Usually by this stage of a Formula 1 season the Malaysian grand prix had long since played its part in the championship as the second round of the year. However, in 2016 the dazzling challenge that is the Sepang International circuit hosts the 16th round of the championship.
The grand prix circuit, just outside of the Kuala Lumpur city centre, was designed by F1’s favourite architect Herman Tilke and made its debut in 1999. Of the current crop of drivers Sebastian Vettel is the most prolific in Malaysia with four wins while Ferrari is the most successful constructor with seven victories.
The 5.5 kilometers of the Sepang circuit is one of the most technical on the calendar, which will highlight or expose aspect of a Formula 1 car. The long straits either side of the enormous main grandstand is a test for the combustion engine and presents genuine overtaking opportunities.
The flowing and twisting complex of corners in sector two will provide the biggest test on a car’s aerodynamic competence. In other words it’s a circuit tailor made to highlight the best of what Mercedes has to offer. Despite this, since the start of the Mercedes era they’ve taken only one victory, in 2014, and have, surprisingly, not dictated proceedings here.
However, in 2016 the Sepang International circuit could be a journey into the unknown. Since last year’s race the track has been significantly resurfaced. Most the work was done to improve drainage but several corners were also smoothed out to “make it easier to drive”. The result is that several of the corners cambers have been adjusted which could lead to a different racing line being adopted.
In 2015 Sebastian Vettel took his first win for Ferrari in Malaysia and underlined an incredible turnaround for the Italian team. 2016 hasn’t been an extension of last year however as the Italian team has failed to build on the solid foundation of 2015. Nevertheless, the team and its drivers have the potential to do deliver this weekend. Ferrari are expected to bring several new aerodynamic parts to Malaysia in the hope of improving on downforce and in the hope of challenging Mercedes this weekend.
The other team in the equation is Red Bull Racing but it is likely, at least initially, to be a weekend of damage limitation for Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. The Sepang circuit, with its long straits, is not a Red Bull friendly one but it isn’t only pace, which can determine the outcome of the race. The weather, although forecast to be hot, has a tendency to produce random thunderstorms which could impact the result.
Nico Rosberg has forced the momentum in the race for the driver’s title firmly towards himself with several stunning results including a victory two weeks ago in Singapore. In contrast, Lewis Hamilton looked decidedly off-colour in Singapore. For once it is Lewis Hamilton in the unaccustomed position of needing to deliver in order to inject some energy into his bid for a fourth world title.