By Bob Constanduros
After a brief respite back in Europe, Formula One has flown back to south-east Asia for round 16 of the FIA’s Formula One World Championship and the Malaysian Grand Prix at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
Formula One’s belongings were packed into 75 containers and driven the 350 kilometers north from the last round at Singapore into Malaysia to the Sepang F1 track just by the KLIA, reminding me of the days that trucks used to form up on the levee beside the rowing lake in Montreal, ready to take F1 to Detroit or Indy – even to Mexico City once or was that from Mexico City?
The trucks were organised by a triangular-shaped lady called Sharlene or something similar and they gathered during raceday in Montreal, ready to be loaded up on Sunday night and set off ASAP for the next location. They didn’t really travel in convoy except in Mexico for safety’s sake – and anyway, nobody wanted to travel with the fuel trucks. It kind of evoked the spirit of Convoy.
The Sepang International Circuit at which they arrived is one that has been quite heavily modified since last year – as this year’s date is about six months later than usual, they’ve had time to do it but well done for them for taking this initiative. On the circuit, the whole track has been resurfaced with nice black tarmac – expect some major track temperatures when the sun comes out.
But it doesn’t stop there. At turns two, five, nine and 15(that’s the last one) the track has been reprofiled but more than that, gradients and cambers have been changed, not only to improve drainage but also to improve the racing, so congratulations again to SIC for that investment. In fact there’s more in terms of repositioning of barriers and run-off zones, particularly at turn 15
As ever, race performance will be governed by the tyre choices made by the teams and drivers several weeks ago. At places like Singapore and Malaysia, predicting conditions is not particularly difficult. The conditions don’t change much, they’re pretty much the same as ever. But higher track temperatures from that black tarmac, although potentially less abrasive than before and evolution interrupted by rain, plus a less bumpy surface all have to be taken into account. And of course, teams are able to chose from three specifications of tyres these days.
So in addition to the orange hard and white medium Pirellis we’ve had in the past, this year we have yellow soft as well, a trio of compounds we’ve only seen twice this year in Britain and Barcelona. The choices aren’t very startling, frankly: most have gone for three sets of the hards with only Rosberg, Vettel, Bottas, the Saubers and Grosjean going for two sets and only Palmer going for four.
Most have again chosen three or four sets of white mediums with only Palmer and the Toro Rossos going for two sets. Which leaves seven sets of softs for most people; Red Bull and Manor only have six sets while Toro Rosso have gone for eight.
This is the 18th Malaysian Grand Prix so there are a few previous winners here. Sebastian Vettel is the most successful driver here with four wins: 2010, 2011 and 2013 for Red Bull and 2015 for Ferrari. Fernando Alonso (and Michael Schumacher) has three wins, each one in a different car. His first win in GP racing was for Renault, then in 2007 for his first time in a McLaren and then 2012 for Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen had his first win in F1 in 2003 for Ferrari at Sepang, winning from seventh on the grid, and winning again in 2008.
Lewis Hamilton has had three poles but just one of them produced a win in 2014; Jenson Button is another winner from pole in 2009, had his first podium with 3rd in 2004 and this weekend celebrates his 300th Grand Prix; only Michael Scumacher and Rubens Barrichello have done more. One of the more impressive results here was Sergio Perez’s second in 2012, his first podium from ninth on the grid. Quite a few drivers scored their first points or podiums here because of the race’s position earlier in the season.
It is a race of multiple pit stops: the least number over the last few years was 50 last year; there were 76 four years ago. And it’s a race where you can overtake with 24 normal overtakes last year and 29 thanks to the DRS – which this year is limited to just one detection point although two activation points on the last and pit straight.
Interestingly, safety car use is relatively little so that can’t be counted as a definite when it comes to strategy. And even though the race start is at 3pm to catch any afternoon shower, only seven out of the last 25 sessions have been wet. The nice thing about this race is that it is quite open with different conditions and a range of tyre choices. It’s certainly one to watch with the championship finely poised, Rosberg eight points ahead of Hamilton, but their team could well clinch the Constructors’ championship this weekend.
It’s going to be a pretty busy Grand Prix weekend anyway, as SIC have invested in a pretty full support race programme. They’d already committed to GP2 and GP3 support races, their final appearance before the finale in Abu Dhabu, but these are joined by the two Singapore support races – not only the Porsche Asia series which is nearing its denouement as a support race for the WEC round at Shanghai, but also the TCR touring car series, having its penultimate round prior to its finale at Macau.
So four support races, a proper Grand Prix as far as I’m concerned, with a nice variety of machinery. I hope this is not lost on Liberty Media, the new prospective owners of F1. It’s fascinating to hear about them. Their plan for the future is very positive: build up Formula One’s popularity, fanbase, TV audience or whatever and then cash in on that. Market it, invest in it, promote it (there is a promoter at the moment but he never does any promotion). They see a future in which to invest, something they can build on, an untapped resource perhaps.
This is in stark contrast to CVC who simply milked the existing model for all it could get, without investing in any expertise, talent or guidance to build up what they’d bought, to invest in the future. No wonder they are so despised within F1.
Incidentally, I’m amused to see that new chairman Chase Carey is emphasising that his rule won’t be a dictatorship, he intends to be democratic. Certainly Bernie Ecclestone has only allowed a little democracy to trouble his stewardship of FOM. This is simply because democracy doesn’t work in this sport, there are too many people with vested interests, so that they will never agree. Max Mosley intended to be democratic when he took over the FIA presidency from Jean-Marie Balestre in 1993 after observing the Frenchman’s dictatorship. Within a few years Max found that his approach simply didn’t work and became the autocrat that was necessary.
The only problems is the FIA’s one per cent interest in the holding company which, it seems, they should never have bought. It’s now worth significantly more than it was, so they stand to profit from its sale if they approve Liberty’s purchase. This is a fairly major mistake, prompting a conflict of interest and will rear its head in any sale but it would be a shame if it held up the sale to a company that most people welcome.