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Malaysia preview - Will rain and Sepang revamp mix things up?

29 Sep 2016

Malaysia's Sepang circuit may have hosted 17 Grands Prix since 1999, but some significant track changes mean the venue promises to be a very different challenge for teams and drivers this year. With mixed weather also forecast, are we likely to see some shock results?

Circuit changes are more than just cosmetic

The Sepang International Circuit has enjoyed a significant revamp for 2016 - so much so that teams and drivers will be heading into the unknown this weekend, despite the circuit having been on the F1 calendar since 1999.

For starters, the entire 5.543 km (3.444 mile) track has been resurfaced. Primarily this means it is expected to be far smoother than previously - but the new surface could also be far more slippery, as other series have experienced, at least until it 'rubbers in' over the weekend.

Additionally, nine corners have been changed. Turns 1 and 4 are now much smoother, while the gradients have been revised in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 12 and 13 to improve driveability, and drainage has been enhanced too. Kerbs have also been revised to meet the latest FIA specifications, and run-off areas have also been increased - all of which could fundamentally change the traditional lines, braking points and inputs drivers used to follow.

Turn 15, the final left-hand hairpin leading on to the man straight, features the most significant changes. Where several of the other altered corners feature a degree of banking, the inside of this one has been raised a metre. The reverse camber has changed the corner's characteristics completely, and could prompt an entirely different line and approach - one drivers will have to work out and fine-tune as the weekend progresses.

Sepang CEO Razlan Razali believes that the changes are so far-reaching that drivers will feel like they are driving the track for the first time.


Can Ferrari repeat 2015 heroics?

The dramatic 'New Dawn' of 2017 looms fast, demanding huge technical focus, but here at the race in which they embarrassed Mercedes last year Ferrari are not giving up on their chances of retaking second place in the constructors' championship.

The Scuderia have duly brought an aerodynamic update to Malaysia, in the hope of overtaking Red Bull in the points table - whom they currently trail by 15 points, on 301 to Red Bull's 316.

It's understood that the upgrade will comprise a range of modifications aimed not just at boosting the usual extra cooling that is necessary for such a hot and humid race, but also at enhancing downforce. The latter is an area where Ferrari have lost out all season to Mercedes and Red Bull.

"We know we have a strong package for sure," Sebastian Vettel reminded reporters in Singapore. "Some races we didn't deliver all we could - some were up to us, and some because of stuff that happened. But for sure it didn't end up so far the way we wanted. But I think we believe in ourselves. We are not entirely where we want to be in terms of raw pace, sometimes better or sometimes worse, but at tracks like Singapore it is generally more close.

"We expected to be competitive, and then there is always a chance to win or fight for a podium. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out for both of us. But we have confidence. There are some bits coming still. We are here to fight and that is what we are going to do."


Can Rosberg keep his run going?

As the fight for world championship glory intensifies, Nico Rosberg comes into Sepang with an eight-point advantage - the first time he has led in the points since Silverstone. The German is the form man: he has taken four of the last five poles, and won the last three Grands Prix, helping him overturn what was once a 19-point deficit to team mate Lewis Hamilton.

"Singapore was a perfect weekend for me," an ebullient Rosberg says. "I felt great in the car, had a fantastic qualifying, made a strong start and then came out on top after a really intense battle with Daniel (Ricciardo) at the end of the race, which made the win all the more fulfilling. 

"The team did such an impressive job understanding what went wrong last year and turning it around. I'm massively proud of everyone for that. 

"It's an incredible position to be in as a driver, knowing you have a shot at winning every weekend. I won't take it for granted. I've had a good run lately and I'm enjoying the moment. But as far as the next race goes, or the next one after that and so on... it's anyone's game."

Rosberg has been here before of course, when he romped to victory in the first four races of the season - and Hamilton knows he needs a perfect weekend to turn it around and snatch momentum back.

"Singapore was a difficult weekend for me, so to come away with a podium in the circumstances was pretty good damage limitation," he says. "Ultimately, Nico did an exceptional job and I didn't have my best weekend. But that's the way it goes.

"I have no idea if the momentum will swing back to me or when it might. But we still have six races left, so I just have to keep giving it my all and hope for the best. That's all you can do as a sportsman. It's going to take some good results to get back in front and stay there - but I've had plenty of those in the past, so there's no reason to think they won't come back to me again. Sepang is my first shot..."


WATCH: Your guide to Malaysia's Sepang circuit

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Alonso gets new Honda engine, as Button looks forward to 300 starts

Sepang marks the 300th Grand Prix start in Jenson Button's remarkable career - only the third time in history that a driver has reached the landmark, following in the footsteps of Rubens Barrichello (322) and Michael Schumacher (306).

But while the Briton will be hoping to be in the thick of the action to mark the occasion, team mate Fernando Alonso is set to trial an updated Honda power unit this weekend - which means grid penalties loom for the Spaniard.

Honda are understood to have used two of their three remaining development token to improve their ICE's combustion chambers, which is key to horsepower. 

Alonso will therefore take on a new combustion engine, turbocharger, MGU-H, battery and control electronics in Sepang - which means a back-row start seems likely. He will also have further updated parts to evaluate on Friday too.

The changes come ahead of Honda's home race at Suzuka next weekend.


Is rain on its way?

The weather can be notoriously fickle in Malaysia, and early forecasts suggest teams and drivers will need to be casting their eyes skyward throughout the race weekend.

Rain is expected to hit on all three days, although pinning down the timing is a difficult exercise. Of most concern though is that showers are currently expected to hit shortly before qualifying, and again at around midday on Sunday - just before the lights go out, in other words. Given previous 'showers' at Sepang, that could turn the entire weekend on its head.

Even with the threat of rain, temperatures are likely to be above 30 degrees Celsius each day - and that heat, coupled with high speeds and long corners, have prompted Pirelli to bring their three hardest tyres - the orange-marked hard, white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft - for the first time since Silverstone.

In the past, wear and degradation has been high, making a multi-stop race likely, but it remains to be seen whether the new surface is as abrasive.

"In terms of extreme conditions that provide a real test for the tyres, Malaysia is right up there with anything else we see all year," says motorsport director Paul Hembery. "That's because of the extremely high temperatures as well as the high energy loadings through the fast corners. 

"The big unknown for this year is the track surface, which is completely new. The weather can also change in an instant, turning the track into a monsoon..."

The race itself gets underway at 1500 local time (0700 GMT), and runs over 310.408 kilometres, or 56 laps.