ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 11 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   The Malaysian GP Preview

Sepang, Kuala Lumpur by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Formula One returns to the Pacific for the second round of the 2001 season, to Sepang, the home of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Located close to Kuala Lumpur's International Airport, the Sepang circuit is one of the world's best facilities for Formula One racing. At 5.542 km, the track is the fourth longest to be used in 2001. In fact, Sepang looks like a longer, improved version of Magny-Cours in France. And, like Magny-Cours, this is a high-downforce circuit with little change in elevation around the track.

Sepang was designed by Hermann Tilke, who used the formula of a long straight, followed by a slow corner, to provide overtaking opportunities. To assist overtaking, the circuit is also wide, ranging from 16 meters wide at the Start-Finish line to 25m at Turn 15. Ironically, in the first two Grands Prix at Sepang it proved to be easy for Formula One drivers to block overtaking moves. Perhaps Formula One's new aerodynamic regulations will allow more overtaking in Sunday's race.

The first Malaysian Grand Prix attracted 78,000 spectators and an estimated television audience of 600 million, and earned Malaysia more than $130 million. The second Malaysian Grand Prix, on the other hand, lost them $4 million and, unfortunately, sales of tickets for this year's event have been sluggish even more.

Pitstops and Tyre Strategies

"The surface is more abrasive than Melbourne with much higher ambient temperatures expected to lead to the need for tyres of a harder compound than those used in Australia or more pit-stops," A spokesman for Michelin explained in the build up for the upcoming weekend. "Although the track was resurfaced between 1999 and 2000, the smoother surface leads to more wheel-spin and sliding, which in turn create higher tyre temperatures, which again can increase wear."

Michelin will supply their teams with 2 dry-weather grooved tyres. The French tyre supplier expects that Dry Compound 1 should be more competitive due to higher grip levels but may require more stops, while Compound 2 should work in all conditions and be more durable while less sensitive to changes in car set-up. Michelin will also supply a choice of three wet-weather tyres to cope with the broad spectrum of weather conditions that can be expected at Sepang.

Benetton's technical director, Pat Symonds, remarked: "Perhaps one of the most surprising results of the first Grand Prix in Melbourne was that the excepted tyre war between Michelin and Bridgestone decreased lap times by an amount far greater than anticipated - pole position being 3.5 seconds faster than last year. However, it is likely that this improvement will not be so extreme in Malaysia as in 2000 the race was at the end of the season when significant development progress had already been made on tyres and also the Sepang circuit is suited to a softer tyre than Melbourne.

"Lap times will also be more affected by the reduction in aerodynamic downforce from the 2001 regulation changes. The result is that the absolute performance of the car is unlikely to take such a large step forward as we have seen in Australia last week. In the past, Malaysia has seen two-stop strategies employed by many teams and this may well be the case again this year. Key factors that can affect performance in Malaysia are the extreme heat and humidity which cause high stresses to both the engine and the drivers."

The pitlane at Sepang is fairly long, which will also have to be considered in the pitstop strategy. In last year's race, Bridgestone offered teams a choice of the Soft and Extra Soft compound tyres and most teams chose the Extra Soft. Furthermore, in last year's race, the top eight finishers made two pitstops, while Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton and Jos Verstappen's Arrows were on a one-stop strategy. Those on a two-stop strategy pitted between laps 16-27 and laps 35-45, while those on a one-stop pitted between laps 28-35.

Down the Pitlane

Ferrari lead McLaren in the Constructors' Championship by 8 points. The Italian team won both previous Malaysian Grands Prix and have scored a total of 30 points at Sepang.

In last year's race, Schumacher won from pole position, while in 1999 he finished second under team orders, after setting pole position and fastest lap. Schumacher holds the qualifying record of 1:37.397, which he set in 2000.

Rubens Barrichello is 3rd in the driver's championship. In last year's race he finished 4th after qualifying 4th for Ferrari while in 1999, Barrichello finished 5th after qualifying 6th for Stewart-Ford.

McLaren are second in the Constructors' Championship. Team Principal Ron Dennis commented: "In Australia, David demonstrated the potential of the MP4-16 with his second place and the whole team has been working hard since then to ensure that this potential is fully harnessed. We have been testing at Magny Cours and are confident that we are in good shape."

McLaren have scored 13 points at Sepang in the past couple of years. The team also claim to have solved the problem that led to Mika Hakkinen's front suspension failure at Melbourne.

