27 March 2014
The Sepang International Circuit will host Round 2 of the 2014 F1 World Championship. Sepang is the first of the Hermann Tike-designed tracks on this year’s calendar, but it’s never been one of my favourites. In fact, I find none of the Tilke-designed circuits that inspiring. In my opinion, Tilke’s only memorable contribution to F1 circuit design has been the fast and challenging, four-apexed Turn 8 at Istanbul Park. Nonetheless, Sepang at least provides some high-speed sweeping corners as well as two hard braking zones preceded by long straights that offer the possibility of overtaking. Turn 1 is one of the more interesting corners, especially on the first lap, as the cars are funnelled into a twisty right-left section that gives the racing line to the car on the inside first, but then becomes the outside line for the second part of the corner, facilitating wheel-to-wheel racing. High-speed corners such as Turns 3, 5 and 6, reward cars with aerodynamic downforce and grip, but slower corners, such as 1, 4, 9 and 15, require a car that has good low-speed traction. The long straights in Sectors 1 and 3 at the beginning and end of the lap demand top-line speed and stability under braking. Sepang is therefore a tricky technical track.
One of Sepang’s main features is the weather. It is often the hottest race of the year, putting a premium on cooling. This will be even more the case in 2014 given the cooling demands of the new powertrains. The Renault-powered cars are likely to be particularly vulnerable to overheating while Red Bull’s cooling problems with its new RB10 car were well-documented pre-season. If Renault and Red Bull can survive the heat of Sepang, they will undoubtedly have gone a long way to addressing their reliability concerns. Aside from the heat, the rain has on numerous occasions spiced up the action, most notably in 2009 when monsoon-like conditions halted the race at just over half-distance, handing the win to Jenson Button and Brawn GP. Other rain-affected Malaysian GPs that produced dramatic races include 2001 when both Ferraris spun off in the early laps, but ended up finishing 1-2, with Michael Schumacher winning. And in 2012, Fernando Alonso won sensationally from Sergio Perez in the Sauber. Torrential rain halted the race in the early laps, but mistakes from McLaren after the restart meant that both their cars, which had been leading at the time, fell back allowing Alonso to take the win. Victory, however, probably ought to have been Perez’s given the speed of his car.
Long-range weather forecasts have indicated that rain will be prevalent throughout this year’s Malaysian GP. The wet weather effect means of course that predictions for qualifying and the race are inevitably less accurate than in the dry. Round 1 showed that Williams struggle in the wet due to a lack of rear-end downforce, which will make it harder for them to prevail in the battle behind Mercedes. Nonetheless, Mercedes-powered cars are likely to be strong in the wet due to their powertrain offering more predictable power delivery, which will give the drivers more confidence to apply the throttle on wet surfaces. Renault-powered teams, in particular, are more likely to struggle with this. Having said that both RBR drivers are likely to be able to exploit the RB10’s superior rear-end downforce for better corner entry and mid-corner performance. The lower speeds in the wet should mean that the Red Bull burns less fuel, mitigating the Renault powertrain’s fuel consumption limitations, which hold them back in the dry. Ferrari is also likely to benefit from this. Therefore, if it’s wet, I expect the battle to be between Mercedes, Red Bull, Alonso and Button (I would consider Raikkonen too, but only if he’s got on top of his braking problems).
Dry weather permitting, it’s hard to see beyond either Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton for the win this season. The Mercedes powertrain offers better low-speed traction and superior top-line speed compared to either the Renault or Ferrari, so expect the Mercedes-powered cars to pressurise the rest of the field on the straights. Furthermore, some post-race analysis from Round 1 indicated that the Mercedes-powered teams were considering not putting in the full 100kg of fuel such is the efficiency of their energy recovery system. Ferrari and Renault are reportedly not close to achieving this, making their power output more likely to be limited by fuel consumption concerns. Moreover, whilst relative performance between the teams is likely to shift around a lot this season, it’s hard to imagine anyone having closed the one-second a lap advantage that Mercedes enjoyed over the rest of the field in Albert Park in the last two weeks. Nonetheless, expect Red Bull to perform strongly in the high-speed stuff given the RB10’s strong rear-end downforce. In a dry race, the battle between Williams and McLaren will be an interesting one. Williams had the faster car in Melbourne, but McLaren finished higher up the order due to mistakes and bad luck on Williams’ part. Sepang is hard on tyres, which will undoubtedly test Williams’ ability to keep its rear tyres intact. McLaren have been making positive noises since Melbourne, claiming that they will find an additional 0.5 seconds/lap of performance by Malaysia. If they achieve that, it might be enough for them to prevail over Williams. Round 2 will be fascinating!