26 March 2015
The Sauna of Sepang
Welcome to the hottest F1 race of the year. Well, in temperature terms at least. After the damp squib in Australia, F1 owes its fans a race packed with heated battles: Lewis Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg, Williams vs Ferrari and Red Bull vs. Lotus perhaps. At least two of F1’s top talents – Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas – will be back for McLaren and Williams respectively for Round 2.
The Sepang International Circuit is an uninspiring track. However, the cooling demands of the Malaysian weather and the number of sweeping high-speed corners do at least offer a test for the cars and tyres. Two hard stops in the run down to Turn 1 and Turn 15, which are preceded by long straights where DRS can be enabled, offer overtaking opportunities. Turn 1 is one of the better corners on the track, especially on the first lap, as the cars are funnelled into a looping right-left section that gives the racing line to the car on the inside first, but then quickly becomes the outside line for the sweep to the left, facilitating wheel-to-wheel racing. Turn 3 in Sector 1 and Turns 5 and 6 in the middle sector are fast, sweeping corners that put high lateral loads on the tyres, especially the front left tyre. Good high-speed balance and aerodynamic grip are critical to a quick time through these corners. However, Turns 1, 4, 9 and 15 require strong low-speed grip, especially at the front-end. Good traction on the exit of Turns 14 and 15 and cars that are quick in a straight-line will enable drivers to put pressure on slower competitors ahead. Although the track surface gives good grip, the asphalt is abrasive. Combined with the strong cornering forces on the tyres, this entails a high rate of degradation. Therefore, Pirelli is bringing its Medium and Hard compound tyres to Sepang.
Dry weather permitting, the heat, in the 33-35°C range for practice, qualifying and the race, will force the teams to open up bodywork to cool the engine and other internal components. However, the need for cooling will obviously reduce if rain showers fall during the race, as is currently forecast. Rain will certainly add some spice to the action given the treacherous nature of some corners, which do not drain away the water. Furthermore, rain scheduled for Friday afternoon will wash away rubber laid down, which will probably mean a high level of track evolution. If it’s a dry qualifying, this means that times set later in Q1, Q2 and Q3 are more likely to be much faster than earlier laps. So, setting competitive times near the end of these sessions is crucial to guard against being knocked out early in qualifying as the track will get faster the more tyre rubber is laid down.
Which Mercedes will win it?
Rain is the great performance leveller in F1. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that this will be another Mercedes walkover, rain or shine. If it’s dry and the Medium and Hard compound tyres are used, I expect another win for Lewis Hamilton. He had the edge over Rosberg on this tyre combination in 2014 and this is likely to remain the case in 2015. Hamilton’s driving style is better equipped to deal with the reduced rear grip levels offered by the harder tyre compounds than Rosberg’s. If it’s wet, Rosberg probably has a better chance to steal victory given the unpredictability that rain brings to racing. However, Hamilton is a strong wet-racer, as he proved in Japan 2014. It’s advantage Hamilton.
Williams to beat Ferrari in Sepang
I expect Williams to set the benchmark behind the Mercedes in Malaysia. The FW37 is well-balanced in high-speed corners, it is quick, if not quickest, in a straight-line given the combination of its low-drag chassis and the Mercedes power unit and the engine offers driveability and traction. Moreover, Bottas is back. He regularly got more out of the Williams than Felipe Massa achieved last season. The Ferrari is likely to perform well in the slower corners, such as 1, 2, 4 and 9 given it has strong front-end grip. However, I’m tipping Williams to take on the Ferraris and claim third place on the podium.
Red Bull-Renault and McLaren-Honda under severe pressure
Further pressure will be applied to Red Bull and Renault in Malaysia. In the context of rapidly imploding relations between the energy drinks company and its French engine builder, with both sides sharply criticising the other in public now, the Red Bulls are likely to get mugged on the straight between Turns 14-15 and the start-finish straight such is their horsepower deficit to Mercedes and even Ferrari. The Red Bull drivers will probably earn some time back in the fast corners in Sector 2, but they will be under pressure from Lotus, Force India and even Sauber – if indeed they start ahead of these teams – all of whom have superior grunt and engine driveability.
I’ll be surprised if either McLaren makes it to the finish of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Their Honda engine, especially the Energy Recovery System, was struggling under the comparatively low cooling demands in Australia. It will surely cook itself in Malaysia. According to @, Honda ran with approximately 35% of their ERS potential in Australia to prevent overheating, but this meant they were very down on power. To finish in Sepang, they will surely need to run with less ERS power or no ERS at all to get the engine home. Either that or pray for rain.