The medium and hard compound tyres have been nominated for Malaysia; an allocation one step harder overall than in Melbourne. This pairing has been chosen by Pirelli to match the demanding, high speed characteristics of the Sepang International Circuit. The layout is tough on tyres, with high-speed corners frequent and considerable loads being put through the rubber. Turns 5 – 6 and 10 – 13 put a lot of energy through the tyres on both sides of the car, with Turns 7 – 8 doing so on the left side only. This means that, for nine of the 15 corners around the track, the rubber is subject to significant loads. While degradation is not predicted to be a dominant factor, different tyre usage to that experienced in Melbourne is to be expected. This could present a different engineering challenge, which has perhaps not yet been fully explored and provides an interesting learning experience. The medium rubber is the common choice between the two races and teams now have good experience on that tyre, so it will be intriguing to observe the difference in performance levels on that compound in particular.
Although there was a reasonable amount of overtaking on show in Australia, this should be a much easier task for the drivers in Malaysia. Where narrow performance differentials between some cars prohibited passing manoeuvres at Albert Park, a far smaller advantage is required to make a move at Sepang. The first and final turns of the lap consist of two practically symmetrical long straights followed by almost hairpin-style corners. These have historically created good overtaking opportunities, as can be seen below:
|% Total Overtakes with DRS||35%||24%||54%|
Circuit layout aside, delving into the above figures reveals a number of other potential factors contributing to high overtaking figures in recent years at Sepang. Of these three races, only 2011 was run in completely dry conditions. It was also only the second Formula One race to feature DRS. With the system still in its infancy, this may well have contributed to a relatively low percentage of assisted passes.
2012 started amidst severe downpours, ending dry but overcast following two Safety Car periods and a race suspension. With more heavy showers predicted before the end of the race, many drivers opted to remain on the wet tyres whilst others gambled on slicks. When the rain never came, overtaking was frequent as those who had stayed out on track began to overheat their rubber. With these drivers struggling through the corners, most manoeuvres were conducted through the bends rather than down the straights; hence a low percentage of DRS passes once again.
2013 began under light rain and remained cloudy throughout, but with the track drying quickly once the early drizzle ceased. Despite the changeable conditions, this race featured a significantly lower amount of overtaking than seen at the previous two events. This may largely be attributed to tyre degradation, which was a prominent feature during the early races of the 2013 season. With 73 pit stops in total during the race, which was won using a four-stop strategy, the majority of changes in position occurred during pit stop phases. Of the manoeuvres completed on track, a slightly higher percentage were classed as assisted than those classed as normal; likely owing to the second DRS zone introduced for 2013.
Historically Sepang has seen a low probability of Safety Cars – 10% over the past ten years – which aligns with the expansive run-off areas surrounding the track itself. Even if a car breaks down out on track, there is plenty of space to come to a halt without posing a risk either to other drivers or marshals. Of the previous ten Malaysian Grands Prix, only two have featured the Safety Car. These were in 2009 and 2012 and were both the result of extreme weather conditions suspending proceedings. Both also fell under the later race start time of 16:00 brought into effect from the 2009 season. Alongside 2013, this makes for three out of five races to have been affected by rain since the change in schedule was introduced.
In terms of the pecking order in Melbourne, there were key moments throughout the weekend which made it very difficult to judge just where each team stands in terms of competitiveness. In qualifying, for example, a wet track came into play from half way through the first session. While some drivers set a lap on the option tyre, even those who didn’t were reasonably comfortable in the knowledge that they would not have to push flat out to progress into the next phase. At this point, which of those cars are quick over a single lap remains anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that performance levels are very close in changeable conditions. Even in the race, a clear order still did not emerge, with the majority of the pack running quite close together. Excluding the possibility of another wet qualifying session, Sepang should provide a better reading of the field.
This will be the second race weekend for the cars, including the all-new Power Unit and gearbox packages. Teams are now entering the sort of territory that will really start to test the cars in terms of both reliability and endurance. MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS achieved a very good result with one car in Melbourne but must now carry that performance through with both cars. As has been commonly accepted since the 2014 regulations were first announced, reliability is a key factor in this new era of Formula One. With severe penalties for changing components too frequently, these early races could well dictate the rhythm of the season.