totally be out of the woods even over and above the Sepang considerations already outlined. There’s another local perennial – sapping intense local humidity that draws the life out of all concerned. And the Mercedes has for a while struggled in hotter conditions.
To wit, the silver cars haven’t been quite as untouchable in recent Malaysia visits as they are usually elsewhere and the team has only won here once, as has Lewis Hamilton. Granted last year Lewis and Merc would have triumphed but for a late engine failure, but the Red Bulls had run Lewis close in any case and Max Verstappen looked the net leader for a time. Two years ago meanwhile Merc was plain beaten by Vettel and Ferrari having the better tyre longevity. Seb will have reasonable hopes of doing the same again this time.
As the above hints at also, Mercedes may have two opposing teams to worry about as it did in Singapore. Indeed we witnessed in Hungary that the Red Bull is particularly good on the supersoft compound in hot conditions, which is what it’ll get here. It’ll also appreciate the variety of turns and its car also is strong on the brakes – this track has four big braking zones.
Unlike at the Marina Bay track though Mercedes will be able to use its unparalleled top end grunt on the long straights as well as benefit from the fast sweeps where it also excels. But still this may be another weekend on the back foot somewhat. Even so, with the championship picture Lewis and Merc will be content with a solid score this time if a win isn’t on.
Like in Singapore too it could well be that the intervention of rain and first turn frolics do a lot to frame the race result, rather it being a matter simply of who has the raw pace. As in Singapore Lewis will likely view precipitation as good news.
Tyres also are a conundrum here. The long, fast, high energy corners along with the heat (track temperatures can reach 60C) ask a lot of the rubber, as did the abrasive surface but a resurfacing before last year’s round resulted in tyres holding on much longer.
Historically Pirelli has brought the medium and hard compounds but last year the soft was added. This year we go softer still with the supersoft brought for the first time. One-stoppers are scarcely heard of at Sepang but with the new-ish surface and particularly that tyres generally are tougher this season they may be the norm this Sunday.
With the relative ease of overtaking and frequency of rain strategists aren’t too fearful of making an extra stop though. Still even here there is something to be said for track position – Seb’s 2015 triumph, benefiting from the Mercs getting stuck in traffic, demonstrated that.
Another contributor to Sepang’s capacity to surprise is that – as Lewis can testify – it challenges reliability. The heat strains machinery as does that cars are at full throttle for a high proportion of the lap. The extent that cars have to ‘open up’ their cooling can also be a factor, as well as contribute to unusual competitive orders.
There will be plenty of frantic calculations going on with all of this during Friday practice; which makes the likelihood of rain disruptions even more regrettable for engineers. Bum steers from practice running more generally are known here too.
It’s hard to envisage a threat to the big three teams. McLaren and Renault will be worth watching with their benevolent chassis and their upturns in Singapore – indeed the Enstone squad has been bullish about being best of the rest – as will Carlos Sainz and Toro Rosso. Williams and Force India will be glad of the straights and last year the former got fifth place in Valtteri Bottas’s hands while Force India had both cars qualifying and finishing in the top eight.
But then again, we’ve outlined Malaysia’s capacity for the unusual. And curtain calls often are preceded by a late dramatic twist.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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