The Malaysian Grand Prix used to be much earlier in the year, often appearing as the second race of the season. However, the decision was taken last year to move it towards the end of the calendar to give teams an easier jump to Japan before making the trip to the USA. It also eased the risk of torrential downpours associated with the Spring in Malaysia, and it seemed to work last year as we experienced a totally dry race.
Early indications show that this may not be the case this year, but dry or wet, the circuit offers drivers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.
The two long straights that dominate Sepang also create two of the best overtaking points, but there are more passing places than meet the eye here.
Turn one is obviously a big spot for an overtake, and the quick change of direction into the narrower turn two provides a lot of different angles of attack for drivers as well as the chance to come back at an overtaking car as well. A battle through one and two inevitably leads to a fight at the next braking zone in turn four, where we saw the controversial pass by Sebastian Vettel on his teammate Mark Webber in 2013. Through turn five to eight there is only one line but the next big braking area is to the lesser hairpin at turn nine which can serve as an opportunity, although the off-camber exit can be tricky.
Turn 10 to 14 isn’t going to serve up any chances as just like the earlier section it is mid-speed with only one line, but the long run and DRS to the final turn 15 gives an opportunity to make one last dive before the line.
Malaysia’s rough and bumpy surface is notoriously tough on tyres, so it is odd to see Pirelli bring the medium, soft, and supersoft tyres to Malaysia rather than its hard compound. Admittedly, the 2018 rubber is much harder wearing than previous years, but this could still cause high degradation leading to two, or maybe even three-stop strategies. This could be why we are seeing some teams go quite conservative with their choices, wanting to evaluate the wear differences between the soft and supersoft tyres before committing to a strategy.
Others, like Williams and McLaren are going in the other direction, loading up on the red supersoft tyre, indicating that they might try to run a more aggressive strategy, and maybe run a race with more pit stops.
We also have to take qualifying into account, and the fact that the likes of Mercedes (Hamilton in particular) and Red Bull might fancy their chances of getting into Q3 on the soft tyre, which would allow them to run a longer first stint. Back at the other end again, the likes of McLaren and Williams know that they will need all the supersofts they can get their hands on to even get through Q1.
It is interesting that three drivers have elected to take two sets of the medium tyre. If degradation turns out to be high, might we see one of these guys take a gamble on one stop?
As usual, we will start to get a clearer idea of what the teams are thinking once practice gets underway on Friday.
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