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Out of all the races in Asia, this race weekend on the calendar can be one of the warmest and humid ones to look forward too. However, on arriving here the weather was humid but not as bad as expected. This time I am not going to much into how Sepang can be, it is one of those races next to India where you dont feel your too far from home. Along with being close to home, the area near the track has a high Tamil population, and I have hardly seen any Malay people ever since. Looks like another Indian race, only difference it feels like South India more than North. And yes, the food stink is in the air, still trying to find a decent Nasi Goreng or Nasi Lemak in the area.

Getting back to the Grand Prix buzz, the biggest news here on arrival is the changes made to the circuit. The new tweaks on it include resurfaced asphalt, changes at a lot of turns, new cambers, and revised kerbs. If FIA and track authority talk is to be believed the lap times (race pace)  will be 3 seconds faster than last year.

Fresh asphalt means a different game ahead, a recent example is Austria, where when the track is resurfaced or tweaked the drivers have to deal with varied grip levels and it leads to a lot of setup changes and different strategies. Simulators too can’t help a driver gauge grip levels or how a changed gradient can affect.

Here’s a gist of what has been changed-

  • The whole 5.543km of track surface has new asphalt, a dark black coloured one.
  • Nine corners have been changed.
  • Turn 1 and Turn 4 are smoother
  • Gradients have been revised in Turn 2,3,4,5,6,9,12 and 13 to improve driveability
  • Drainage has been enhanced
  • Revised kerbs according to FIA standards- this might change the fundamentals of driving here taking the traditional racing line, braking points used by the drivers.
  • Turn 15 and final hairpin that leads onto the main straight has the most changes- Inside of the corner has been raised by a metre. Reverse camber has changed the characteristics of approaching that corner altogether.

Basically all of it will make the drivers work out different racing lines and fine tune those over the weekend. When changes like these are made, a lot of setup changes, tyre strategy changes and different updates can be expected on the cars till the drivers can re-master the car around.

The second news has been from the Ferrari motorhome, where the scarlet squad has brought new technical updates for their car to Sepang. Along with them, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren will debut the new upgraded power unit, however using that has put 30 grid place penalties for him this weekend so far.

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In Free Practice one, most of the drivers got accustomed to the new changes on the track in the earlier part of the session. Just 2 minutes into the session Kevin Magnussen’s car caught fire, which brought out the red flags for a 15 minute period. The Dane had completed his installation laps and was being wheeled back into the garage, when there were flames flaring out from the top of his engine cover. With the flames erupting along with a simultaneous fuel leak, the rest of the car started catching fire and it took 10 minutes to extinguish it completely. The team suspects a build up in pressure in the fuel tank that lead to the leak. However, the exact reason still remains unconfirmed, and it is unlikely that the Danish driver will be driving in FP2.

 

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In FP1 Nico Rosberg topped the time sheets with the fastest time on softs. His team-mate Lewis Hamilton who was on mediums clocked a time 5/10ths less than his and had the second fastest time, but the Briton clocked his quickest lap on medium tyres, which means theres more pace to come. Third fastest was Kimi Raikkonen, but not much can be said about the Ferraris yet. Last year’s Malaysian race winner, Sebastian Vettel was struggling for traction and barely managed clocking the fourth fastest time, 2/10ths slower than Kimis.

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Behind Vettel was his old rival, Fernando Alonso clocked the fifth fastest splitting the Ferraris and the Red Bulls. With an upgraded engine unit, he was 1.103 seconds faster than his team-mate who was on the older engine unit.

But FP1 being the first taste of action at any race weekend, cannot be prediction worthy.

 

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FP2, however had a few giveaways, where Hamilton at the beginning of the session managed the fastest time on the hard tyres, 4/10ths ahead of his team-mate who was on soft compound tyres. It is times like these, when you realise how superior Lewis is to Nico. Most of the run and quick times on the hard tyre were Lewis himself and not the car or the powertrain. There is one second of a difference between the soft and hard, but on that run it was just Lewis and his inherently quick driving on a track like this. Later when he did a run on the softs he was 2/10ths ahead of Nico, but the latter was just not as agile when it came to grip levels as the former.

The top three teams look close when it comes to the soft compound, when it comes to long term pace. In the qualifying simulations, Ferrari and Mercedes look better on the soft compound as compared to the Red Bull. The medium tyres are useless here with the track temperatures being between 48-58 degrees. A smarter strategy in qualifying is going to be a mix of runs between hard and soft. When it comes to McLaren, Alonso lost two-tenths to his timing in the morning, but he was still seventh quickest in the session. He is giving the Force India’s some competition, which couldn’t have been said last year this time. Nevertheless, a key takeaway with the McLaren has been the power deployment difference between the upgraded unit on Alonso’s car compared with the old unit on Buttons.

A driver who struggled with tyres today was Daniel Ricciardo, who seemed lost when it came to tyre management. The Australian was no where in the sector times either. For a track that is aerodynamically demanding and ideally suits  Red Bull, Max seems to be their only driver whose in form. On the mediums the Dutchman is strong in sprint runs and long runs, and it works well knowing the Ferraris are weak on that tyre compound.

In Ferrari, Vettel and Kimi both had a decent run with the former being the busiest on track completing a total of 37 lap. Kimi went out late for his sprint runs and therefore set a time later in the session. The Finn’s initial session was more than 17 laps on the hard compound.

Here’s the full classification for FP2:

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I’m off to Red Bull to celebrate Max’s 19th birthday (balloons and jello party- I suppose), and then too McLaren to celebrate Jenson’s 300th GP moment. So Ciao from here and stay tuned for the qualy and race updates through the weekend.

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