Hakkinen himself suffered a mild concussion from his heavy accident at Melbourne. Nevertheless, Hakkinen commented, "I'm focusing on securing my first points of the 2001 season and the whole team is optimistic that we will leave Malaysia with a good result. I enjoy driving at Sepang as it offers a good mixture of corners and fast straights, the only downside is the humidity, but as long as we maintain our fluid intake I can't see this being a problem. I left Australia on the Sunday after the race to go back and spend some time with my family and am now ready for round two."

Hakkinen holds the race lap record, of 1:38.543, which he set in 2000. In last year's race, Hakkinen qualified second but finished fourth, after receiving a stop-go penalty for jumping the start. In 1999, Hakkinen, on Soft tyres, was unable to compete with the Ferraris, finishing third after qualifying fourth.

David Coulthard is second in the Drivers' Championship, and he commented recently: "We are looking forward to building on and improving the result obtained at the previous race in Australia and will be working hard to achieve the desired outcome. With the opportunities Sepang offers to overtake it should be an exciting race for both the teams and the fans. I enjoyed a few days holiday in Australia and have done a lot of training to be in top shape for the hot and humid conditions in Malaysia."

Coulthard qualified third in both Malaysian Grands Prix. In last year's race, Coulthard finished second while in 1999 he drove a spirited race against the Ferraris but did not finish the race.

Williams had two DNFs at Melbourne. Technical Director Patrick Head admitted, "We were very disappointed not to achieve a finish with at least one car in Melbourne, and both drivers had the opportunity to finish in the points. The Sepang circuit is a wonderful facility and a great track with quite a variety of corners. On both of our previous visits we have struggled a bit, but we intend to get to grips with the track's requirements this time. Much will depend upon the Michelin tyres and their suitability for this track. They performed well at Melbourne as did the new BMW engine, which gives us every reason to have an optimistic view of our season ahead. Both drivers drove well in Melbourne, although I am sure that Juan Pablo will be wanting to improve upon his starting position."

BMW Motorsport Director, Dr. Mario Theissen, further revealed: "We have found out quickly the reason for the failure of Juan Montoya's engine in Melbourne. The reason for it was a faulty pipe connector between oil tank and engine, which from a certain point on simply didn't supply the V10 with enough oil. Despite this, it is fair to say that in Melbourne our engines were strong and that during the whole weekend we didn't experience the smallest technical problem on our side. As neither of our cars could finish the race and therefore we could not prove the reliability of the V10 over a Grand Prix, durability remains the main priority. For this reason, we have some further improvements ready for Sepang. On such a track with two long straights the engine performance plays an important role and we think that we are quite well equipped for that. Another point, is the heat that we have to expect in Malaysia. In Kyalami we had at least the opportunity to test under similar temperature conditions."

Williams have yet to score a point at Sepang - their only classification was Alex Zanardi's 10th place finish in 1999. Ralf Schumacher himself didn't finish last year's race, after qualifying 8th.

Juan Pablo Montoya did not finish his first F1 Grand Prix, after qualifying 11th. Montoya was clearly fast but was perhaps guilty of a little over-driving at Melbourne. Montoya predicted, "the Malaysian Grand Prix is going to be quite an interesting race especially because with the expected very hot weather the tyres should work quite well. The FW23 can be competitive in both, wet or dry conditions so I am not bothered about which weather we are going to have in Malaysia.

"Our car has great potential - even if we are at the start of the season and we need to do some more work on all areas of the car but as the season goes on we believe that it should be much faster. I have never raced on the Sepang circuit and it looks a quite difficult circuit to learn but I think we should be all right. I have spent the last week watching on-board camera recordings of last year's race, I've studied the telemetry data and have also driven many laps on video games! I feel ready for it."

Benetton had a disappointing weekend at Melbourne but managed to put in a lot of race miles on both cars. Technical Director Mike Gascoyne admitted, "Melbourne was difficult for the team but no more than we expected. Both Renault Sport UK and France are pushing hard on development for Malaysia and Brazil so that we can start the process of moving up the grid. We have a new bodywork package in development that we hope will be ready for Malaysia, if not, it will be tested on chassis 4 in Barcelona and will be used in Brazil.

