A regular fixture on the Formula 1 calendar since 1999, the Sepang circuit was the first of the government-funded, Hermann Tilke-designed venues that now prevail in the sport.
Several high-speed changes of direction, coupled with long straights and tight hairpins, make the 5.543km track a thorough workout. Good car balance is vital and it’s no coincidence that the winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix has gone on to win the world title for the past three seasons.
The heat and humidity of the tropics add another dimension to this race. Blistering track and ambient temperatures make it hard on tyres, tough on drivers and one of the most physically difficult races for all F1 personnel.
McLaren at the Malaysian Grand Prix Wins – 2 (2003, 2007) Poles – None Fastest laps – 4 (2000, ’01, ’05, ’07)
Car 3: Jenson Button
Victory in Australia was the best possible way to start the season – how do you feel going in to Malaysia? “Calm, refreshed and feeling extremely positive. After the race, people asked me if we’d expected to demonstrate the pace that we did in Australia, and I tell them that it was unexpected. Of course, we’d done our sums after winter testing, but you can never be certain whether another team is running with high-fuel or hiding their true pace. So to come away from race one with such a positive result – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes took pole, fastest lap and the victory – is a huge relief for the organisation.
“But it’s also incredibly motivating: we know we have a great car but we’re not going to sit still with it. We have ambitious plans to develop the car and I know that everybody back at Woking is working hard to bring new components to the track, and that all our mechanics and engineers are flat-out to ensure that we maximise the package that we have this weekend. I think everybody knows that we are a relentless organisation; we can develop a car as well – if not better than – any other team. The difference this year is that we’ve started with a winning package; the challenge will be to maintain that, and I know that’s something we’re all really looking forward to doing.”
You won Malaysia in 2009, and you finished second here last year – is it a circuit you like? “It is. It’s more of a high-speed circuit [than Melbourne], there are some fantastic sweeping corners here and, if the car’s working properly, it’s a real joy to drive. It’s one of the toughest circuits on the calendar because there’s a real range of corners, cambers, a couple of blind apexes and a little bit of gradient. If the car’s working against you, then it becomes painful, but when it’s all switched on, it’s just a great, great circuit to drive.
“I think we’ve got a car that really works well in the high-speed stuff – we saw that throughout winter testing. So I think the challenge this weekend will be to find the right balance – at this stage in the year, you’re still learning about the car and how to get the best from it. But I think the engineers understand how our car is strong – I know they’re really looking forward to extracting the maximum from it in Sepang this weekend.”
Your victory in Australia was relatively unflustered, are you expecting a stronger challenge this weekend? “As we said repeatedly throughout last year, and we saw time and again with Sebastian [Vettel], if you can qualify strongly and get away cleanly then it’s much easier to control the field, to race cleanly and to get a representative result.
“I think the race showed that there are several top teams in Formula 1, and I think we can expect them to be fighting for victory in Malaysia. Both Red Bull drivers were very quick in the race, and I think we can expect further strong challenges from Mercedes AMG and Lotus this weekend.
“Of course, we’re not relaxing – and we go to Malaysia ready for a strong fight.”
Car 4: Lewis Hamilton
After Australia, you said you weren’t sure how you’d lost pace relative to Jenson: do you now understand that, and does that put you in a good position for Malaysia? “Yeah, after the race in Australia, it was difficult to understand exactly what happened. I was generally happy with the car all weekend, but just lacked a bit of pace compared to Jenson in the race. Afterwards, I sat down with my engineers and we went through all the data. There was a small issue with the clutch at the start: it wasn’t my fault, but we now understand and know how to improve in the future. My race pace was pretty much identical to Jenson’s, but he was able to switch the tyres on extremely well, which explains how he was able to pull a gap so quickly at the start and also after the restart.
“It’s encouraging and reassuring to understand the reasons for our race pace in Australia, and it puts me in a really positive frame of mind for the race in Malaysia. Plus, it always helps to be back in the car only five days after the last grand prix – you move on so quickly.”
