Malaysian GP: A race of heat, rain, and the occasional surprise

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Often one of the hottest Grands Prix, the Malaysian Grand Prix is an early-season challenge and massive departure from the season-opener in Australia.

Unlike the concrete confines of the city park circuit in Melbourne, the Sepang International Circuit is the first of the year’s Hermann Tilke-designed circuits, a track with unlimited runoff, long straights into tight hairpins, and a series of sweeping mid-gear corners.

The test at Sepang is to master all of them while the ambient temperature hovers in the 90-degree Fahrenheit mark, with track temperatures anywhere from 130 to 140 degrees.

This week is no different. Ambient temperatures are expected in the low 90s and there’s a 60 percent chance of rain for both Saturday and Sunday.

Some surprises have popped up in the races where rain has interrupted the heat flow. The race began in mixed conditions last year and caught Fernando Alonso out, but Alonso was able to take an at the time mid-pack Ferrari to a win here in the rain in 2012 by holding off a charging Sergio Perez in his Sauber.

Jenson Button’s 2009 win in Malaysia came when the race was cut short by rain, and awarded half points.

Every year in the last five but Alonso’s triumph in 2012 has seen the eventual World Champion win this race – besides Button in ’09, Sebastian Vettel has had the race his way in all of 2010, 2011 and most recently and controversially, last year in the infamous “Multi 21” scandal with Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.

But prior to that this race featured a wild card of different winners.

Vettel’s 2010 win made it five different winners in as many years, with five different teams. Button’s Brawn-Mercedes (2009), Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari (2008), Alonso’s McLaren-Mercedes (2007) and Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault (2006) were previous winners of the event before then.

Alonso’s 2005 win, then with Renault, propelled his first championship charge. Raikkonen won his first career Grand Prix with McLaren in 2003. Michael (2004, 2001, 2000) and Ralf Schumacher (2002) and Eddie Irvine (1999) can also count themselves as Malaysian GP winners.

Taking all that into account, Malaysia this time around is not the easiest to predict.

Yes, Vettel has scored three of the last four wins at this circuit but the Red Bull is not the car of choice at the moment – strange as that is to write. But a Vettel win now would probably rank with his initial Grand Prix victory, 2008 at Monza with Toro Rosso, on the surprise scale.

Mercedes may have the car to beat but neither Lewis Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg have won at its sponsor’s home Grand Prix.

McLaren? They haven’t won since Button triumphed at the 2012 curtain-closer in Sao Paulo, and a Kevin Magnussen victory this early in his career would certainly be something to remember.

What about Ferrari? Six times a winner here but a 2014 victory for either of Fernando or Kimi would fall along the lines of Alonso’s 2012 win, in a case of man overachieving in his machine. Their pace seems slightly suspect in comparison to the Mercedes-powered cars.

And what of the sleepers, a Williams or a Force India for instance? Williams showed it had the chops at Melbourne and Felipe Massa will no doubt be keen to avenge his first lap disaster Down Under, while Valtteri Bottas looks to build on his storming driver. Force India’s Perez and Nico Hulkenberg are definite points contenders with perhaps more to gain from a strong qualifying effort.

Like at Melbourne, we don’t have a great idea of who will win for the first of the new car/new era races at a Tilke-designed track. And that should only add to the intrigue of this week in Malaysia.

You can see the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra at 2:00 a.m. ET (FP2, Friday 3/28), 4:00 a.m. ET (qualifying, Saturday 3/29) and the race 3:30 a.m. ET (Sunday 3/30).

Mazda Road to Indy 2018 schedules are released

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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A handful of minor tweaks have been made to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires schedules for the 2018 season, but they’re not too different than 2017 and largely mirror the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule that was put out last week.

The full details are below.

The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires today unveiled its 2018 calendar of events. The most effective driver development program in the world with over $3.5M in scholarships and awards on offer will continue its momentum at premier road course, street circuit and oval venues in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The highly acclaimed platform – comprised of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – will enter the new season with a trio of state-of-the-art chassis on display including the much anticipated debut of the new Pro Mazda PM-18 which completes the revitalization of the entire ladder system.

On deck for 2018 is a return to the Pacific Northwest and Portland International Raceway (PIR) in Portland, Ore. The 1.967-mile, 12-turn permanent road course will host the season finale for all three series. Indy Lights last raced at PIR in 2001, and Pro Mazda and USF2000 in 2006. The last IndyCar race took place in 2007.

