Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Malaysian Grand Prix - April 3/4, 2010

After a couple of nights in Singapore, I flew to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday morning to spend the weekend watching the Malaysian Grand Prix. The qualifying was scheduled for the afternoon while the actual race would be held Sunday.

Formula 1 Primer

Before I get to the race, I want to give a bit of background on how F1 works for those who may not be familiar with the sport. I am no expert on motor sport in general but it is a fiendishly complex (not to mention expensive) activity so this primer will just give the very basics.

Formula 1 is the highest class of auto racing with the Formula in the title referring to the fact that each car must conform to a set of rules. These rules are very complicated and are always changing, so I won't attempt to explain them here. I will mention that in 2010, no refuelling is allowed during the race, the first time this has been enforced since 1993.

This is the 61st season of F1 racing. This year there are 12 teams who are responsible for entering the cars in the race. The teams are often known as constructors, but this is not entirely accurate. Constructors are the companies who are responsible for building the car itself, particularly the chassis. The team, on the other hand, is usually sponsored and includes the constructor in the team name. For example, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is one of the teams; in this team McLaren is the constructor.

Cars are composed of two main elements: the chassis and the engine; generally each constructor builds the chassis and acquires the engine from somewhere else, although this is not always true. Ferrari, likely the most famous of the 12 teams currently racing in F1, builds both its chassis and engine; McLaren uses a Mercedes engine however.

Each team has two main drivers so each race begins with 24 cars on the track. The starting order is determined by a qualifying session held the day before the race. When the race is complete, points are awarded to the top 10 finishers. Beginning this season, the points are awarded on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis, which gives a large advantage to race winners.

There are 19 races scheduled for this year; each race is known as a Grand Prix and is held in a different country. Melbourne, Australia held the first race of the season At the end of the season, the driver with the most race points is the world champion and the constructor with the most points wins the Constructors Championship.

Got it? If not, use the Wikipedia entry for more detail.

Getting To Sepang

The Malaysian Grand Prix is run at Sepang International Circuit (SIC), located near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, about 60 km outside of the city itself. There are plenty of options to get there, but the best is likely the Skybus that is run by Air Asia. You can board at KL Sentral among other downtown locations, and the bus takes you directly to the circuit for only 15 Malaysian Ringgit (RM), about $4.75. The ride takes around an hour, but it's better than the other options which involve trains and transfers to a bus. They might be slightly faster, but they are not as simple.

A funny story though - I caught the last Skybus at 2pm from KL Sentral and was disappointed to discover it lacked air conditioning. As we cruised down the highway, we passed another empty Skybus which looked much more comfortable. A few minutes later, the driver pulled over and got off the bus, causing a few perplexed looks amongst the passengers. Turns out the nicer bus had also pulled over and we were transferred to it for the rest of the ride. It was surreal walking along the side of a Malaysian highway but well worth it when we boarded the cool confines of the newer bus.

Seating Options

Once you get to Sepang, you need to buy your ticket. It is possible to buy tickets on-line but I waited until I got there. There are dozens of categories and it would take a separate post just to enumerate them all. This seating viewer helps; the Mall Area is the best as there are seats on two levels, entirely covered, with food and merchandise options throughout. Definitely try for the upper tier if you can; it's slightly more expensive but provides a better view. The hillside seats seemed farther away and in some cases were uncovered, so I wouldn't recommend those.

I didn't know much of this when I arrived at the box office and tried to get a ticket to the Tower section where the final turn before the finish line is located. But my credit card was declined - they were using a PIN system which I wasn't familiar with. Apparently I do have a PIN for my card, but I've never used it before. They had an ATM onsite, but I had already used an ATM at the airport and so was prevented from making another withdrawal (I had left most of my cash at the hotel, idiotically thinking my card would be enough).

I was getting a bit worried, but soon realized that there were plenty of people with an extra tickets . In particular, one local gentleman had been given a freebie and was now trying to sell his own ticket. It was a Citrine ticket worth 500 RM and I managed to get him down to 200 RM, about $62 and almost all the cash I had left. At the time, I didn't know where I would be sitting, but it turned out to be a great spot with views of most of the south side of the circuit.


As I entered the gates, I could hear the engines revving in the distance. Qualifying had begun. The qualifying process involves three sessions in which the slowest cars in each session are eliminated. The first session (Q1) runs 20 minutes and all 24 cars can run as many laps as they want. Each driver takes his best lap time and the seven slowest drivers are then eliminated, taking starting positions 18-24. The remaining cars then conduct Q2 over a 15-minute session and again the slowest 7 are knocked out, taking positions 11-17. Q3 is only 10-minutes and again the best lap time here gets the coveted pole position.

