This weekend the F1 teams move to Sepang, Malaysia for the second round of the championship. After the stunning victory of Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus in Melbourne, all of the leading teams will have gone away to look at how they can work on their car to help the strategy.
The goal will be to try to emulate Lotus’ ability to run at a strong pace while using one less set of tyres (and therefore one less pit stop) than the opposition.
The conditions in Melbourne were cool. Last year Lotus was stronger in hot conditions, like Malaysia and Bahrain. If they still have that ability to cope with the heat in the tyres, then they have every chance to repeat this weekend.
Here are the strategic considerations for the weekend.
Sepang International Circuit; 5.54 kilometres. Race distance: 56 laps = 310 kilometres, 15 corners in total, a mixture of slow, medium and fast
Aerodynamic setup – Medium/high downforce. Top speed 312km/h (with Drag Reduction System on rear wing) – 300km/h without.
Full throttle – 70% of the lap. Total fuel needed for race distance: 153 kilos.
Time spent braking: 15% of the lap. 8 braking zones. Brake wear: Medium.
Loss time for a Pit stop = 16.5 seconds
Total time needed for pit stop: 22.5 seconds.
The pit lane speed limit in Sepang is 100km/h, which means faster pit stops than Melbourne.
Fuel effect (cost in lap time per 10kg of fuel carried): 0.36 seconds (average/high)
The Malaysian Grand Prix is the second round of the 2013 FIA F1 World Championship. The Sepang circuit is one of the first F1 venues to have been designed by architect Hermann Tilke and features his trademark long straights, hairpins and fast esses.
It also has a distinctive first corner which turns right and then left and always results in a big change of field order, with drivers winning and losing positions at the start of the race.
The circuit features a number of high energy corners, quite different in character from Albert Park, which hosted the opening round and much harder on the tyres.
The first and third sectors of the lap at Sepang feature long straights and hairpin bends, while sector two has some medium and high speed corners, which load up the tyres.
As far as drivers’ form is concerned at Sepang, Fernando Alonso has won the race three times and Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen have won it twice, while Jenson Button has also won here.
Ferrari has six Sepang wins, McLaren and Red Bull have two wins each.
Red Bull has stunning one lap pace and is likely to qualify on the front row again. Mark Webber has always gone well in Sepang so he could pose a threat for pole. Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus will follow. Lotus showed in Melbourne that it has a good handle on managing the new Pirelli tyres over a long run in cold conditions. In Malaysia we will see if they can replicate that in warm conditions.
Lotus conducted Pirelli’s tyre tests with Jaime Alguersuari using a 2010 Renault car; the tyre data was kept behind a Chinese wall, but clearly they must have understood some of the characteristics of the tyre from that experience.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Sepang: Medium (Option) and Hard (Prime) – this is the same choice as in 2012.
Pirelli has chosen to bring the medium and hard tyres to Sepang, the hardest compounds in the range, to cope with the high temperatures, abrasive surface and faster corners. Temperatures are also raised by the high wheel rotation speeds on the long straights.
The difference in performance between compounds should be between 0.5 and 0.7sec per lap. Teams will want to establish this and the long run performance of both tyres during Friday practice. The data on the Medium tyre from Melbourne showed that the longest stint was 30 laps by a Sauber, while race winner Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest lap of the race on a set of mediums that had done 22 laps. Sepang will present a far stiffer challenge.
Sepang has three major differences from Melbourne, which make it more challenging from a race strategy point of view: higher track temperatures, a rougher track surface and the presence of medium and fast corners, which load up the tyre. There is usually also the threat of rain.
Temperature is critical; Sepang experiences track temperatures of up to 45 degrees, some of the highest of the year, which is at the top end of the tyres’ operating range. The medium tyre is designed for lower operating temperatures, the hard for higher temperatures. The opening stint with 150 kilos of fuel on board, likely to be on medium tyres for most cars, is very hard on the tyres.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
From a strategy point of view a pit stop at Sepang is similar to Melbourne at 22 seconds. And the long straights mean that the adjustable rear wing (DRS wing) is quite effective, making overtaking possible. This means strategists of leading teams will not have to be overly concerned about bringing their driver out into slower traffic after a pit stop.
Last year’s race was wet, but pre-race simulations indicated that a two stop strategy was faster than three by around 3 to 4 seconds.
This would envisage starting on mediums, using a new set of mediums at the first stop on lap 16 and then a set of new hards on lap 34. Although the three stopping car is ahead after 40 laps, he is not able to gain enough margin to stay ahead after his final stop, nor to catch the two stopping car by the end. But it is close. There could be an advantage, therefore, to saving a new set of medium tyres from qualifying, of possible.
Rain can always affect the outcome at Sepang as it can come at any time and can be very intense. Last year the race was delayed by heavy rain. There must always be a degree of flexibility built into race strategy when planning for Sepang.
After Lotus successfully made one less stop than its rivals Ferrari and Red Bull in Melbourne, all eyes will be on them to see whether they can repeat that in Sepang. The car’s gentle action on the tyres certainly gives them a strategic advantage.
It will also be important to establish during practice whether the hard tyre is relatively fast enough that a pit stop might be saved by using it earlier in the race. This would save over 20 seconds plus help gain track positions.
The forecast is for hot and humid conditions with a 30% chance of thunderstorms on Sunday. Last year’s race was very wet at the start and there were delays and safety cars.
Chance of a safety car
Despite the weather hazards, the chance of a safety car at Sepang is incredibly low, by F1 standards, at 15% over last 7 years and an average of 0.1 safety cars per race. Where a safety car has been deployed it’s usually been because of heavy rain, as in 2009 and again last year, when it was out for seven laps.
Recent start performance
Start performance is hugely important to strategy, as we saw in Melbourne, with Webber losing five places off the grid which he could not recover, while Raikkonen and Alonso’s results were both set up by excellent starts.
At Sepang a fully functioning KERS is important, as the run to the first corner from the start is quite long at over 600 metres.
As far as 2013 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost (-) places off the start line this season as follows:
+1 Van der Garde
+1 Di Resta
(Hulkenberg did not start in Australia)
*Webber dropped from second to seventh after a clutch problem in Australia
Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and we have seen tyre stops carried out in less than two and a half seconds by F1 teams.
The league table below shows the order of the pit crews based on their average stop time in Australia from the car entering the pit lane to leaving it.
1. Ferrari – 21.646
2. Mercedes – 21.961
3. Red Bull – 22.263
4. Sauber – 22.315
5. Lotus – 22.359
6. McLaren – 22.462
7. Force India – 22.875
8. Marussia – 23.142
9. Williams – 23.475
10. Toro Rosso – 23.706
11. Caterham – 23.751