The month of May will bring several new additions. Pro Mazda and USF2000 will return to Lucas Oil Raceway for the Carb Night Classic “The Race Before the 500” after a year’s hiatus. Mere hours after the conclusion of Carb Day activities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 – including the Freedom 100, the crown jewel on the Indy Lights schedule – the two series will make their appearance on the .686-mile oval.

Additionally, the three Indianapolis oval races will see an increase in points for all series for the first time, and an increase in prize money.

In Pro Mazda, the National Class will be replaced by the Pro Mazda Classic (PMC) Series – a six-weekend, 12-race championship within the Pro Mazda Championship utilizing the older Pro Mazda rotary-powered cars from 2002 to 2017. The series will see a separate points chart, prize money and year-end awards.

While there is no limitation on PMC Series testing, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 will see amended testing rules. Indy Lights in-season testing is restricted to two days per team with two additional days available for use with current Pro Mazda and USF2000 drivers. Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams are permitted four days of in-season testing per driver but not at tracks yet to hold an event. Each series will continue with open tests at select venues.

The annual Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 23- 26. Indy Lights will test on the 1.5-mile oval on February 23 and the 2.21-mile road course on February 26. Pro Mazda and USF2000 will run on the weekend – February 24 and 25 – to assist young drivers juggling their schedules alongside school commitments.

The Mazda Road to Indy Summit program – providing valuable education on a variety of topics including marketing/business, media training, career growth and development, fitness, social media and a comprehensive oval clinic – will continue to be in place next season.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into our schedule and I am pleased with the balance we have in place to properly train drivers to move up the ladder,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “We are excited to have Portland on the schedule, which will be a great circuit for our season finales in the three series, and to return to Lucas Oil Raceway on Carb Day for a great night of racing. The Freedom 100 is obviously the biggest race on our calendar and to be able to bring Pro Mazda and USF2000 back into the excitement surrounding the Indianapolis 500 was key. Increasing both the points awarded and the prize money gives these events the weight they deserve.

“The Mazda Road to Indy will take on new life next year with the competition debut of the PM-18. This completes the process we began several years ago to provide the best for our competitors with state-of-the-art race cars. We have a great program in place and it’s working. As always, I am looking forward to seeing many of our drivers take their next steps up the ladder including our recently crowned champions.”

Indy Lights will feature a 17-race schedule at 10 venues comprised of three oval, five road course and two street circuit events. In addition to hour-long race broadcasts on NBCSN, Indy Lights will also be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on indylights.com and indycar.com.

Coverage of all Indy Lights sessions is available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network with broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course*
April 20-22 Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile road course*
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 25 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 7-8 Iowa Speedway .894-mile oval
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course*
August 24-25 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course*

*Doubleheader events

Open tests are scheduled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 23 (oval) and 26 (road course), Barber Motorsports Park on March 5, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10 (road course) and 21 (oval), Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18 for a total of nine test days.

Pro Mazda will expand to a nine-event, 16-race schedule which includes two ovals, five road course and two street course venues. Pro Mazda will be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on promazda.com and indycar.com.

Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course* + PMC
April 20-22 Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile road course* + PMC
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course* + PMC
May 25 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course* + PMC
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course* + PMC
August 24-25 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course* + PMC

*Doubleheader events
+ Pro Mazda Classic Series

A total of 10 open test days are scheduled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 24/25, Barber Motorsports Park on March 3/4, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 24, Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18.

The USF2000 series will continue with a 14-race format held at seven venues featuring one oval, four road course and two street circuit events. Coverage will be available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App. Worldwide live streaming and live timing is also available on usf2000.com and indycar.com.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda 2018 Schedule

March 9-11 Streets of St. Petersburg, FL 1.8-mile street course*
May 10-12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 25 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22-24 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 13-15 Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1.786-mile street course*
July 27-29 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course**
August 31-Sept. 2 Portland International Raceway 1.967-mile road course*

*Doubleheader events
**Tripleheader event

Open tests are schedule at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 24/25, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 24, Road America on June 11/12 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 17/18 for a total of eight test days.

Two events still remain on the 2017 calendar – the seventh annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 21/22 and the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout on December 9/10 at the Bondurant Racing School near Phoenix, Ariz.