Advantages A good circuit, goos overtaking opportunities, very safe, excellent facilities.
Disadvantages Yet to provide an outstanding race.
(The following opinion was written prior to the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix)The Sepang circuit in Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur sees the second round of the 2001 Formula One World Championship take place on 18th March. While the first race of the year has provided some insight into the 2001 levels of competition between teams, expect the second event to help clarify the picture considerably. It is here that the likely direction of the title battles will unfold.
The Sepang circuit itself is the second newest circuit on the F1 calendar, purpose-built for introduction in 1999. The 5.5km (3.3m) circuit generally comprises fast straights leading into tight corners with the general intention of encouraging overtaking, though there are a few fast sections to challenge the drivers. It is also particularly wide in parts, especially around the start/finish area, again partly to make overtaking easier.From the start line the cars reach 300kph by the first corner on a flying lap (around 190mph) before braking hard into the first corner, a long, tight right hander taken in second, leading straight into an even tighter left turn, the two corners taken at around 70kph. On exit the track bends into a sweeping right turn taken in fifth gear, leading out onto a straight where the cars again push towards 300kph (across timing sector 1) before braking hard for turn four, another second gear right-hander taken at about 100kph. Turns five and six form a challenging left-right sequence taken at around 220kph in fourth with the second part slightly slower than the first.
A straight leads into turns 7 and 8 which form a double-apex right hand turn taken at around 110kph, leading onto another straight. Turn 9 is a tight left hand corner similar in speed to turn two but with a smaller angle. The quick right-hand turn 10 tightens into turn 11 taken at 90kph in third gear. A quick straight (across timing sector 2) leads into the fast, fifth-gear right-hand turn 12, which slows slightly into the fourth gear, left-hand turn 13 which tightens further into turn 14. A final long straight leads in the opposite direction to the main straight, and connects to it via turn 15, a second gear, 65kph left-hand corner with slightly less angle than a hairpin. These two straights in particular are designed to maximise overtaking potential.Last year’s pole position time by Michael Schumacher was 1m 37.397, but as the pole position time for round one of the 2001 season in Australia saw times tumble by 4%, expect this years’ lap to be around 1m 33.4 in dry conditions. In Australia the race fastest lap dropped by 3.5%, suggesting that the fastest race lap in Malaysia this year could be around 1m35.0. This is crucial for several reasons: First of all, it indicates clearly that the FIA’s desire to reduce cornering speeds and lap times by interfering with the car’s aerodynamics has been eclipsed by the extra grip afforded by softer tyres due to the Bridgestone vs. Michelin tyre war (and general improvements made to the cars during the winter). The FIA will be sending special representatives to the Malaysian Grand Prix and round 3 in Brazil to assess the drop in speeds to see if further changes are necessary. Watch the F1 press in the aftermath of these races to see what decisions are made regarding the future development of Formula One cars.
The Sepang circuit is an impressive facility, and is probably one of the best used on the Formula One calendar. The pits are spacious, the track generally smooth and the safety precautions almost entirely first rate – the only worry is the slightly short run-off area at the first turn. The main start/finish area is dominated by gigantic grandstands, offering a superb view of turn 15, the two straights leading into and out of it, and the pit area. The Malaysian oil company Petronas helped with the construction costs and with Malaysia being tobacco advertisement friendly expect this track to remain on the calendar for some time.Malaysia is only the second country in the Asia-Pacific region to host a Grand Prix, and Sepang itself only the fourth circuit in the region to be used. Japan held two races at the Fuji circuit 1976-7, and returned with a permanent race at Suzuka from 1987. A second Japanese event, dubbed the ‘Pacific Grand Prix’ was held at the tiny TI circuit in Aida from 1994-5 before the F1 circus quickly grew tired of racing on a cramped, unimaginative, glorified kart track. For Formula One to promote itself as an international event it requires representation throughout the world, and the growth of its’ popularity in Asia can only be a good thing.
