Atlas F1 Malaysia: The Future of Formula One?

The Malaysian Grand Prix Preview by Ewan Tytler, USA

Leaving Europe, Formula One heads to the Far East for the final two rounds of the 1999 Championship. Located close to Kuala Lumpur's International Airport, the Sepang circuit is the brainchild of Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dato Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who is a keen motorsport enthusiast.

Sepang is being promoted as the world's best facility for Formula One racing with a unique two-faced "Janus" Grandstand between the two longest straights that can seat 30,000 people. Hanifah Yoong Abdullah, a director of the neighbouring Shah Alam circuit in Malaysia, stated: "I believe it will be the best circuit in the world as far as telecommunications, transportation and accommodation are concerned."

At 5.542 km, the Sepang circuit is the fourth longest circuit to be used in the 1999 Formula One season. The circuit looks like a longer, improved version of Magny-Cours in France. And like Magny-Cours, there is little change in elevation around the circuit. The 15 turns provide a combination of slow, medium and high speed corners. Usually one hairpin bend is enough for any circuit, but Sepang has four, at turns 1, 2, 9 and 15 which will reduce the lap speed. Turn 14 is an evil-looking 2nd gear corner that tightens as the you progress through it. The circuit has eight straights of various lengths, the longest being the 927 meters long Start-Finish straight.

Computer simulations predict top speeds of 310 km/h on the two main straights. This circuit hosted the FIM Malaysian Grand Prix in April and the 500 cc motorbikes were lapping at similar speeds to those posted at Catalunya in Spain. The designer, Hermann Tilke, claims that the circuit will encourage overtaking. Tilke used the "Zandvoort Formula" - a long straight followed by a slow corner - to provide overtaking opportunities. To assist overtaking, the circuit is also wide, ranging from 16m wide at the Start-Finish line to 25m at Turn 15 and the circuit is, thankfully, free of chicanes. The race will be run over 56 laps and for the first time in almost two seasons, a lap record will be set in a Formula One race on Sunday.

Weather is a major concern as Southeast Asia is prone to torrential rain at this time of year. Jordan's Chief Designer, Mike Gascoyne stated, "The hot, humid weather will be the biggest problem, as it will make cooling the car very difficult and some teams might suffer reliability problems."

Malaysia is also making major inroads into the automobile industry with Proton which acquired Lotus Group International Limited, in October 1996. Unfortunately, the economies of Malaysia and its neighbours took a trip through the gravel-traps last year which has probably contributed to the sluggish ticket sales for this event.

British American Racing's Chief Engineer, Steve Farrell explains the challenges presented by Sepang: "The fact is, none of the teams know exactly what they're going to find when we get to Malaysia. We've done a considerable amount of computer simulation work on Sepang, using circuit data provided by the organisers as well as Bridgestone, which also supplied a number of the motorcycle teams who raced there earlier this year. This has allowed us to work out theoretical chassis settings and gear ratios, and although we have developed a good correlation between our in-house simulations and real-world conditions, we won't know for sure how close we are until we start running there."

Mike Gascoyne of Jordan expanded on this. "There are some things we cannot know until we arrive, such as whether the drivers can use the kerbs or not," he said. "This information will affect the mechanical set up. At Monza, for example, you have to use the kerbs to be quick and so you run the car very soft to be able to do that. In Malaysia, it might be that the kerbs are too high or too slippery to use, but we will have to wait until the drivers go out on Friday morning. The track surface is a little of an unknown as well so we cannot really tell how the tyres will wear. This is not a major issue, however, as it happens at other circuits during the year, such as Brazil, which is resurfaced annually. It will be a medium/high downforce circuit which will be quite heavy on braking."

Pat Symonds, Technical Director of Benetton added, "These (straights) will present an interesting challenge for the engineers as speed on these straights will be essential because they both lead to overtaking opportunities whereas much of the rest of the circuit will require high downforce and maximum grip. We estimate that the optimum downforce level is in the medium to high range, somewhere close to Silverstone and Barcelona, although this is largely dependent upon circuit grip available from the tyres."

Pitstop and tyre strategies

Bridgestone Motorsport's Technical Manager, Yoshihiko Ichikawa, stated, "Having no previous experience of the circuit conditions with F1 machinery, we turned to our colleagues from the Motorcycle Division who had attended the bike race at Sepang earlier this year. The data provided to us indicated that lap speeds will be similar to those achieved at circuits like Imola and Magny-Cours. It also appears that the surface will be quite abrasive, although this is a characteristic which can change as a circuit beds in."

