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.