For 2001 Malaysia has been relocated from its position near the end of the F1 season in October to an earlier place in March. As a result, we may see different weather conditions to those that have gone before, i.e. we may see a wet race which in Malaysia is more likely to be torrential rain than a light shower. Typically wet races can be relied upon to provide an unpredictable result, though in 2000 wet weather at the Nurburgring and Canada did nothing to alter the McLaren-Ferrari monopoly of victory.Previous Malaysian races have been dominated one way another by one man – Michael Schumacher. In 1999 he made a belated return from injury to take pole position and lead the race comfortably, before handing victory to his championship aspiring team mate Eddie Irvine. After the race both Ferraris were initially disqualified for illegal bargeboards sizes but dubiously reinstated, leading to the conclusion of the world championship at the following round in Japan. Mika Hakkinen finished third ahead of the Stewarts of Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan.
The 2000 race was again dominated by Schumacher but again not without controversy. He took pole ahead of Hakkinen but at the start both cars were observed to have moved before the lights went out. Hakkinen later received a stop-go penalty and finished fourth while an undisturbed Schumacher took victory from Coulthard and team mate Barrichello. Jacques Villeneuve took fifth ahead of Eddie Irvine.Not only does past Malaysia results point towards a likely Schumacher victory, but so does his current record. He has won the last five consecutive races – the 2000 Italian, American, Japanese and Malaysian Grands Prix and the 2001 season opener in Australia. On top of that, he has taken pole for each as well. Not for some time has the reigning World Champion been in such devastating form. Australia at least provided some hope that the 2001 season is not quite over yet. Though McLaren lagged behind Ferrari in a troubled qualifying session, Hakkinen roughly matched Schumacher’s pace based on their fuel loads, suggesting a win was not inconceivable had it not been for Hakkinen’s suspension failure on lap 25.
Though McLaren had feared reliability problems would haunt them at the beginning of the season as in 1999 and 2000, Hakkinen’s problem was at least not in one of the main areas of concern (the engine or gearbox) and Coulthard reached the end of the race after a smart pass on Barrichello on lap 33. Barrichello remains the weakest link in Ferrari’s title defence against McLaren: his performance in Australia was third rate at best. He floundered at the start dropping from second to fifth and clumsily rammed Frentzen’s Jordan off on lap two. Coulthard took advantage of his hesitation while lapping a backmarker to overtake him around the outside, relegating the Brazilian to third place ahead of a string of drivers who probably would have done a lot more with equivalent machinery.Behind the McLaren-Ferrari duopoly the Williams-BMW cars look especially promising, particularly in the capable hands of Ralf Schumacher and, with a little time, Juan-Pablo Montoya. Jordan appear to have the upper hand on fellow Honda-engined team BAR but making comparisons between them and Williams is difficult after the retirement of Ralf Schumacher and ruination of Frentzen’s race within the first four laps at Australia. That said, Williams’ gamble of being the only major team to use Michelin tyres was not exactly justified at Melbourne and may not yet bear fruit for some time. Sauber’s gamble on two young drivers, however, appears to have been vindicated at this early stage, as Nick Heidfeld took three points for fourth place and debut driver Kimi Raikkonen grabbed the final point for sixth, both promoted by the post-race time penalty imposed on Olivier Panis. Despite being sixteenth after lap two, Frentzen climbed back to take fifth place, suggesting that his third season with Jordan may return to the heights of 1999 rather than the depths of 2000.
How to distill this fact overkill into a concrete race prediction? Though I do suspect the Schumacher domination will soon be broken I doubt it will come at Malaysia – it is, after all, only five months since he last won here. But the Australia results have encouraged me that McLaren reliability may not be quite so problematic as in earlier seasons, so perhaps the title battle may remain better balanced than this time one year ago. Assuming, then, that there are no major shunts I will place my top six as follows:1. M. Schumacher
(You’re all welcome to leave comments laughing at how wrong I was when in the actual event it pours with rain and Fernando Alonso wins, or indeed to suggest your own predicted results…)
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