On tyre choice, Bridgestone will be offering teams a choice of the Soft and Extra Soft compound tyres, as they did in Monaco and the Hungaroring. "Given that we expect to see higher speeds than at those two tracks, this selection may seem surprising," admitted Ichikawa. "However, it is clear that, at this stage of the season, the drivers and their engineers are confident about their ability to minimise understeer on the softer compound. Although we expect quite high air temperatures of around 30/33°C, this is unlikely to be a problem. As usual, the choice of compound will have to take into account not only the way the teams set up their cars to suit the tyres but also the added durability of the harder tyre, which may be a factor if it is very hot on race day."

Symonds of Benetton added, "The teams will probably be trying to make the most of the super soft tyre. This may lead to two stop strategies, however a variation may be made be some teams running the slightly harder tyre and trying one stop. This will very much depend on the nature of the track surface. Of course, in Malaysia at the moment we are just entering the rainy season and therefore the chances of a wet race are reasonably high." The pitlane at Sepang is fairly long, which will also have to be considered in the pitstop strategy.

The Teams

With two races to go and only 20 points left in the drivers championship this Grand Prix is critical for the outcome of the World Championship. Amazingly, each of the four leading drivers in the championship still have a chance of winning the title, as little changed at the top of the table at the European Grand Prix. With 32 points left in the constructors championship, the title is a straight fight between McLaren and Ferrari, Jordan is quite safe in third but Williams and Stewart are battling it out for fourth. It is unlikely that either championship will be settled on Sunday.

McLaren now leads the constructors championship by eight points. Their horsepower and aerodynamic advantages are quite important at this circuit but neither McLaren drivers have won on their first outing at a Grand Prix circuit.

The World Championship leader, Mika Hakkinen, was a guest of honour at the official opening of the Sepang circuit on March 9th. Hakkinen leads the championship by two points, winning four Grands Prix and setting eleven pole positions this season. There has been a lot of wild, and sometimes silly, speculation about the psychological states of Formula One drivers during this season but Hakkinen's state of mind has been uncharacteristically shaky during the last three races. His performance on Sunday will tell us whether he has regained his focus, particularly with the return of Michael Schumacher.

None the less, Hakkinen seems to have regained his dry sense of humour. "I'm really looking forward to the challenge of racing on a brand new track," he mused. "Last year I was able to have a very brief tour round the new Sepang circuit in a Mercedes-Benz road car, but I think I will be going just a little bit quicker this weekend."

David Coulthard is still fourth in the drivers championship after the European Grand Prix. His race at the Nurburgring is a reminder to us all that there is a very thin line between brilliance and blunder. Despite this setback, Coulthard was fastest at the Catalunya testing.

Coulthard has won two Grands Prix and has qualified second on six occasions this year. His aim must be to qualify well, score points and be in a position to capitalise on any mistakes made by Hakkinen, Irvine or Michael Schumacher during the race. Coulthard's thoughts on the weekend ahead: "While a new circuit will level the playing field somewhat, I still believe we will have a slight edge come the weekend as we have had a very competitive package at every circuit this year. The track has been created with the intention of producing exciting racing, and the circuit map certainly suggests a number of overtaking possibilities."

Ferrari trails McLaren in the constructors championship by eight points. The European Grand Prix must be the lowest point of Ferrari's year with no points and a rare DNF. Ferrari will be aiming to reverse this trend in Asia.

Eddie Irvine has slipped to second in the drivers championship. Irvine has never won a Formula One race on his first outing but he has won three Grands Prix this year and his highest grid position was second at the Hungaroring. Irvine seems to perform best when he feels that he has nothing to lose. "For three and a half years, I've tried to help Michael win the World Championship. Now he has no chance to win the title, but the focus is on me and I hope that with his help, we can win the World Championship - which would be mission accomplished. In the end, Ferrari is the most important thing, and we all want to help Ferrari achieve success. I've spent three and a half years trying to help Ferrari win and now I have an even greater chance with Michael's help. I'm very happy that he's going to drive in Malaysia and Japan," the Ulsterman stated.

Michael Schumacher has slipped to sixth in the drivers championship and plans to compete in the two remaining races of 1999. Schumacher commented, "The belief that I'd be able to make it has grown bit by bit over the last few days. What was important was seeing how much the team wanted me to be there. I'm not at 100%, but I've realised that I have to be there. Obviously, I too wanted to make this comeback, but I had to convince myself, and these practice sessions, first at Mugello and then at Fiorano, gave me the confirmation. And then, there was also the desire to help the team and to help Eddie."

