Malaysian GP Preview – By Bob Constanduros
It’s 30 degrees and the humidity is a relatively lowly 67 per cent. It’s not even midday but the temperature rarely does go lower than about 25 here in Malaysia, and the humidity is usually a lot higher. While Singapore was a tough race because of the lack of breeze within the enclosed walls, this race, just 330 kilometers away is just as tough. OK, the track is less bumpy but it’s also a lot faster, with two long straights either side of the pits grandstand, so it’s not a lot different to the race two weeks ago in terms of conditions.
Sadly, though, it is the last one for the foreseeable future – although I have a feeling these things might get resolved this weekend. The government has called a halt to major hosting fees after 18 editions of the race that began in 1999 on a circuit designed by Hermann Tilke, one of his first efforts.
It’s a bit of a shame because like a number of Tilke’s tracks, this race is growing into its skin, as Jenson Button has described it. There are some interesting challenges to this track just a few kilometres from the modern Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Apart from those long straights, there’s the twisty section after turn four, culminating in the double apex turns seven and eight. Then there’s the quick entry into the tightening turns 12, 13 and 14. And finally, a little bit of work on the final hairpin saw drivers having to take different lines last year.
And while the temperature is always warm, it’s very often wet here with the certainty of rain at some stage during the weekend. And when it rains, it rains hard as we saw in Singapore. The grip from Pirelli’s tyres doesn’t last long as it’s sure to be washed away. And talking of Pirelli, they’ve brought softer tyres this weekend than last year: medium, soft and supersoft are on offer, and the strategy last year was two stops for winner Daniel Ricciardo but three stops for the next three, so we’re certain to see a multi-stop race.
As I mentioned in my review of Singapore, Lewis Hamilton now has a 28 point lead over Sebastian Vettel. Lewis has finished nine out of his ten Malaysian Grands Prix, with four poles including a win from pole in 2014 – but only that one win. His championship rival has finished seven of his nine Malaysian GPs, having scored two poles and then going on to win from both poles, plus winning a further two races making a total of four wins here.
There are other winners, of course. Fernando Alonso scored his first pole here in 2005 followed by a win, had another pole and then backed those up with wins in 2017 and 2012. Raikkonen’s had a couple of wins too, including his first, and Daniel Ricciardo has had a single win in 2014.
Other drivers have had different milestones: Max Verstappen scored his first point here in 2015 and celebrates his 20th birthday this weekend. Sergio Perez had his first podium here with second in 2012, while Felipe Massa has had a couple of poles here which resulted in fourth and fifth places, but he scored his first point in 2002. Both the Renault pair scored their first points in the World Championship at this race.
Which all goes to show that it is quite an open race. But also remember that Lewis Hamilton had that engine failure here last year, so there can be a reliability issue which will have to be managed when considering future Grands Prix and the risk of mechanical failures at those races.
And we have a change of driver in the entry, with Pierre Gasly, last year’s GP2 champion, taking over from Daniil Kyvat. Everyone happily seems to remember Gasly’s 2016 championship win rather than the 2015 season when he was easily equalled by teammate Alex Lynn. Gasly has been racing in Japan this year, with mixed results, but even though he’s at the bottom of a short Red Bull Racing queue, he is being offered a race run over Kvyat, who once again finds himself on the sidelines.
This is, of course, the first of a couple of doubleheaders before the championship showdown in Brazil and then Abu Dhabi. From Malaysia, we go to the ultra-challenging Suzuka circuit so a lot can change in a short space of time. With Vettel 28 points behind Hamilton, he will be hoping that things will change in his favour and that Hamilton will strike trouble as he did last year. Valtteri Bottas isn’t that far behind the Ferrari driver – only 23 points – so that could come into play as well. All in all, these two races – as with the following doubleheader – is a vital pair to get absolutely right or risk the consequences.