F1 Preview: 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix

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Following his third straight victory in Singapore two weeks ago, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg heads into this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix as the Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader for the first time since the middle of July.

After Lewis Hamilton’s mid-season resurgence, many expected the Briton to sweep through the remainder of the year and pick up his fourth world title.

Rosberg dug deep, though, with his Singapore victory arguably being his most complete thus far in 2016. The eight-point gap to teammate Hamilton may offer some comfort, but the German shan’t rest easy on it.

It feels strange for F1 to be visiting Malaysia so late in the season. The race has traditionally been the second leg on the calendar since 2001, but the decision to shift to the end of the year and form an Asian trifecta of races with Singapore and Japan made complete sense.

Much as Malaysia proved decisive in the title race of 1999, will it do so once again in 2016?

Here’s our full preview of the race weekend at Sepang.

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Rosberg’s run to continue?

Rosberg’s bid for a maiden F1 drivers’ title in 2016 may have been kick-started by his string of four wins at the beginning of the year, but it is this current sequence that could seal it. Wins in Belgium, Italy and Singapore vaulted him back into the lead of the drivers’ championship, and a fourth on the bounce this Sunday would see his advantage extend to at least 15 points.

Both Rosberg and Hamilton have fared well in Malaysia in the past, making a winner hard to pick. Hamilton certainly has the ability to pull a victory out of nowhere, yet with Rosberg in his current vein of form, it would be tough to bet against him.

How close can Red Bull or Ferrari get?

Red Bull was expected to impress in Singapore, making Daniel Ricciardo’s run to second not much of a surprise – the fact he got within half a second of victory was perhaps more interesting.

The unique nature of the street course in Singapore means a repeat this weekend is unlikely, though. The Sepang International Circuit is a track that suits a good all-rounder car, pointing towards a Mercedes victory.

That said, the race to be best of the rest is set to rage on between Red Bull and Ferrari. Malaysia was the site of Sebastian Vettel’s shock victory in 2015, yet Ferrari knows a repeat is perhaps unrealistic. Should rain strike, though, we could see Hamilton and Rosberg face a stiffer challenge.

Resurfaced, recambered Sepang to present new challenge

One of the reasons for the date shift for the Malaysian Grand Prix was so that the planned renovations for the Sepang International Circuit could be completed. While the layout itself remains the same, the track has been resurfaced, with a number of corners having their bumps removed as a result.

Perhaps the biggest change comes at the final corner, which has been given a more pronounced camber to aid the removal of water in wet conditions. As a result, the quickest line for drivers to take may have changed, making practice crucial for track acclimatization.

JB hits 300 in Malaysia

Jenson Button will make his 300th grand prix start this weekend in Malaysia, becoming just the third driver in the history of F1 to hit that landmark. Former Honda and Brrawn teammate Rubens Barrichello still holds the record for starts at 326, while Michael Schumacher sits second on 306. Button will sit on 305 come the end of the season if he starts every race.

While McLaren’s hopes of hitting the front of the pack may remain a pipedream in 2016, Button will be aiming to bring home more solid points for the British team on a landmark race in a landmark season for the Briton.

Haas to make points return?

Haas arrived in Singapore two weeks ago hopeful of picking up its first points since Austria thanks to a raft of updates for the VF-16 car, only for the weekend to descend into something of a nightmare.

Romain Grosjean faced a litany of issues that ended with him failing to start the race, while Esteban Gutierrez finished 11th – again – to extend his points drought ever close to the three-year mark.

Alas, it could be in Malaysia where the updates finally bear fruit. Tire strategy will be key, perhaps playing into Grosjean’s hands, while the grunt of the Ferrari power unit should put the team in good shape.

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sepang International Circuit
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Juan Pablo Montoya 1:34.223 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Hard/Medium/Soft
2015 Winner: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:49.834
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.062
DRS Zones: T15 to T1, T14 to T15

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 10pm ET 9/29
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 2am ET 9/30
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 2am ET 10/1
Qualifying: NBCSN 5am ET 10/1
Race: NBCSN 2am ET 10/2