2013 Malaysian Grand Prix: An Insight
It was at this place, the Sepang International Circuit that the season was made last year – of course, it took eight races on the trot to make it epic but Malaysia heralded what can be called the revival of Formula One from the shackles of morbidity. But this time, when we came out of our weekend, the sport had taken a turn for the bad. The podium was the glummest one would have witnessed in a long time featuring a selfish and seemingly impudent German hogging the spoils, an obedient but betrayed teammate and an apologetic Brit accepting the honours, slightly abashed by the events. The win might have put him on an equal footing with Sir Jackie Stewart with 27 wins but his shenanigans have botched up this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. Let’s delve into what happened on race day.
It’s time for us to take you around the Sepang International Circuit – the first of the purpose built Tilke designed dromes with a typical flowing layout punctuated by a good mix of sweeping bends and slow off-camber corners. It’s a 5.54 km long track set in a clockwise fashion featuring 15 corners – 10 right-handers and five left-handers. The start-finish straight is about a kilometre long book-ended by a slow right-hander (turn 1) that leads into a tight left hairpin. The asphalt is bumpy in this region, making it hard for drivers to put power behind the wheels going into turn 3, which is a long flat-out turn laid rightward followed by another slow section around turn 4 which is a 90-degree bend called the Langkawi Curve taken in second gear. The drivers can put the foot on the peddle exiting turn 4 into turns 5 and 6 that forms a high-speed chicane (taken in sixth gear for most part) putting the drivers under stress with the high G-Force as well as hurting the tyres.
This chicane, called the Genting Curve, feeds into the KLIA Curve (turns 7 and 8) that is a medium speed right-hander to be taken like a double-apex turn. A small straight from its exit ends into turn 9 or the Berjaya Tioman Corner which is again a slow left-handed hairpin antithetical in gradient to turn 2. Up next, turn 10 leads into a challenging right-hander section holding turn 11 that requires braking and turning all together. Turns 12 and 13 are flat left and right sequences of corners leading into Sunway Lagoon curve at turn 14 hitting the brakes hard coming down from the sixth to the second gear turning at the same time. The long back straight provides obvious overtaking opportunities as the drivers can brake hard into turn 15, a left-handed slow hairpin but the exit has to smooth leading into the start-finish straight running parallel to the pit-lane.
Cars are set up traditionally for medium to high downforce with high aerodynamic efficiency and balance and carefully tuned grip to counter the off-camber curves. The cars run full throttle for 70% of the lap while time spent braking is 15% across the eight braking zones. A DRS zone has been added from last year making it two for the race first time in this season. The detection for the first DRS zone is 54m after turn 12 with activation 104 m after the Sunway Lagoon curve. The second DRS-assisted overtaking zone will be detected 16m after exiting the hairpin at turn 15 with activation 12m ahead.
Mini-Report: Moments that made the Race
Starting Grid Top 10: 1.Vettel, 2. Massa, 3. Alonso, 4. Hamilton, 5. Webber, 6. Rosberg, 7. Button, 8. Sutil, 9. Perez, 10. Raikkonen
With rains preceding the race, the track temperature was down to around 27 degrees and the hopes of watching the other extreme of the weather conditions were somewhat subdued. Action began even before the formation lap was taken – as many as eight cars were caught out by the slippery conditions as they were heading out to take their positions on the grid in the slight rain. The teams chose to start with the intermediates, mainly due to the water currents on turns 3 and 4 while the rest of the field was dry. As the lights went out, Vettel made a good start getting away well into turn 1 while teammate Webber was quick off the box, unlike Australia, getting the better of Massa later in the lap. Meanwhile, Alonso whizzed past Massa challenging Vettel into turn 1. He tried a move on the outside of turn one for the lead but instead ended up tagging his front wing into the rear of the Redbull. Ferrari decided to keep him out until the scheduled pit-stop for changing the tyres, which grossly backfired when in lap two the disturbed front-wing tucked underneath the Ferrari throwing him into the gravel trap and it was ‘race over’ for the Spaniard.
There was more drama during the first round of pit-stops. Vettel was the first to cave, diving into the pits for slicks in lap 5 while Webber stayed out. On exit, he struggled to keep the car going in one-direction as it slithered due to lack of grip. Force India had a stinker on lap 6 as they tried to double-stop Di Resta behind Sutil but a problem with the left rear gun cost both the drivers a lot of time, which was especially frustrating for the Scot waiting in queue. By lap 7, the rest of the field was in for a switch to the slicks as we had comedy in the McLaren pits, with Hamilton trying to get his tyres changed there and had to be waved away. At the end of lap 8, Webber was into the lead having taken advantage of Vettel’s early pit-stop and his subsequent exit in traffic.
The second round of pit-stops began in lap 19 with Webber diving in for more tyres. Force India was having just one of those forgettable days and both Di Resta and Sutil suffered loss of huge amounts of time as mechanics labored to switch tyres, an issue triggered by their newly adopted wheelnut system. While Di Resta retired on lap 24, Sutil went on a little further but rolled back into the garage on lap 29. In the meantime, we had some action between Hulkenberg (who was a huge pain for Raikkonen later) and Lotus driver Grosjean as the former emerged from the pits on lap 22. Grosjean pulled off a brave move going into turn 5, sticking up on the inside of turn 5 that Hulkenberg failed to fend off. The Frenchman finished P6 ahead of his teammate on P7 as Lotus struggled having lost the advantage of being able to nurse their tyres better on account of the cold weather.
