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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).

Hill expects Rosberg to be ‘more formidable’ in 2016

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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1996 Formula 1 world champion Damon Hill believes that Nico Rosberg will be “more formidable” in 2016 following his back-to-back title defeats to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

Rosberg took the title race down to the final race of the year in 2014 before losing to Hamilton, and proved to be the Briton’s closest rival again in 2015, albeit losing the championship with three rounds remaining.

Rosberg endured a five-month winless streak last season that led many to question his ability to battle with Hamilton for a championship, only for the German to answer by winning the final three races of the year.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Hill said that Rosberg showed his true strength with this trio of victories, signalling that he could put up a greater fight to Hamilton for the title in 2016.

“I think he is a little bit more formidable now,” Hill said. “I think after the Austin defeat, that day when he lost the championship and Lewis infamously tossed the cap and he tossed it straight back, there was a moment where Nico said ‘OK, I am not going to take this anymore’ and he did go ahead and win all the remaining races.

“He can go on ahead and become the other world champion’s son [Keke Rosberg won the F1 title in 1982] to become a world champion himself.

“He probably knows time is running out and when you get all those ingredients together you maybe get a little bit of a hardening of the determination. Maybe he will be more determined this year and harder to beat.”

MotoGP to introduce stewards’ panel for 2016 season

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 25:  Marc Marquez of Spain and Repsol Honda Team leads Valentino Rossi of Italy and Movistar Yamaha MotoGP during the MotoGP race during the MotoGP Of Malaysia at Sepang Circuit on October 25, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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The FIM has confirmed that a new, dedicated stewards’ panel will be created for the 2016 MotoGP season following the controversy between Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez at the end of last year.

Rossi and Marquez became embroiled in a tense rivalry that saw them clash in Malaysia, with Rossi appearing to raise his leg and cause his adversary to fall from his bike.

Rossi was handed a penalty that dropped him to the back of the grid for the championship decider in Valencia, where Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo clinched a third world title.

The incident did little good of the reputation of the drivers involved nor MotoGP as a whole, prompting officials to create a new stewards’ panel for 2016 that will deal with similar affairs.

Previously, race direction has also dealt with stewarding matters, but these responsibilities will now be split for 2016.

“We want to let race direction focus on managing the races because there are a lot of responsibilities and delicate matters to do,” FIM president Vito Ippolito said.

“We want to let them be free to manage the race but not to involve them anymore with the task of penalizing riders. It needs more time and special dedication.

“On the other side we will have the panel of three stewards. It will be the current race director who is Mike Webb and two more stewards from the FIM.

“One of them possibily also a permanent steward as we think with this structure, with this panel of stewards completely dedicated to judge the behaviour of riders during the races and practice, we can achieve a very high level of decisions.”

Vandoorne was considered for Renault Formula 1 seat

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE - JANUARY 25:  Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium and McLaren Honda drives during wet weather tyre testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 25, 2016 in Le Castellet, France.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Newly-appointed Renault Sport racing director Frederic Vasseur claims that the French manufacturer considered signing GP2 champion and McLaren junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne for its comeback season in Formula 1.

Renault will return to F1 this year with a works team for the first time since 2010, and unveiled its driver line-up of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer at an event in France on Wednesday.

Magnussen was drafted in to replace Pastor Maldonado after the Venezuelan driver’s financial backing fell through and negotiations with the team broke down.

Speaking to DH.be, Vasseur revealed that Vandoorne was considered for the seat before Renault ultimately signed Magnussen for 2016.

“We had to put a cross next to Stoffel. He is under contract with McLaren and the team did not want to part ways,” Vasseur said.

“So we needed someone who was available and our choice was therefore focused on Kevin.”

Vandoorne is set to race in the Japanese Super Formula series in 2016, having tested a car over the winter. Despite winning the 2015 GP2 title in record-breaking fashion, the Belgian is not yet able to make the step up to F1, but looks set to do so with McLaren when either Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso leave the team.

Buemi content with fightback to second in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - FEBRUARY 6:  In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Sebastien Buemi (SUI), Renault e.Dams Z.E.15 & Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01, during the Buenos Aires Formula E race at Puerto Madero Street Circuit on February 6, 2016 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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BUENOS AIRES – Sebastien Buemi felt content with his performance in Saturday’s Buenos Aires ePrix after bouncing back from a mistake in qualifying to finish second and extend his lead at the top of the Formula E drivers’ championship.

Buemi locked up during his 200kW lap in qualifying at Puerto Madero to resign himself to 18th position on the grid, handing his rivals an opportunity to overhaul him in the title race.

The Renault e.dams driver produced a spirited display to pick through the order during the race before coming into contention for the win late on after a safety car period.

Although Buemi could not overhaul DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird at the front of the pack, he remained happy with second place in light of his qualifying error.

“The mistake in qualifying was very annoying, because when you have such a good car and such a good team, you want to reward them with the best possible result,” Buemi told MotorSportsTalk.

“But in the end I did my best to come back. I think I did a good job. 18 points are better than zero so happy with that.”

Buemi is now targeting an error-free weekend at the next race in Mexico City as he looks to extend the four-point gap to Lucas di Grassi at the top of the standings.

“Clearly [the result] shows that we have a very strong car and we just need to make sure from now on we don’t miss any points,” Buemi said.

“Putrajaya, the team made a mistake, the car didn’t finish the race. But today obviously I made one [in qualifying] and I tried to work the car to catch it back.

“We’ve seen today that it’s easy to leave the weekend with zero points. I have only four points advantage in the championship, so I’m going to try to expand it as much as possible.”