Schumacher also dismissed rumours that he was fit enough to race but was unwilling to compete during 1999 season. "When I made it known that I wouldn't be in a condition to race, I wasn't bluffing," he said. "I felt good, but it's one thing to go for a walk in the park and it's another to endure a Formula One Grand Prix." Schumacher has twice won Formula One races at his first outing, at Jerez in Spain and TI-Aida in Japan during 1994. Schumacher has had two victories and one pole position so far this season.

Mika Salo has slipped to tenth in the drivers championship. Unless Schumacher is unable to compete at Suzuka, Salo will return next year with Sauber-Petronas.

Jordan are still a strong third in the constructors championship. Jordan's reliability disappeared at the Nurburgring and they need to get it back for Sunday's race. Jordan Grand Prix's Chief Designer, Mike Gascoyne, stated, "We believe our car will do well in Malaysia. It has been running very competitively and there is no reason to believe this will not be the case at Sepang."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen is still third in the drivers championship after the European Grand Prix. Frentzen has had two victories this year and has had one pole position at the Nurburgring. Frentzen has never won a Formula One race on his first outing. Gascoyne stated, "Heinz was in a very good frame of mind; I think he has put the disappointment of Nurburgring behind him."

Damon Hill has slipped to eleventh equal in the drivers championship. Hill's highest grid position this year was fourth at Belgium. Hill has won Formula One races at his first outing on four occasions: Belgium and Italy in 1993, Argentina in 1995 and Melbourne, Australia, in 1996. Team Owner, Eddie Jordan stated, "I also believe Damon will have two very good races. They will be the last two of his Formula One career, and I would not be surprised if he pulled off something special, in Suzuka particularly."

Williams hung on to their fourth position in the constructors championship at the Nurburgring. The European Grand Prix showed that technical director, Patrick Head, has produced a Williams that is capable of winning - without the assistance of Adrian Newey.

Ralf Schumacher has overtaken his brother to become fifth in the drivers championship. Ralf's highest finish this year was second in Italy and his highest grid position was fourth at the Nurburgring. Ralf stated, "It's difficult for me to speak about the Malaysian Grand Prix because we have not raced there before. From the layout, the race-track looks quite interesting with some fast and mid-speed corners, and I hope we are able to set up the FW21 as well as possible to be competitive."

Alex Zanardi has yet to score a point but he showed his potential at Monza when he qualified fourth. "I haven't heard much about this track," the Italian said, "I just know that it's very likely to be a bumpy circuit as it's new. It will probably be humid which will make it a hard race. However, towards the end of the season the cars are more reliable and the drivers are more fit so it shouldn't be a problem." Zanardi added, "Every driver will have to discover the track and this represents some kind of advantage for me, in a certain sense, as the handicap I usually have is slightly smaller than my adversaries."

Stewart has moved up to fifth in the constructors championship. Can the Stewart team maintain consistency as the 1999 season closes? Team Founder, Jackie Stewart, was enthusiastic about Sepang. "I think it's the most spectacular and impressive facility that's ever been created for motor sport, let alone for Formula One. But to see the scale of this and the manner in which it's been created, the styling of it, the spectacular grandstands is quite amazing. I think it's a great statement for Formula One."

Rubens Barrichello has consolidated his seventh position in the drivers championship. Barrichello has had three third place finishes this year and he set pole position at Magny-Cours.

Johnny Herbert has moved up to ninth in the drivers championship after his victory at the European Grand Prix. Herbert's highest grid position this year was sixth at the A1 Ring. When asked whether the Sepang circuit would be a more level playing field as far as the Stewart team is concerned, Herbert replied: "I think so. Because no one's been there to race F1 cars before, we have an opportunity to work hard towards getting another podium finish. If we can do that, it would be fantastic. I don't see why we can't do that."

Benetton have slipped to sixth in the constructors championship after a disappointing weekend at the Nurburgring. Giancarlo Fisichella has slipped to eighth in the drivers championship after the European Grand Prix, and was clearly disappointed to miss his best chance to win a Grand Prix. Fisichella's best result this year was second in Canada and his highest grid position was fourth at the Hungaroring. Alexander Wurz has slipped to thirteenth equal in the drivers championship. Wurz's highest grid position was seventh at the Hungaroring. The lanky Austrian is turning out to be the Dan Gurney of the 1990's, being frustrated by the difficulties of getting the correct weight-distribution in the ageing Benetton B199.

