Malaysia is renowned for its climate and in this respect provides one of the most significant challenges of the year to both team and driver. As a sport, Formula One is very fortunate to have a good group of weather forecasters travelling to each event with the FIA who provide data to every team. In Malaysia, however, their job is exceedingly difficult. In most places around the world, weather fronts can be seen approaching on the radar, giving a projection of what teams will need to deal with at least a few minutes in advance. Whilst the weather pattern may be forming a few kilometres away, a solid idea of what to expect on that day, the following day and certainly within the next hour can generally be obtained. This is not the case in Malaysia. Very strong, focused rain cells often form quickly and randomly. These may develop less than a kilometre away, or even directly above the circuit, with very little warning.
What’s more, it is almost impossible to discern from the radar whether the volume of rain will be sufficient to create intermediate or extreme wet conditions. This is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of Malaysia. Teams approach every Malaysian Grand Prix weekend expecting rain – given historical reference, it would be foolish not to – but there is always an element of the unknown. Predicting what weather band is on the way and when it will arrive is extremely difficult. Radar images work to around a one minute refresh rate. One minute at the Sepang International circuit is equivalent to around two-thirds of a lap. If a driver misses the pit entry just before a significant radar sighting becomes apparent, this can prove costly. However, teams often fall into exactly the same bands of weather. What might have been the best strategy in hindsight is not what every team will have chosen, simply because they are all working from the same radar images and the same set of data. Four of the past ten races held at the Sepang International Circuit have been affected by rain, with nearly every Grand Prix weekend seeing at least one wet session.
Contrary to Albert Park, temperature is a fairly consistent parameter at the Sepang International Circuit. While engines do have a different working life in these conditions, teams know what to expect and do not have to deal with ten degree shifts as in Melbourne. Ambient temperatures are usually around 30 – 32 degrees – not dissimilar to that experienced during the Bahrain tests – so cooling requirements are tailored to suit. Humidity doesn’t have such a significant impact on cooling as ambient or track temperature, so the challenge lies more in avoiding being caught out by the potential downpours.
Humidity from a team perspective, however, is a different matter. Humans feel humidity dramatically: often struggling to cope and even experiencing breathing difficult at times. Amidst all the technological considerations, we must not forget that there are human beings in both the garage and the cockpit who need to be operating at peak performance levels in very difficult conditions. Despite the physical exertion behind the wheel, for example, the worst effects of the humidity from a driver’s perspective can actually be seen once they return to the garage. At this point they no longer have airflow rushing around them and there is suddenly a huge amount of heat rejection and perspiration to endure. Hot, humid and unpredictable; this is the Malaysian climate in a nutshell!