Drivers journey into unknown after subtle changes to resurfaced Sepang CircuitPOSTED BY Nigel Andretti ON 30 September 2016
IT is not so much the heat as the humidity that gets the drivers. After all, there are a number of races that take place in higher temperatures than the 32C that it seems to be every day in Malaysia, writes the BBC’schief F1 writer Andrew Benson.
“What’s different about Sepang is its latitude. There is not much left to provide a physical reminder that this race track has been built on what used to be tropical rain forest; oil palm plantations surround it now. But it is tangible nonetheless – the energy-sapping closeness is just so intense.
“And that’s just walking around. Out on the track, where temperatures well over 50C heat up the cockpits to 60C, the drivers are wearing four-layer fireproof overalls, balaclavas and helmets. And they drive like that in the race for well over an hour and a half.
“The characteristics of Pirelli’s heat-sensitive tyres have taken the edge off what used to be close to torture. But even lapping a second or more off the pace to manage the rubber, the drivers are given a physical workout of a pretty extreme nature.
Even in the Pirelli era, this – like neighbouring Singapore – is one of the few tracks where they still cannot step out of the car and look as if they have been for a Sunday afternoon drive.
“The demanding nature of this circuit is enhanced by, well, the demanding nature of the circuit.
“This was the first track to be designed for F1 by now-resident architect Hermann Tilke and it is arguably still the best.
“The fast right-left at Turns Five and Six is for the very brave; the entry into Seven and Eight is deceptively fast; the quick left-right at 12 and 13 difficult again, a melange of cambers followed by a tricky brake-and-turn into 13 – where Sergio Perez threw away his chances of a Sauber victory chasing Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari in the dramatic 2012 race.
“Add in two long straights, ending in wide-entry corners for overtaking, and the recipe is pretty good,” Benson wrote.
The entire 5.543 km has been resurfaced. Primarily this means it is expected to be far smoother than previously – but the new surface could also be far more slippery, as other series have experienced, at least until it ‘rubbers in’ over the weekend.
Additionally, nine corners have been changed. Turns 1 and 4 are now much smoother, while the gradients have been revised in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 12 and 13 to improve driveability, and drainage has been enhanced too. Kerbs have also been revised to meet the latest FIA specifications, and run-off areas have also been increased – all of which could fundamentally change the traditional lines, braking points and inputs drivers used to follow.
Turn 15, the final left-hand hairpin leading on to the man straight, features the most significant changes. Where several of the other altered corners feature a degree of banking, the inside of this one has been raised a metre. The reverse camber has changed the corner’s characteristics completely, and could prompt an entirely different line and approach – one drivers will have to work out and fine-tune as the weekend progresses.
Sepang CEO Razlan Razali believes that the changes are so far-reaching that drivers will feel like they are driving the track for the first time.
Ferrari, who embarrassed Mercedes last year at Sepang with Sebastien Vettell claiming his first win for the marque, are not giving up on their chances of retaking second place in the constructors’ championship.
The Scuderia have duly brought an aerodynamic update to Malaysia, in the hope of overtaking Red Bull in the points table – whom they currently trail by 15 points, on 301 to Red Bull’s 316.
It’s understood that the upgrade will comprise a range of modifications aimed not just at boosting the usual extra cooling that is necessary for such a hot and humid race, but also at enhancing downforce. The latter is an area where Ferrari have lost out all season to Mercedes and Red Bull.
“We know we have a strong package for sure,” Vettel reminded reporters in Singapore. “Some races we didn’t deliver all we could – some were up to us, and some because of stuff that happened. But for sure it didn’t end up so far the way we wanted. But I think we believe in ourselves. We are not entirely where we want to be in terms of raw pace, sometimes better or sometimes worse, but at tracks like Singapore it is generally more close.
“We expected to be competitive, and then there is always a chance to win or fight for a podium. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out for both of us. But we have confidence. There are some bits coming still. We are here to fight and that is what we are going to do.”
As the fight for world championship glory intensifies, Nico Rosberg (main pic, with Petronas Mercedes AMG teammate Lewis Hamilton) comes into Sepang with an eight-point advantage – the first time he has led in the points since Silverstone.
The German is the form man: he has taken four of the last five poles, and won the last three Grands Prix, helping him overturn what was once a 19-point deficit to team mate Lewis Hamilton.
“Singapore was a perfect weekend for me,” an ebullient Rosberg says. “I felt great in the car, had a fantastic qualifying, made a strong start and then came out on top after a really intense battle with Daniel (Ricciardo) at the end of the race, which made the win all the more fulfilling.
“The team did such an impressive job understanding what went wrong last year and turning it around. I’m massively proud of everyone for that.
“It’s an incredible position to be in as a driver, knowing you have a shot at winning every weekend. I won’t take it for granted. I’ve had a good run lately and I’m enjoying the moment. But as far as the next race goes, or the next one after that and so on… it’s anyone’s game.”
Rosberg has been here before of course, when he romped to victory in the first four races of the season – and Hamilton knows he needs a perfect weekend to turn it around and snatch momentum back.
“Singapore was a difficult weekend for me, so to come away with a podium in the circumstances was pretty good damage limitation,” he says. “Ultimately, Nico did an exceptional job and I didn’t have my best weekend. But that’s the way it goes.
“I have no idea if the momentum will swing back to me or when it might. But we still have six races left, so I just have to keep giving it my all and hope for the best. That’s all you can do as a sportsman. It’s going to take some good results to get back in front and stay there – but I’ve had plenty of those in the past, so there’s no reason to think they won’t come back to me again. Sepang is my first shot…”