For the first time since Hungary, Formula One returns to what can be classed as a ‘normal’ racetrack, with no set-up extremes or street circuits involved.
However, this does not mean to say that Malaysia is an easy race – in fact, far from it. Aside from the searing afternoon heat in which the race takes place, all aspects of the car are tested, with three very different sectors.
Downforce vs Drag
There is a difficult trade-off here, as speed on the long straights must be maintained while not compromising performance in the high speed corners in the middle sector.
Generally, there will be a slight bias towards downforce thanks to the corners being long and sweeping, and therefore, understeer especially will be punished. Meanwhile, rear load actually helps initial straightline performance at Sepang by improving traction from slow speed corners, at the cost of top speed.
Car Strengths Needed
All attributes of a car are tested here, much like in Silverstone, but this is one of the more extreme circuits in terms of the emphasis on Aerodynamic performance, with the fast, flowing corners.
Additionally, engine power and energy deployment are critical with two long straights one after the other to heading into Turn 15 and then Turn 1.
Turns 5 and 6 – these high speed corners may be flat out for some teams with the greater downforce for 2017, and as such, will be a key performance differentiator across the grid.
Turn 14 – this is one of the trickiest corners on the entire calendar, requiring braking and turning at high speed, making it easy to lock the front tyres. Rear end snaps are also not uncommon here.
Pirelli is bringing its softest ever tyre compound selection to Malaysia with its middle trio of compounds. This is unsurprising given that the Hard is not a viable tyre with difficulties generating temperature severely limit its grip.
Last year, a mixture of strategies was used up and down the field, with the Hard tyre, somewhere between this year’s Soft and Medium, having the best mixture of speed and durability.
At the same time, the softer compounds were not unduly stressed thanks to the less abrasive new tarmac put down before last year’s event.
With this in mind, it is not particularly surprising that the teams have favoured the Supersoft and Soft, with the Medium’s performance deficit to the Soft more than negating its extended durability. Expect a multi-stop race if the weather does not intervene.
Sepang is one of the better tracks when it comes to overtaking, with two long straights, together with DRS assistance, allowing for good racing.
The cause is also aided by the slow, final corner hairpin, which allows for late braking manoeuvres, as well as the potential for cars to follow each other closely, a critical consideration for wheel-to-wheel action, especially in 2017.
As ever in Malaysia, thunderstorms must be expected every afternoon, and therefore, there is a good chance that either qualifying or the race will be interrupted.
The worst case scenario for teams and drivers will be a wet Friday, followed by a dry weekend, as no long run data will be collected to enable tyre life predictions, and therefore strategy plans, to be formulated.
As referred to above, Silverstone is probably the most accurate performance indicator for Malaysia. The middle sector at Spa also provides a more recent data set.
Putting these together, Mercedes are favourites, but Ferrari’s progress from Silverstone to Spa will encourage the Scuderia.
Renault will look to be comfortably the fourth fastest car, ahead of Force India.
Will Mercedes’ reported upgrade package provide the team with a performance advantage that all but seals both titles for the team?
Can Ferrari, like in Spa, use the greater tyre degradation than in Silverstone to their benefit in race conditions?
As was the case last year, can McLaren, bolstered by new bargeboards, make up for their power deficit in the chassis dependent middle sector?