Prost has moved up to seventh in the constructors championship. Jarno Trulli has now moved up to eleventh equal in the drivers championship after his second position at the Nurburgring. Trulli's highest grid position this year was seventh at Monaco. Olivier Panis has slipped to fifteenth equal in the drivers championship. Panis' highest grid position this year was third at Magny Cours.

Sauber have slipped to eighth 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. Both Jean Alesi and Pedro Diniz were present at the official opening of the circuit. Alesi presented a chequered flag to the Malaysian Prime Minister, which Dr. Mohamad waved to start the opening ceremony. Alesi has scored a single point this year and his highest grid position this year was second at Magny-Cours. Diniz is eleventh equal in the drivers championship and seems to be fully recovered from his nasty accident at the Nurburgring, saying, "I am still a bit stiff, but otherwise I have no other problems."

Minardi had an encouraging race at the Nurburgring with their first points finish since Pedro Lamy's sixth position in Australia in 1995. They will be hoping for both Marc Gene and Luca Badoer to qualify no less than on the tenth row of the grid and to finish on Sunday.

Arrows had another miserable weekend at the Nurburgring with two DNFs after starting from the back of the grid. Arrows have stopped development of the A20 and are investing their efforts in the A21 chassis for 2000. A finish in the points for either Pedro de la Rosa or Tora Takagi is again unlikely on Sunday.

BAR continue to look like they are capable of finishing in the points. Team Manager, Robert Synge, has a clear goal for BAR, "We were encouraged that both our cars were classified finishers at the Nurburgring. The next step is to get both of them into the points. In fact, our aim for the last two races must be to score as many points as we can. The Malaysian event is the first Formula One race in a long time where none of our rivals has the benefit of prior knowledge of the circuit. Sepang looks like a very impressive facility and we've done a lot of simulation work to make sure that, as a team, we are as prepared as we possibly can be."

Jacques Villeneuve's CART experience may help him on Sunday as he has competed in open-wheel racing on twice as many circuits as most other drivers. Villeneuve is also quick to learn a circuit, winning five times on his first outing on Formula One circuits during 1996 and 1997 at the Nurburgring, Silverstone, the Hungaroring, Estoril and the A1 Ring. Villeneuve's highest grid position this year was sixth at Catalunya.

Villeneuve commented, "I don't know anything about this new circuit as I've never been to Sepang before but I'm really looking forward to driving on a new track. I've been quite competitive on new circuits in the past, such as the A1 Ring in Austria two years ago, and I hope to do the same again. I'm sure that Malaysia will be interesting, as it seems very different from the other countries we visit. From previous experience, plus visits to Hong Kong, Macau and China, as well as living in Japan, I know that I like Asia, so I hope that it will bring me luck and we will get positive results in our last two GPs this season." Ricardo Zonta's highest grid position this year was 10th at Magny-Cours. Zonta will be looking to score his first points of the season.

My Predictions:

If it is dry, I'm going to pick McLaren, Ferrari, and Jordan as the top three teams for qualifying with Williams and Stewart making up the top five.

Starting grid:

  1. Mika Hakkinen
  2. David Coulthard
  3. Michael Schumacher
  4. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  5. Eddie Irvine
  6. Johnny Herbert
  7. Rubens Barrichello
  8. Ralf Schumacher
  9. Jacques Villeneuve
  10. Alex Zanardi
  11. Damon Hill
  12. Jean Alesi

What if it rains on Sunday? There have been two wet races so far this season and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard were doing well in both races, while Johnny Herbert, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jean Alesi also shone in one of these races.

Sunday's race could be wide open. Qualifying is important but pit-stop strategy and the weather are likely to determine the outcome.

The 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • Malaysia and Bernie Ecclestone's FOA would like to see the Sepang circuit become the seventh wonder of the Grand Prix World. Will Sepang live up to the hype?

  • Only three active Formula One Drivers have won on their first outings at a Grand Prix circuit; Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve.

  • McLaren-Mercedes should have the advantage at Sepang.

  • Ferrari will be hoping to get back to the front. Can Michael Schumacher or Eddie Irvine outfox the McLaren drivers?

  • The battle of the Schumachers: will Michael still have the advantage over Ralf?

  • The Best of the Rest contest is getting tighter by the race, with the gap between Jordan, Williams and Stewart closing rapidly.

  • Can BAR capture some points?

  • Ewan Tytler© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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