Sepang: What You Need to Know

Compared to the unrest in Bahrain and the arguments over hosting in Melbourne, the run up to the race in Malaysia seems positively boring. However this is not necessarily the case, when the race calendar was stuffed full with 20 races Malaysia was seen as the first real race, the first real challenge, and it still is (just one race sooner). And to curry favour with Bernie Ecclestone, it’s up for transforming itself into another night race.

They are making a considerable effort in an effort to boost flagging ticket sales for the race in which fans have to battle tropical temperatures and frequent downpours. This is on top of neighbouring Singapore providing a festival atmosphere with live entertainment and big names, Singapore Rocks, and the glamour of a night race.

It’s been around for over a decade, and is starting to look tired in comparison to the newer tracks Bernie Ecclestone is favouring at the moment. Statistically it doesn’t look good on the run up to licence renewal in 2015, it has a daily capacity of 130,000 but it’s biggest draw has been 140,00 over the race weekend. And that was back in 2006. Last year they managed to encourage just 97,000 over the three days, so the race organisers are taking decisive action to ensure their place on the all-important calendar. Music events, a month long drive for ticket sales and a promise to adapt to Ecclestone’s vision, should see them stick around past 2015.

Fact File: Sepang International Circuit, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Laps: 56
Circuit length: 5.543 km (3.444 miles)
Race length: 310.408 km (192.879 miles)
Fastest lap: Juan Pablo Montoya 1:34.223 (2004)

Why is Malaysia seen as the first ‘real’ race? It’s challenging both technically and physically. As mentioned above, the tropical heat is a punishing factor on everyone who will be working there. Drivers and teams alike will be up against it here, Fernando Alonso is not alone in calling it one of the ‘most difficult circuits of the year’.

Image credit: Will Pittenger

Layout and Approach:

This is a Herman Tilke designed track that has become infamous for the level of punishment it inflicts on drivers and teams alike. Teams want to be up to speed once they come here and this year there is the extra pressure of missing a race on the run up. Cars have to be strong in every area for the circuit, the important corners tend to be high-speed which requires excellent balance and aerodynamics to take advantage of overtaking opportunities. The rhythm of the circuit is one of the reasons why Sepang has become a favourite for all involved, it’s smooth with fast and flowing corners and two very long straights.

From the moment the lights go out the drivers will have reached top speed before the first corner where they will slow dramatically to take turns 1 and 2. From then on the drivers will be going full on, 3 is a long and sweeping corner that allows it to be taken at speed. What follows between these turns are fairly long stretches that aid in keeping up that smooth momentum.

The singular characteristic of Sepang that stands out above everything else, is the two extremely long straights that bring the cars back to the finish line after a lap. These are great for going full throttle, but will the addition of the DRS ‘overtaking zone’ be effective? There is already confusion over the permitted zone of usage, and it has already been extended by 100m following a dismal display in Australia.

Overtaking and Strategy:

The width of the track offers ample opportunity for overtaking in places, along with the long straights coupled with the questionable effectiveness of KERS and DRS. The first opportunity is straight off the start line, with cars sometimes running into the first corner 2-3 across, if they hold their nerve they can make a substantial gain on the first lap. Follow this up with a smart entry in turn 4, the first lap can see a drastic improvement on where the driver started on the grid.

The tight hairpin at the end of the straight is an oft used overtaking spot, and the straight itself of course allows a multitude of racing lines to be taken. As the track is considerably wider than most, it gives the straights the added benefit of allowing the drivers to make quick manoeuvres around the car in front, making sure to keep all four wheels on the ground. The pitlane straight is where the DRS zone will be situated, so everyone will be have their eyes focused here to see if it will actually make a noticeable difference.

Tyres again will be an issue here, the hot and humid conditions have the opportunity to play havoc on them. How much rubber will be stripped off the tyres will be of utmost importance to the teams, Malaysia is going to provide a steep learning curve for Pirelli. Following the performance of Sergio Perez in Australia, there is no doubt that one eye will be kept on the rookie to see what he can do here.

Tyres: Hard/Soft

Why Malaysia Rocks:

Changeable weather and tough condition sorts the men out from the boys. Improper hydration here can ruin a race and leave a driver flagging before the first pitstop, and those who are physically fit will prosper where those who sidestepped that last endurance session will suffer. With around 4 litres of fluid going missing during the race, hydration is of high importance. Such a challenge will keep the team on its toes for the duration, and the audience will get an insight into exactly how prepared their favourite driver it for the fight. Mental preparation is just as important as physical strength for the guy in the car and the mechanic in the garage, the climate zaps the energy from under your skin so preparation is key. Only the strongest will survive the heat…unless it rains and then all bets are off.

It’s also a driver favourite as it does force them to be on top of their game, Bahrain is a very easy start to the year and Albert Park straddles street circuit and purpose built to become almost neither. The teams turn up here knowing that winning this race proves they are ready for the rest of the season, everyone wants a good showing and like always, everyone wants to win.

5 Key Points:

  • Efficient aerodynamic packages
  • Hot and humid or torrential rain
  • Definite overtaking opportunites
  • Spectacular straights
  • Smooth, smooth, smooth

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