You’ve never won in Malaysia – does that make you more intent to tick it off your list? “It’s never really something you’re particularly conscious of during the race weekend, but I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d love to win a grand prix at every circuit I race at. You’re right, I’ve not won at Sepang before, but I’ve had some good races here – and I’d like to put the record straight with a victory this weekend.
“I think we go into the weekend feeling pretty optimistic because Sepang is quite a high-speed circuit and our car has usually gone well in the high-speed stuff during winter testing. Sepang will also be a test because of the high temperatures, but we’ve traditionally been able to manage the cooling on our car quite well, so I don’t think that will be too much of a concern.
“Physically, it’s always a tough race, but we’re improving the organisation in every area, and I think we’ve taken some interesting steps this year to ensure the whole team will be better prepared for the heat and humidity.”
Will we get a clearer picture of overall pace this weekend? “Clearly, we’re very encouraged by our pace, both in qualifying and in the race, and I’d like to think we can continue that at Malaysia this weekend. I think both Mercedes AMG and Red Bull Racing have performance up their sleeves, and they’ll both be very fast in qualifying and the race. As far as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is concerned, it’s nice to be the hunted rather than the hunter, which has been the case in the past few seasons.
“But I know how well our team can respond – the result in Australia will only double everyone’s resolve. The development race has already started and we’ll be pushing like crazy to stay at the front. I think Malaysia will add detail to the overall picture, but it’s the pace of development – between ourselves, Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari – that will define the course of the season.”
Martin Whitmarsh, Team principal, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes “Everybody within Vodafone McLaren Mercedes was tremendously buoyed by our performance in Melbourne last weekend. As we all know, a Formula 1 winter is incredibly tense as it’s almost impossible to know if the targets you’ve set internally will set the standard or leave you wanting.
“Happily, we were delighted to discover that MP4-27 has been successfully developed into a race-winning package – and that’s a source of huge pleasure, and huge relief, for the whole team.
“Of course, nobody sits still in Formula 1 and we head to Malaysia mindful that we’ll once again receive a stern challenge from our closest rivals – most notably Red Bull Racing and Mercedes AMG, both of whom will have points to prove this weekend.
“Sepang was one of the original ‘new world’ Formula 1 circuits and one that triggered the sport’s global expansion into Asia at the start of the millennium. I’m pleased that it remains a mainstay of the calendar, but also that it has developed a character and history of its own. It’s an extremely demanding circuit – on both the cars and the drivers – and a real challenge.
“We’ve enjoyed some highs and lows here, but I think we’re all looking forward to understanding how this unique season will continue to unwind this weekend.”
How McLaren defined seven days in the history of the Malaysian Grand Prix
1. October 17 1999 Mika Hakkinen finishes third in the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix, frustrated by Ferrari’s bid to keep Eddie Irvine in the title hunt by using Michael Schumacher to control the race. Mika wraps up the title two weeks later in Suzuka.
2. October 22 2000 A brilliant race by David Coulthard sees him finish second, just 0.7s behind Michael Schumacher. Mika finishes fourth, sealing McLaren’s second place in the constructors’ championship.
3. March 23 2003 Kimi Raikkonen’s first win in Formula 1. The youngster charges from seventh on the grid to win by a mighty 39s from Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello – it is the first of the Finn’s 18 grand prix wins.
4. March 20 2005 McLaren don’t win this race, but the pace of Raikkonen’s MP4-20 is astounding. After suffering a mid-race puncture, he blasts back through the field to finish ninth, setting fastest lap.
5. April 8 2007 Fernando Alonso’s first win for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. He leads home Lewis Hamilton in a dominant one-two for the team. It’s a great race for Lewis too, who outfoxes Felipe Massa in a tense early battle and sets his first fastest lap in F1.
6. April 5 2009 Light rain starts to fall on lap 22 and the subsequent deluge results in the race being stopped on lap 31. It isn’t re-started due to failing light, so half-points are awarded. Lewis is the first Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver home in seventh place.
7. April 10 2011 Jenson Button starts fourth and, exhibiting the maturity and long-sightedness that is to define his season, looks after his tyres to take a tenacious runner-up position – his first podium of the year.