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


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).

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.