Goodbye Malaysia: this weekend’s Grand Prix in South East Asia is the 19th and last to be held here. When it made its debut back in 1999, the Sepang circuit was at the cutting edge of a new generation of facilities, all from the pen of Hermann Tilke. The track features a combination of high speed turns, long straights and hairpins and these are laid out in an elegant setting, the highlights of which are the design of the grandstands and the lighting in the paddock. It is a window on a country which is undergoing extensive socio-economic development, with its citizens coming from three distinct ethnic backgrounds – Malaysian, Chinese and Indian – all living in harmony.
The first edition featured the return to racing of Michael Schumacher, after he had broken his leg at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was a memorable weekend for Scuderia Ferrari, with Schumi starting from pole and working to help Eddie Irvine’s chances of winning the world title. One year later in Sepang, with the Drivers’ title already in the bag, the Prancing Horse team also secured the Constructors’ crown. Malaysia was also the setting for Sebastian Vettel’s first win in red back in 2015.
The track is very technical, with corners that put the tyres under a lot of stress, thanks to the lateral acceleration loads, the abrasive track surface and the intense heat. This year, having assessed the behaviour of their tyres, Pirelli has opted to leave the Hard compound at home, bringing instead the Mediums, Softs and Supersofts. It’s always possible that the rain tyres will also see some action, given the forecast for the weekend doesn’t rule out the chance of storms, which are usually very heavy.
The weather is another challenge with suffocating heat and humidity. All weekend, the drivers work especially carefully on keeping hydrated, so as not to suffer too much in the race, when they might get a slight chance to pause for breath down the two straights (the longest of which is 900 metres) prior to and after turn 15. A difficult Grand Prix for man and machine, which despite this, or maybe because of it, has always had a charm all of its own.