Formula 1 moves to this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix with the drivers’ championship finely balanced, but changes to the track surface along with a change of date and greater tyre options mean that the teams are treating Sepang almost like a new venue.
We saw at the last race how race strategy can fundamentally affect a race outcome and this weekend we are likely to see a different kind of Malaysian Grand Prix from previous years. For a start there are likely to be more pit stops as the inclusion of the soft tyre, along with the medium and hard, is set to mix up the strategies and a number of drivers will do at least three stops.
Williams has already cliched the fastest pitstops award, having set the fastest stop at 11 races this season, which cannot be beaten. The outright fastest stop this year was 1.92seconds set in Baku on Felipe Massa’s car.
Track temperatures are always a key factor; last year the dial hit 56 degrees and this caused problems for the Mercedes team, as it lost out to Ferrari’s Sebtastian Vettel, who was able to do one stop fewer than the Silver Arrows cars. Hotter track conditions are still a point of weakness for Mercedes, but Singapore showed that they have made improvements in this area since last year.
Mercedes can clinch their third consecutive constructors’ championship this weekend if they score 26 points, regardless of their rivals’ result. There are other permutations, but a win and a fourth place will give them the title with five races to go.
Unlike Singapore last time out, Sepang is a track on which you can overtake, so teams can go for an aggressive strategy, knowing that their driver will have a chance to cut through the traffic. Last year there were 56 overtakes in the race, putting it at the higher end of the scale. The relative levels of thermal degradation on the tyres experienced by the different teams plays a significant role in this.
The start is always critical here; the distinctive first corner 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. Collisions in which drivers damage their front wing as the field gets pinched into the left hand turn, after the initial right, are common.
The circuit features a number of high energy corners among the 15 turns in total. 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. Sepang is the fourth hardest track of the year on tyres (after Silverstone, Barcelona and Suzuka).
Malaysian Grand Prix in numbers:
This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will be the 18th world championship race held at the Sepang circuit, the first F1 track to be fully designed by Hermann Tilke.
The race, at 192.879 miles, will be the longest on the 2016 calendar in terms of distance, and it returns to an October slot for the first time since the 2000 event, which was won by Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher.
There have been eight 1-2 finishes at the Malaysian race across the 17 events held since 1999 with the victories spread across seven constructors (Ferrari in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2015, Williams in 2002, McLaren in 2003 and 2007, Renault in 2005 and 2006, Brawn in 2009, Red Bull in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and Mercedes in 2014).
The Mercedes team is highly likely to seal the constructors’ title at this weekend’s race. To stop the German manufacturer securing a third consecutive crown, Red Bull would have to outscore it by eight points, or Ferrari by 23, to keep the championship going on to Japan.
In the scrap for the drivers’ championship, Lewis Hamilton has good recent form at the 3.44-mile Sepang track. He won the 2014 race from pole position and the world champion has finished on the podium at every Grand Prix for the last four years in Malaysia. He also has scored points in each of his nine starts at Sepang and has secured three of the last four Malaysian poles.
Nico Rosberg, who now leads the drivers’ standings by eight points after his win last time out in Singapore, is hoping to take the victory in Malaysia to become only the third F1 driver in history to win four consecutive races twice in the same season. Only Schumacher (in 2004) and Hamilton (in 2014) have previously done so and they both subsequently went on to win that year’s championship.
Rosberg’s Singapore win was also his eighth of 2016, and no driver has ever won eight races in a single season without going on to claim the championship.
Two other drivers can make F1 history this weekend. At McLaren, Jenson Button will become the third F1 driver in history to reach 300 Grand Prix starts. Only Schumacher (306) and Rubens Barrichello (322) have started more.
Valtteri Bottas will make his 72nd start for Williams, and as the Grove-base squad is the only F1 team he has driven for so far in his career, he will tie Jim Clark’s record with Lotus for the longest F1 career exclusively with a just one team.
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