"This week we have been testing at Silverstone with Mark Webber, doing both tyre testing and work on the electronic systems for the new regulations in Barcelona. For Malaysia, we have incorporated some specific modifications to cope with what we expect to be very high temperatures. Our focus is on race reliability and our aim is to get two cars to the finish and in a competitive state."

Benetton have yet to score a point at Sepang but both Benettons were classified in both Malaysian Grands Prix. Their best result was Alex Wurz's 7th place in last year's race. Giancarlo Fisichella also finished 9th, after qualifying 13th, while in 1999 he finished 11th, after also qualifying 11th. Jenson Button, on the other hand, did not finish last eyar's race, after qualifying 16th for Williams.

BAR are regrouping after a promising weekend at Melbourne that ended in disaster. In last year's race, however, BAR scored 2 points, while in 1999 neither BAR finished.

In last year's race, Jacques Villeneuve finished fifth, after qualifying sixth, while in 1999 he did not finish after qualifying 10th. Villeneuve, however, is now lucky to be alive after his horrific crash at the Australian Grand Prix. He has taken a couple of days to rest after medical check ups declared him fit.

Olivier Panis made an impressive return to Formula One at Melbourne, qualifying 9th and was somewhat unlucky to leave Australia empty-handed after a post-race time penalty for a yellow-flag infringement relegated him to 7th place, after finishing fourth. In 1999, Panis did not finish after qualifying 12th for Prost.

Jordan are now 4th in the Constructors' Championship. The team scored previously one point at Sepang, in 1999.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen is fifth in the Drivers' Championship, after an outstanding fourth position during qualifying at Melbourne. In last year's race, Frentzen did not finish after qualifying 10th, while in 1999, he finished 6th after qualifying 14th. His teammate, Jarno Trulli, finished 12th in last year's race after qualifying 9th, while in 1999 he was eliminated before the start by engine failure, after qualifying 18th for Prost.

Arrows Team Principal, Tom Walkinshaw, declared: "I think we can head to Malaysia in good spirits. Jos's finish in Melbourne proves we have a solid car and the Asiatech engine ran the full race distance with no reliability problems. The Team have been testing with Johnny (Herbert) at Silverstone this week to iron out the problems we encountered in Australia. Malaysia should suit the A22 slightly more than the circuit at Albert Park, so we're hoping for a good finish and possibly, with luck on our side, to pick up some points." Arrows have yet to score a point at Sepang - their only classification was 10th in last year's race.

Jos Verstappen finished 10th in Melbourne after an eventful race. Verstappen admitted, "I really like Malaysia and always enjoy going there. It's a good circuit and I have to say that I prefer the permanent tracks to the street circuits we race on. Hopefully Sepang will suit the A22 better than Australia did as we were not happy with our performance there. We know what we have to do to improve the car. The team has been working at Silverstone between the first two races so let's hope they have found the solution." In last year's race, Verstappen finished 10th, after qualifying 15th.

Enrique Bernoldi completed only two laps of his Formula One debut race, after qualifying 18th. Bernoldi stated, "Sepang is another circuit I have never raced on before but I have been doing my homework - studying the layout of the track and looking at data. I know it's a tough race because of the heat and the humidity but I'm confident that I am fit enough and have been training hard since leaving Australia. Obviously I am hoping for a better race than the one I had in Melbourne and will be working hard to achieve that."

Sauber are now third in the Constructors' Championship. The Malaysian Grand Prix is very important for Sauber, as the Malaysian Petrochemical firm Petronas not only sponsors Sauber but also sponsors the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, unlike previous years Sauber has a good opportunity to impress their Malaysian sponsors with the Sauber C20 powered by the Ferrari-based Petronas 01A engine.

Osamu Goto, head of Sauber-Petronas's engine department, stated: "The new Petronas 01A is an ideal engine for the C20 car. The engine's increased cylinder bank angle (90) which lowers the centre of gravity and reduced weight allows our engineers to optimise the race car."

Petronas have developed a new engine oil, with improved high-temperature performance characteristics, code named "STO B5A" that that will be used by the Sauber team during the 2001 season. The Sauber team will be hindered, to some extent, by Public Relations obligations and other distraction in Malaysia. Sauber-Petronas have yet to score a point at their home Grand Prix, their best performance was Jean Alesi's 7th place finish from 15th on the grid in 1999.

