HERMANN Tilke’s first Formula One circuit was the challenging and demanding Sepang, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix. In the 13 runnings of the race so far, there have been plenty of great stories in a place known for its humid heat temperatures and biblical thunderstorms!
The first event was held in 1999 and the inagural race came at a crucial time for the world championship battle that season. Mika Hakkinen arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a slender two point advantage over Eddie Irvine. What’s more, Michael Schumacher chose this race to return after his six race absence as he recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the British Grand Prix. Schumacher returned in style, by qualifying a whole second faster than anyone else, then dictating the race so well, Irvine was almost too slow to beat him. The Ulsterman got help from the normal Ferrari no.1, twice being allowed into the lead. He used clever defensive tactics to keep an exhausted Hakkinen back in third place. Just as Ferrari celebrated a magnificent 1-2, the team were thrown out after measurements from the scrutineers suggested the team were running illegal barge boards. The fault was even admitted by technical director Ross Brawn and the championship was Hakkinen’s. Conversly, Ferrari’s lodged an appeal, saying the measurement taken was from an angle, not a flat surface. A week later, the FIA overturned the decision made by the stewards and Ferrari kept their victory.
The Schumacher family have had plenty of success down the years in Malaysia. Ralf produced one of his most convincing displays in 2002 to lead home a Williams 1-2. That day, his older brother clashed with Juan Pablo Montoya in the first corner and the Colombian was given a very harsh drive-through penalty. At least he made some history in becoming the first ever recipient of one of these penalties! Schumacher Snr won the final race in 2000, more remembered for the red wigs the team showered themselves on the podium with after wrapping up a second constructors title in a row. The race also brought a sad end to Johnny Herbert’s career, as he sustained leg injuries in a nasty accident when his Jaguar rear suspension collapsed. In 2001, the Ferrari team produced a stunning recovery from a synchronised gravel visit from both Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, then a 84-second pitstop in the midst of a traditional Malaysian monsoon. The team’s decision to fit intermediates saw them ending up annihilathting their rivals once the Safety Car withdrew.
Malaysia was also the setting stone for a changing of the guard in 2003. Then, a 21-year old fresher looking Fernando Alonso stunned the paddock by becoming the youngest ever poleman for Renault. He went onto finish third on an aggressive strategy, becoming the first Spaniard on the Grand Prix podium since 1956. The race was controlled by Kimi Raikkonen, with the 23-year old winning his first race for McLaren, a feat that left Ron Dennis close to tears. That day gave us a glimpse of the exciting future that lay await for Formula One fans. A year later, Jenson Button joined the elite when he made up for two agonising near misses in Malaysia previously and earnt his first F1 podium for BAR Honda. For the record, the 2004 race was Schumacher’s third and final Malaysian success.
There were victories for Alonso in 2005 and 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively and a Giancarlo Fisichella triumph in 2006, also for Renault. In 2008, Raikkonen produced a convincing display to take the honours on the tenth anniversary of the event. A Ferrari 1-2 was thrown away when Felipe Massa made an elementary error and spun into the gravel trap. Raikkonen has had plenty of drama down the years in Sepang and more came his way in 2009. Predicting a thunderstorm in this part of the world is always hard to do, but Ferrari attempted to do so and put Raikkonen on full wets on a bone dry track! The thunderstorm held off for a long while, but when it rained, you know about it. Fading daylight and the unrelanting rain meant the race was stopped and eventually abandoned, with half points being awarded. Button won his second race in a row for Brawn GP. On the same weekend, Lewis Hamilton was forced to face the media after being disqualified from the race in Melbourne for lying to race stewards.
Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel have turned the place into their own over the past two seasons, winning in 2010 and 2011. Can they make it a hat-trick in 2012? Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen have all tasted success in Sepang in the past – who knows what will happen in 2012, especially with the forecast for a wet weekend.
IT MIGHT only be the second round of the championship this weekend in Malaysia but already, Felipe Massa is under a pile of huge pressure to deliver. The Brazilian’s shambolic performance in last week’s season opener in Melbourne has left his future prospects of staying with Ferrari hanging even more by a thread. On Tuesday, the Italian team announced that a new chassis will be flown to Kuala Lumpur, but is that enough to save the charming Ferrari no.2 from the sack.
From the moment Felipe spun off in the opening practice session, his fate in Albert Park of a mediocre performance was sealed. He never looked comfortable with the F2012, which it has to be said, is proving to be a real handful anyways. Qualifying saw him a distant 16th, four places behind Fernando Alonso. That was despite Alonso spinning out early on in Q2. Although he made an excellent start which saw him upto tenth, Massa quickly fell away from the leading group and spent the majority of the afternoon battling a poor chassis, high tyre wear and probably, his demons on a mental basis.
He was overwhelmed by the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Kamui Kobayashi and the race ended with an unsavoury tangle involving the Williams of Bruno Senna. When you consider Alonso saved fifth place for the team and was lapping 2-3 seconds a lap quicker on a regular basis, it highlights Massa’s nightmare Down Under. I described his driving performance as akin to a pig on rollerskates! It is a sad and sorry decline for one of F1’s nice guys. Team principal Stefano Domenicalli is still backing his driver though, telling JAonF1; “We need to stay close to Felipe because it’s clear that he’s under pressure. I’ve asked his engineers to analyse the data on the car, also to reassure him.” It means that there can be no excuses this weekend.
Mentally, Massa is driving like Damon Hill did in his final, troubled season in the sport in 1999. The former golden boy of Ferrari has been cast adrift by Alonso’s arrival and moulding the team around the Spaniard’s comforts. The days of Felipe outpacing Raikkonen in their three years together are a distant memory. Has he ever recovered from the radio message below (using clever F1 2010 graphics) whilst leading the German Grand Prix by merit in 2010;
I don’t think he has and Shanghai aside last season, I don’t think he has driven as well as he did that day at Hockenheim. Immediately afterwards, he said he would walkaway from F1 if he was a no.2, having experienced a similar order at Sauber in his debut season, ironically at the same circuit.
Now I don’t know what Felipe Massa thinks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mental note saying ‘it is wrong to beat Alonso.’ It is frustrating, as he can match the best on his day. Since Hockenheim 2010, it has led to those basic errors that littered his first season in 2002 reappearing far too regularly. Don’t forget his attempt to pass cars on the grass on the approach to turn one of the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix? Of course, his high profile incidents with Lewis Hamilton last year have been well documented.
Then, there’s the factor of the crash during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when Massa was knocked out by a loose spring that had bounced down the road off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car. He might have scars for the incident, but big knocks can affect a driver. Ralf Schumacher had a similar experience after a testing shunt in 2003 and he never recovered from this shunt, while it took Mika Hakkinen the best part of 18 months to fully recover from his near fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995. Only Massa will know how much the Budapest shunt has affected him.
I do hope that the driver who came within seconds of the 2008 world championship does find some of his old form again. The bare facts are he hasn’t scored a podium since Korea 2010, the longest run a Maranello driver has gone without a podium since Eddie Irvine, 17 races between (1996-1997). We will see whether a new chassis is the solution to Massa’s problems. However, more races like Melbourne and Felipe will be lucky to see the season out, let alone hope for a contract extension.