The qualifying process is not that exciting as it is difficult to follow the qualifying speeds for each driver. I didn't have the race radio, so I was just watching as cars zoomed by at around 200 mph. Below is Bruno Senna of the Hispania Racing Team.

To make matters worse, it rained hard and they stopped the qualifying for a bit. It turned out that the rain was the biggest story of the weekend as it forced the teams to change tires and several of the top drivers were eliminated early due to bad decisions. In particular, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren and Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso were all eliminated in Q1 and started 20th, 21st, and 19th respectively. World Champion Jenson Button spun out and started 17th. It was a shocking development as Red Bull's Mark Webber took the pole with teammate Sebastien Vettel in 3rd. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes took the 2nd spot. The complete results are here.

In all, I only spent an hour at the track. The rain and loud engines forced me out but I had seen enough to know that this was a sport worth following. I went back to Kuala Lumpur with high expectations for the race on Sunday.

The Race

Sunday morning was hot and sunny as I made my way back to Sepang. After arriving, my first task was to buy the race radio headphones, which would protect my ears and give me live radio coverage of the race. At RM150 ($46) they were way overpriced, but you can't put a price on hearing. With the engines so loud, you absolutely need some protection for your ears.

Once inside, I noticed lots of festivities before the race, including an autograph session with some drivers, but the throng of people waiting prevented me from getting anywhere close. Rather, I made my way to my seat and studied the morning paper, which had a starting grid and a few articles about the race.

After a while, I walked about the Mall Area (above) and grabbed some lunch. But it was too hot to stay out in the sun for long, so I returned to my seat. But someone was sitting there, so I decided to venture upstairs to see what the view was like. This was the best decision I made, as the upper tier offers far better views of the entire track. I stood there for the entire race but it was perfect as it was covered and there was a light breeze that was not felt in the lower tier.

As race time approached, the Malaysian Air Force did a short air show (shown below).

The drivers were paraded out to answer questions posed by local children. Each of the twelve teams had to answer one question; it was a nice segment but I found it odd that they would do something lighthearted just before the race. Shouldn't the drivers be focused on the task at hand?

While the drivers were preparing for the race, a track inspection was conducted. Having the race radio was useful here as I could hear driver interviews and other tidbits of info. Fifteen minutes before race time, the national anthem was played and then the cars made their way onto the track. There was a formation lap to get the cars warmed up and then it was race time. Only 23 cars started as BMW's Pedro de la Rosa's car failed to start for the test lap.

The start line was behind me but I could hear the roar of the engines as the cars accelerated into the first turn. As things would happen, the race was decided here as Vettel passed Rosberg and Webber to take the lead immediately. When the cars first passed in front of me they were bunched together (see below), but by the fifth lap, there was already significant separation between them.

The first incident happened right in front of me when Timo Glock spun out and couldn't get started. The race officials ran onto the track and pushed the car out of danger. Glock was done and took a motorcycle back to the paddock while his car was lifted onto a flatbed.

As the race continued, Massa, Alsonso, Hamilton and Button made their way through the field, but nobody was able to catch Vettel and Webber, who continued to run 1-2 as shown below.

Michael Schumacher had a wheel issue and was forced out on the 9th lap. That's his car on the grass below.

There was little excitement in the race after that. Vitaly Petrov had a gearbox problem and was out on lap 32 - that's his car on the flatbed.

The rest of the race was uneventful and Vettel won going away, completing the 56 laps in 1:33:48.412. Webber took second and Rosberg third as the top three didn't change from lap 1. Hamilton had moved up to 6th, but his poor decision in qualifying hurt him badly. The results tightened up the points race with Vettel moving up to 37 points, tying him for second with Alsonso, just two points behind Massa who finished 7th.

Below are the drivers being cheered by track officials as they run the post-race lap.

Throughout the race, the announcers talked about the impending rain, but the race ended on a dry track and the storm that was supposed to cause havoc never appeared. Frankly, the race was anti-climatic - Formula 1 offers few opportunities for passing and the difference in the top cars makes it difficult to catch up. I still had a great time here though and would recommend the experience to anyone who has a chance to attend.


Just a few shots here of some of the cars.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel again

Adrian Sutil

Felipe Massa

Mark Webber

Sebastian Buemi

Nico Rosberg

Lewis Hamilton


Merchandise is widely available but I didn't partake. Lotus was very popular here though, as they are a Malaysian team. There was also a display of historic F1 cars located near the entry gate. This was pretty cool and also a good place to stand during the thunderstorm that affected qualifying.

Now that I understand the sport a little better, I'm looking forward to attending another race soon. Singapore in September anyone?



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