When Formula 1 first visited Malaysia back in 1999, the penultimate round of the season proved to be a memorable one at the shiny, new Sepang International Circuit.
McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen arrived in Malaysia leading the championship chase, with Eddie Irvine snapping at his heels in pursuit of Ferrari’s first world title for a considerable amount of time.
Fast forward 18 years, and there are some similarities to be drawn in the title fight currently ongoing. This time it is Lewis Hamilton – like Hakkinen, powered by a Mercedes engine – who leads the title race, with Sebastian Vettel trying to keep up and give Ferrari its first title in almost a decade.
After a dramatic swing last time out in Singapore, the final running of the Malaysian Grand Prix is set to be hugely important in the title race.
Let us hope that, unlike 1999, things are not settled off-track and there are no barge board dramas… (more on that later).
2017 Malaysian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Can Hamilton put the title in his hands?
With six rounds to go, the championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel is far from over, yet there could be a key mathematical swing in Malaysia this weekend.
Hamilton sits 28 points clear in the drivers’ championship following his surprise Singapore win and Vettel’s zero score, meaning that with one more win, he can mathematically take the title out of his rival’s hands – just as Nico Rosberg did to him one year ago at Suzuka.
Victory for Hamilton in Malaysia with Vettel second would see him sit 35 points clear with five races to go. With a gap of seven points between P1 and P2 for each race, were Vettel to win the remaining five rounds with Hamilton second each time, the pair would finish tied on points. Vettel would, however, take the title on race wins, 9-8.
Such has been the momentum swing from circuit to circuit and the strength of Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, it seems unlikely Hamilton and Vettel could finish one-two at all of the remaining races. It is a big assumption to make.
But the key for Hamilton would be the security offered by a points lead of, say, 38 points, were he to win in Malaysia and Vettel finish third. Then he would know what pressure would lay on Vettel, who is without a win since Hungary.
One year on from the retirement that killed Hamilton’s hopes of a fourth title, the Briton has the chance in Malaysia to balance things out and put himself in a position where he can define his own destiny.
Sainz, Palmer, Vandoorne look to keep Singapore momentum going
While Singapore proved to be a low point for Vettel and Ferrari thanks to the first-corner clash, three of F1’s young midfield chargers left Marina Bay on a high after recording their best finishes in the sport.
Just 48 hours after being confirmed as a Renault driver for 2018, Sainz took an excellent P4 for Toro Rosso, becoming just the third man in the team’s history to finish so highly, following Vettel and Max Verstappen.
Palmer did a terrific job to ease some of the pressure on his shoulders by taking sixth, marking his first points of the season, while Vandoorne was seventh for McLaren, giving the British team some comfort after Fernando Alonso’s cruel, early knockout.
All three will now head to Malaysia keen to keep the momentum going, although there will surely be varying targets.
For Sainz, the aim will be to lead F1’s midfield once again, while Palmer will simply want to consolidate his Singapore display and continue to sell himself to possible suitors for 2018 (which, ultimately, are looking more and more likely to have to come from outside F1).
As for Vandoorne? Honda has made no secret of the challenge it faces at Sepang, a power-hungry circuit. So a repeat of his charge to seventh in perhaps unlikely lacking some divine intervention. That said, his near-miss of the points in Monza could offer some hope of another top-10 finish.
Gasly ready to impress in long-awaited F1 debut
Just days after strengthening his bid for the Super Formula title in Japan, Pierre Gasly was given the news he has been waiting a few years for: he will finally make his F1 debut in Malaysia.
In a bid to evaluate Gasly for a full-season Toro Rosso seat, Red Bull has opted to call the Frenchman up early to its B-team in place of Daniil Kvyat, who will be benched for the next two races.
Gasly had been tipped to replace Sainz had the Spaniard made an early move to Renault, as craved by the French manufacturer, only for Palmer to dig in his heels on his contract to see out the rest of the season.
The opportunity is a big one for Gasly. A near-three-year win drought raised concerns over his ability, and Red Bull chiefs were apparently disappointed he did not win the GP2 title by a greater margin last year.
But his form in Super Formula has been sparkling of late. The series is not an easy one to pick up and master, yet he has done so well, meaning he will head to the season finale at Suzuka in three weeks’ time just half a point shy of the leader.
F1 will be the focus this weekend, and while this opportunity is perhaps unexpected, there will be a significant amount of pressure that comes with it, requiring Gasly to impress.
Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix will be a poignant one as F1 bids farewell to one of its original flyaway races, with the event being scrapped for 2018 and beyond.
Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit was the first ‘Tilkedrome’, designed by esteemed track designer Hermann Tilke, to appear on the calendar, and was the first signal of the expansion into Asia that would follow.
18 years later, F1 has visited Bahrain, China, Singapore, Korea and Abu Dhabi, gaining a real foothold in the region that even the loss of Malaysia should not dent too badly.
That said, this is a race that holds many fond memories for F1. From Multi 21 in 2013 to the washout of 2009, or Fernando Alonso’s first pole and Kimi Raikkonen’s first win in 2003, or the downpour and Ferrari fightback of 2001 – and, most infamously, the race where this article started in 1999, that originally saw both Irvine and Michael Schumacher thrown out of a technical irregularity that temporarily settled the championship.
In the end, the decision was appealed and reversed, although Irvine would end up losing the drivers’ title to Hakkinen at Suzuka. But it nevertheless marked a memorable start for F1 in Malaysia.
The decision to cut the race is understandable, given the dwindling attendances and escalating costs that have put pressure on the organizers, but that will not stop them seeing F1 off with an event to remember.
Thanks for the memories, Malaysia. We hope to meet again someday.
2017 Malaysian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Sepang International Circuit
Lap Record: Juan Pablo Montoya 1:34.223 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:32.850
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:36.424
DRS Zone: T15 to T1, T14 to T15
2017 Malaysian Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times