Thomas Maher: Formula 1 prepares for its busiest month ever, starting in Malaysia
The Malaysian GP takes place on Sunday at Sepang12:46 Saturday 1 October 2016, 12:46 1 Oct 2016
Having endured the nightmarish heat and humidity of Singapore, Formula 1 drivers don't get any respite this weekend as they prepare for battle at the Sepang Circuit near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Just as horribly hot and heavy as Singapore, there is next to no difference made by the annual trip to Malaysia taking place much later in the season than usual, with Sepang traditionally holding one of the first rounds of the championship since 2001. First used as a Formula 1 venue in 1999, it was the scene of Michael Schumacher's triumphant return to racing after a leg break that season, a race that Schumacher was peerless at.
On pole position by almost a second, the German driver allowed teammate Eddie Irvine through to win the race and take the lead of the World Championship over McLaren's Mika Hakkinen, with Schumacher spending the rest of the race holding up the Finn. The Ferraris were temporarily disqualified after that race for technical infringements, but later re-instated. The Malaysian race proved a smash hit, at a time when F1 was only starting to look outside of its traditional stomping grounds for new Grands Prix.
2001 was another memorable race. Held for the first time in March, F1 got to experience the monsoon conditions that routinely hit the region, and Michael Schumacher had to recover from flying off the track and falling almost a lap down during a pitstop. This he did, winning the race as the track dried. That wouldn't be the only time rain affected the racing at Sepang, however, with 2009's event having only half points awarded due to only 31 of the 56 laps able to be completed.
The track itself is fast and flowing, one of the more popular of the 'new' venues introduced in F1 since the turn of the century. Overtaking is relatively common here, with a very long back and main straight separated by a hairpin. There's been plenty of drama in recent years here too, with the infamous 'Multi-21' incident between Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
With Webber leading Vettel, the pair were issued the team order 'Multi-21' to hold station to the chequered flag. Vettel decided to ignore this and race his teammate for the win, snatching it away from the popular Australian. This led to a breakdown of goodwill at Red Bull, and to Vettel becoming the pantomime villain of the sport until the end of his domination of the sport.
However, in a sport of short memories, Vettel took a hugely popular win here last year in just his second race for Ferrari. Mercedes were defeated in a straight fight for the first time since the beginning of the 2014 season, with Vettel employing a useful two stop strategy over Lewis Hamilton's three stop to take a comfortable win and, briefly, ignite hopes of a two team battle for the title.
With this weekend being the sixth last race of this year, any chance of a two team battle for this year's titles are merely mathematical, with Ferrari squabbling with Red Bull Racing for second place behind the Mercs. However, there is still reason to be hopeful of a competitive race. Momentum lies with Nico Rosberg, having taken three straight wins on the bounce going into this weekend. However, all that momentum only adds up to an eight point lead in the tables. Finishing P2 to Lewis Hamilton this weekend will, effectively, equalise them again.
Singapore was a masterclass from Nico Rosberg, taking a peerless pole position on Saturday afternoon before going on to dominate the race on Sunday. That was, until Red Bull decided to roll the dice by taking a late tyre strategy call to swap to the UltraSoft tyre with just over ten laps to go. Having been less than three second behind Rosberg as the leaders negotiated lapped backmarkers, Ricciardo's immediate pace was such that Rosberg was left unable to respond to the Red Bull's pitstop. Had he done so, he would fallen to P2. Instead, he was forced to keep driving while Ricciardo closed in a furious rate. The Australian kept the pressure on right to the chequered flag, but Rosberg was able to resist and hod on to take the victory.
It has to be noted, though, that Rosberg's margin over Hamilton was significant. So great was it that, had the roles been reversed (as they usually are), that Hamilton's supposed greater natural ability would have been lauded from the skies. For once, Rosberg was the Mercedes driver firmly ahead and, worryingly for Hamilton, Rosberg's highest level of performance in over two years is coming as this season ticks down to an end. Funnily enough, it was at this venue where the subject of team orders at Mercedes between Rosberg and Hamilton first came up.
In 2013, with the team then under Ross Brawn's management, Hamilton and Rosberg lay P3 and P4 behind the Red Bulls. With Rosberg much faster and on fresher tyres, he asked to be let past Hamilton as he drove around behind him. He was denied permission, repeatedly. They finished in that order and, afterwards, Rosberg spoke about his desire to put Mercedes' interests before his own, while Hamilton said that he "probably would" let Rosberg through in the future. With Mercedes' strength only growing since then, we can only imagine how dull the last three seasons may have been had Brawn been left in charge to bring home the titles.
As quickly as Malaysia will come and go, Japan comes up the following weekend in another back to back as F1 flies through four races over the next five weekends - the busiest month, ever, in the sport's history. There's a lot to be decided over those weeks including, possibly, this year's World Champion. There's also the possibility that these could be the final races where Mercedes are the de facto benchmark, as the sport enters a new set of technical regulations in 2017. The next few weeks are going to be wild, hold on tight.
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