The sweltering heat and humidity of the topics provide the gruelling backdrop to the Malaysian Grand Prix, round two of the 2014 FIA Formula 1 World Championship.
The drivers have to endure cockpit temperatures in excess of 50 degrees, but there’s no let-up on-track as Sepang’s fast corners and open spaces encourage overtaking and hard racing. Add the high probability of a rainstorm into the mix and you’re left with a tantalisingly unpredictable weekend.
Sepang facts & stats
Sepang was the first grand prix circuit to be built by German architects Tilke GmbH. It was commissioned in the mid-’90s by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Doktor Mahathir Bin Mohamad, who viewed it as an integral part of Malaysia’s quest to become a fully industrialised nation by 2020. The circuit is located 5km from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and 60km from downtown KL.
The 5.543km track has several features that make it stand out. It’s very wide – 22m in places – and has the second longest run of the year from the grid to Turn One. To be quick at Sepang, a car needs good high-speed balance, a trait that prompts the usual trade-off between downforce and straight-line speed, which is particularly useful along the circuit’s two main straights, each more than 1km long.
As was the case last year, Pirelli are taking their orange Hard (prime) and white Medium (option) tyres to the race. These are the two hardest compounds in their dry-weather range. However, as was the case in Melbourne two weeks ago, the teams can expect to use the intermediate and wet-weather tyres as well – such is the unpredictable nature of Malaysia’s tropical climate.
McLaren has a good record at Sepang, the highlight coming in 2007 when Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton finished first and second in the 56-lap race. Jenson Button scored the first of his 50 podiums at Sepang in 2004 and he has won the race once, in 2009. Kevin Magnussen will be tackling the circuit for the first time.
Jenson Button: “Australia was a really motivational race for the entire team – even though we still have work to do, it feels like we’ve turned a corner, and that we have a racecar we can definitely work with this year.
“It’s important that we keep pushing hard on the development front – we brought some useful upgrades to Melbourne, and it was encouraging that they worked straight out of the box, but it’s essential that we keep pushing new items through the development pipeline, especially at these flyaway races, where it’s harder to bring new parts to the circuit.
“Sepang is a great driver’s circuit, and even if we don’t have the overall downforce we want, we should have the balance and driveability to make the car work. And that’s really encouraging, because it means we go into a race weekend knowing that we can usually get the maximum from the car during the sessions and the race. Even if we don’t yet have the pace to take the fight to the frontrunners, we should have a car that’s decent in every sector, and which we’ll be able to hustle through the race – and that definitely counts for something.”
Kevin Magnussen: “There’s been no chance for a break since our encouraging result in Australia. Jenson and I both went back to Europe and spent a couple of days at the MTC to assess our performance in Melbourne and to work on our preparations for Malaysia.
“Sepang is a very different type of track from Albert Park: Melbourne was all about slow-speed corners and mechanical balance, whereas Malaysia is a real high-speed circuit, the corners are much faster and there’ll be more of an emphasis on aerodynamic performance.
“I think it’ll be a tougher test than Australia – the ambient temperatures will make it tougher for the drivers; and the track temperatures will be higher too, which will make it harder on the tyres. My aim will be to score more points – consistency is going to be very important for the championship – and to keep learning, especially in such a different environment.
“I’m really looking forward to it – the car feels fantastic to drive, and I hope we’ll have another good weekend.”
Eric Boullier -- McLaren racing director: “The fact that we are leading the constructors’ championship is a testament to the underlying strength and hunger of the organisation: in Melbourne, we didn’t have the strongest car, but we were able to manage the race superbly: we executed perfect strategies on both cars, Jenson and Kevin each drove faultlessly, and our engineers and mechanics made sure our cars operated with only minimal problems across the whole weekend.
“The aim for Malaysia will be to consolidate the position we currently have: we need to close the gap to the front, and we’ll be pushing aggressively on the development front to ensure that the upgrades we bring to this race do just that. But speed counts for nothing without reliability, and our focus will be to ensure we stay on top of things to ensure we operate both cars across the weekend without any problems.
“Equally, back at MTC, we’re pushing hard to ensure that the supply chain from factory to track is further refined: ours is a battle of constant development; and while we’ve seen one team emerge at the front, it’ll be the constant, iterative developments that will upset the order.
“We’ve got some productive programmes in the windtunnel, and our aim now is to turn these projects to reality as soon as we possibly can – this is where the championship fight will be won or lost.”