Nick Heidfeld is fourth in the Drivers' Championship. At Melbourne, Heidfeld showed, for the first time, his true potential in a Formula One car and why he is considered the heir-apparent to a seat at McLaren-Mercedes. In last year's race, Heidfeld was eliminated in a first corner accident after qualifying 19th for Prost.

Kimi Raikkonnen made an impressive Formula One debut at Melbourne and is sixth in the Drivers' Championship after qualifying 13th.

Jaguar Team Principal, Bobby Rahal, reiterated: "As we have said since the beginning of the year - our aim for the season is respectability and that means on-track reliability. Given that both cars crossed the finishing line in Melbourne, I feel that we have started the season on target, especially when you consider the fact that both cars retired from last year's Australian Grand Prix by lap six.

"We learned a lot from Melbourne and, over time, we are very optimistic about extracting more pace from the car. Cosworth introduced a new series two CR3 engine for Melbourne and it has been very well received by the drivers. Combined with our ongoing development with Michelin, I am optimistic about fulfilling our targets over the course of this season." Jaguar scored one point at Sepang in last year's race, while the Stewart team scored 5 points in 1999.

Eddie Irvine stated: "I am looking forward to this event, as I won here a couple of years ago and last year I picked up the sixth place point for Jaguar Racing. It doesn't mean much, but it adds to the 'feelgood factor'. I haven't been testing since Australia, so I've had plenty of time to concentrate on keeping fit. That is going to be particularly important this year as I understand it could be even hotter than when we have been there in the past. At this early stage in the year, hot weather is not what you need for the cars either, but at least Melbourne confirmed our feeling that our cars would be reliable, so hopefully we can build on that now and start stepping up the pace."

Irvine won the first Malaysian Grand Prix after qualifying second. In last year's race, Irvine finished 6th after qualifying 7th.

Luciano Burti finished eighth in Australia after qualifying 21st. Burti conceded, "Just as the case was with Albert Park, I have never raced at Sepang before. The circuit poses a completely new challenge to me and I will have to apply myself very diligently during Friday's free practice session in an effort to familiarise myself quickly. While Melbourne didn't start too well for me, I was fairly pleased with how it ended with my eighth place finish. Jaguar Racing is working very hard to focus its efforts on reliability and that was clearly demonstrated by the performance of the R2 in Australia. The heat and humidity will play a big part in the outcome of the Malaysian Grand Prix and I'm preparing myself for what I'm sure will be a physically exhausting race."

Minardi will have a spare car at Sepang. The team have yet to score a point at Sepang - their best performance was Marc Gene's 9th position finish in 1999 from 19th place on the grid.

Tarso Marques had a disappointing return to Minardi at Melbourne, dropping out on the third lap after a dismal qualifying session. Fernando Alonso, in contrast, made a remarkable Formula One debut at Melbourne, finishing 12th after qualifying 19th.

Prost have yet to score a point at Sepang, their only classification was 11th in last year's race with Jean Alesi, while Alesi himself finished 7th in 1999, after qualifying 15th for Sauber-Petronas. His current teammate, Gaston Mazzacane, was classified 13th after qualifying last in last year's race.

My Predictions:

If it is dry, I'm going to pick Ferrari, McLaren and Jordan as the top three teams for qualifying with Williams and BAR making up the top five. If it rains perhaps we will see the Michelin teams excel.

Starting grid:

  1. Michael Schumacher
  2. Mika Hakkinen
  3. David Coulthard
  4. Rubens Barrichello
  5. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  6. Ralf Schumacher
  7. Nick Heidfeld
  8. Jacques Villeneuve
  9. Olivier Panis
  10. Jarno Trulli

The Malaysian Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • Ferrari have dominated the first two Malaysian Grands Prix. Can they maintain their lead in the Constructors' and Drivers' Championships? Can Michael Schumacher win his 6th consecutive Grand Prix?

  • Can McLaren-Mercedes close the performance gap? Can Mika Hakkinen score his first points of the season? Can David Coulthard consolidate his second place in the Driver's Championship?

  • Sauber-Petronas are the Best-of-the-Rest with Jordan-Honda close behind. Jordan seemed to have a slight edge over BAR at Melbourne, can they maintain this at Sepang?

  • Always in the points at Sepang: Ferrari, McLaren and Jaguar. Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine.

  • The weather: heat, humidity and maybe rain?

  • Ewan Tytler© 2007
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