Thursday in Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian Grand Prix in prospect. It’s back to work for a few of us; those of us who have stayed out since the Australian Grand Prix have got to sharpen up again. We’re perhaps suffering from what yachties call ‘harbour rot’, when you’ve been in port for too long and are too used to an inactive life.
I’ve spent the last week on what used to be backpackers’ paradise: Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand. It’s only 80 minutes flight from Kuala Lumpur but it’s grown up since I was last there and there are some smart hotels although we stayed in one that came well recommended and was extremely relaxed.
My companions were mainly photographers but they’re always an interesting bunch with their own views on how the sport should be shaped and what happens on circuit. We had a lot of conversations covering many aspects of the sport, so you can imagine that it was almost busier than if I’d gone home.
The over-riding feeling post-Melbourne was of disappointment, as I mentioned, and I’m still a bit worried about this race here in Malaysia, that it won’t be any different when it comes to reliability. Malaysia is one hot country and the poor mechanics don’t have the luxury of air conditioning in the garage which they have at Abu Dhabi, for instance. Ambient temperatures are likely to reach 34 degrees or so, and track temperatures will be up to the high-fifties. No surprise, then, that it’s going to be tough on the cars, tyres and the drivers.
I don’t need to remind you that the retirement rate in Melbourne was much higher than expected. I was quite surprised and disappointed at it. I’ve been consistently amazed at F1’s reliability for the past few years. Remember when tackling a limited amount of races per engine was originally proposed, the engine manufacturers threw up their hands in horror and yet they very quickly showed that they were capable of achieving that target. I’ve always found that very impressive.
I feel that after the introduction of last year’s new technology, teams and engine suppliers have been little more aggressive in their approach in 2015. McLaren’s ‘size zero’ car – with a brand new engine – epitomises that approach. The packaging of components under the bodywork has always been very tight; remember when Mark Webber’s Red Bull was hit quite lightly by another car and promptly caught fire? That showed just how tight things were under the bodywork.
Cooling has always been crucial and this race – plus Singapore – is going to be one of the most vital. There’s a lot to cool: oil and water for the engine, plus the energy recovery systems, brakes, tyres, gearbox – everything, really.
Take the tyres: Pirelli point out that the circuit features fast corners which place high lateral loads on the tyres – particularly as this year’s lap times are up to two seconds quicker than last year’s. It’s a bumpy surface and also abrasive. The cars tend to use a high downforce set-up which means that mechanical and thermal degradation is high. The nightly rainstorm washes away any grip from rubber already laid down, so that that abrasive surface reappears each day. Pirelli expects at least two pit stops and an earlier start (3pm) than in the past means that the track will be at its hottest at the start. As I write this, the track temperature is up to 58 degrees at 12.40.
Pirelli are bringing the same tyres as last year, the two hardest in their range as before. Last year’s tactics saw medium, medium and hard compounds being used in that order with 55 pit stops, 73 the year before. Fifty-five per cent of the track is at full throttle with the longest at full throttle being at 11.2s. That’s how tough it is.
Having said that, two drivers have finished every Malaysian Grand prix they have tackled: Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg. Lewis will be having his 150th Grand Prix and won last year when he was on pole as he was in 2012. Other previous winners include Vettel in 2010, 2011 and 2013, Raikkonen in 2003 (his first win) and 2008, Alonso in 2005, 2007 and 2012 and Button in 2009.
Fernando Alonso is here amid continuing doubt regarding his state of health – at least from the media who continue to come up with theories regarding the testing accident which kept him out of the Australian Grand Prix. The team, however, is adamant that he is in the best of health, he’s been here a couple of days and, as I write this, has passed all mandatory FIA fitness tests and has been declared fit to race this weekend. That approval has also been granted to Valtteri Bottas who has been in Bali since the Australian Grand Prix receiving treatment for the back injury which kept him out of that race.
Once again, there will be much interest in the performance of the three confirmed debutants: Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz and Felipe Nasr. The latter first raced here three years ago in GP2, finishing third in the Sunday morning sprint race and came second in the same race a year later. The Sauber team can concentrate on their racing now their off-circuit problems have been solved. It scarcely seems possible, but Carlos Sainz raced here in 2010 in a Formula BMW Pacific championship weekend when he won the second and fourth events in a four race weekend. Daniil Kvyat won the other two races!
Well, before the track temperature hits the big six-oh (unh-oh, too late, it’s there), we must not forget the possibility of rain although it hasn’t really affected much of the running recently, and could well stay away. It’s the heat that’s going to make the difference and be a real challenge here. We have 56 laps on Sunday, it’s a 310 kilometer race and it’s going to be a big test. As ever, it’s going to be a fascinating weekend.
By Bob Constanduros