Around lap 35, Button came in for his third stop and did not plan to stop again, in pursuit of the front-runners running on a four-pit strategy. It would have been interesting to see if he could make that happen given that he managed the same middle sector times around lap 34 as the Redbulls and Mercedes on a fresh set of tyres. It’s now that it went grossly wrong for the Brit as the mechanics fumbled – he was sent out without the front right tyre properly located and had to be wheeled back in from the middle of the pit-lane. No matter what McLaren come out saying about the car, the truth is it was able to match the performances of some of the field-leaders and that MP4-28 isn’t as much a lost cause as it is being made to appear.
After the final round of pit-stops starting around lap 41, the race was about to get ugly. The order up ahead was Webber from Vettel followed by the two Mercedes drivers Hamilton and Rosberg. On lap 44, Vettel began attacking Webber going side-by-side on turn 5 but Webber managed to fend off the challenge. The tussle grew so intense over the next couple of laps that Horner himself had to bark into Vettel’s radio – “This is silly Seb, come on”. But Vettel had other ideas and like an obstinate child hooked on to his toy, he wanted it ‘bad enough’, going past him coming out of turn 4 on lap 46 (More on why this was so bad, coming up later). Meanwhile, we had drama on the Mercedes team-radio and much like Horner, Brawn had to take it in his hands to instruct the drivers especially Nico to hold stations. The difference here was that the drivers obliged and maintained P3 and P4 coming home.
Top 10: 1.Vettel, 2.Webber, 3.Hamilton, 4.Rosberg, 5.Massa, 6.Grosjean, 7.Raikkonen, 8.Hulkenberg, 9.Perez, 10.Vergne
Vettel is a spoilt brat
“Multi-21, Seb. Multi-21” was all Webber could manage in the pre-podium room and the tension on the podium could be cut with a knife. Sebastian Vettel might have shown his appetite to win, the cutting edge of a prodigal talent but the contempt of team’s call to hold stations was outright crass given that his teammate stuck to his task with due diligence. The common belief is that Vettel ended up with far less friends after the race than he began the day with and this was one of those very rare times when the winner was the villain of the day. The drama began around lap 45. Webber emerged out precariously ahead of Vettel after his final pit stop and the duo ran side-by-side before Webber nudged ahead going into the Genting Curve. Both the drivers were told to turn down the engines, save fuel and hold position – while Webber obliged after being reassured twice of a win (as per the current order), the temptation to finish on the top step of the podium got the better of Vettel, who took the outside line to sweep past Webber into a lead that he never surrendered. Seb has apologized since then in a bid to make merry with the team and Webber in particular, but his words might be too little, too late.
Now, there are two issues that come out of this. First one concerns with how Christian Horner handles the situation. There’s no hiding the fact that his authority has been usurped and this is not even the sad part – worse came from Webber when he asserted blatantly that Vettel will be ‘protected as usual’. That being the case, Redbull will have to re-evaluate their idea of managing a team – caving to the whims and fancies of their arrogant, spoilt little brat is just dastardly. Well, Webber isn’t exactly the one to curb himself from speaking his mind and this time the message was Horner – “Obviously we know Seb is no slouch but you need to have strong people all the way through the team to have everyone having the chance to get the maximum result”. Our sympathies are with Webber!
Now, the other issue is that there is a flipside to the whole episode. There are many who do believe that Vettel did what he had to – after all, isn’t Formula One about competitive racing, going wheel-to-wheel and having an unbridled go at each other in an adrenalin rush? Weren’t manufactured races with drudgery of cars coming back in the order they started, the reasons that almost drove the sport into a rut? All true! Well, in that case, let’s just do away with team orders altogether and see how that goes, because, in this particular scenario, what Vettel did wasn’t something he ‘had to’ but something ‘he chose to’.
Brawn shows who’s the boss
Meanwhile at Mercedes, Ross Brawn was the anti-Horner and Rosberg the anti-Vettel. What Brawn and the team did was, by his own admission, tough on Nico, but in hindsight, it was the right call. While Horner let Vettel ‘take it into his own hands’, we had Brawn on the Mercedes pit-wall unflinching in his resolution to bring both drivers in among points. He spelt it out clearly for Nico to gauge the importance of holding stations and saving fuel at that juncture – “Negative Nico. Lewis is being controlled as well”. The result was that Nico obliged and let Hamilton grab a podium finish, the first for Mercedes this season. Again, people who support Vettel’s antics at Sepang might bash Mercedes for spoiling what could have been Nico’s party. It’s a classic case of ‘what-ifs’ in Formula One and we have already brushed on that issue in the previous section – even the pundits of the sport are divided in their opinion over the matter and the discussions won’t fizz out anytime soon. For our sake though, it would have been interesting to see if Nico could have given the Redbulls a scare, considering ‘he could go much faster’ and had enough fuel on-board. And nevertheless, it wasn’t the most cheerful of Hamilton’s podiums, but he did have the grace to admit that Rosberg drove a much controlled race and deserved to stand there instead of himself. Anyhow, we’ve had enough confessions and apologies for one race (including Vettel’s and Domenicali’s).
There’s a three weeks’ break before the next Grand Prix moves to China in April. Though we are just two weeks into the season, teams won’t mind the respite from all the drama. For teams such as McLaren and Williams, it’s a chance to make things better than they stand today in terms of development of their cars while Redbull should look into their man-management. Pirellli, meanwhile, will be busy fending off the likes of Redbull bosses and their criticisms of the rubber produced this year. In fact, Hembrey has already rubbished Redbulls demands to offer a new range of tyres saying that it would be unfair to the other outfits. In all earnestness, the season, which is still in a nascent stage, has a lot riding on it’s shoulders and we hope that the Chinese Grand Prix can pick up from where we left in Melbourne and Sepang will be forgotten as a bad dream.