Notes from the Sepang paddock
- After the beauty of the AGP 60th anniversary celebrations at Albert Park, it’s a shame that not more is being made of this being Sepang’s 15th F1 birthday. I know it’s not a major milestone but, so far as modern supercircuits go, Sepang has done well to get this far. It has none of the carnival atmosphere of Melbourne; it’s hot and debilitating; but it does boast some incredible corners and it does have the Malaysian government full-square behind it, despite relatively small crowds. Personally, I love Sepang. I just wish the weekend as a whole had a bit more AGP-style gift-wrapping.
- Speaking of great corners, I spent Friday watching our aces through the very quick left- and right-handers they call Turns Five and Six. I’m particularly fond of this section because there are about three different solutions to the problems posed by high-speed changes of direction. You can really lean on the right rear as you go in, then ask a lot of the car as you pivot it back to the left rear for the dive into the right-hander (as Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean, Paul di Resta and Sergio Perez were doing); you can compromise the left-hander a little and move the car way over to the left for the right-hander that follows (as Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button were neatly doing); or you can ride a very narrow line of perfection by finding the tiniest of “neutral” zones for the change of direction between the two corners (as Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Adrian Sutil were doing). The last group also tucked in a little earlier to the apex of the right-hander (Turn Six), thus shortening the corner. All this in a flash of a second – but easy to see from the elevated vantage points both on the inside and outside of the corners. Best through this section? Kimi, by a car’s width or two, although Lewis never really looked as though he was on the absolute limit.
- Then it rained. For the second race in a row, plaudits must go to Sauber’s new signing, Esteban Gutierrez, who looked very relaxed and supple in the semi-wet. There was about a five minute period of reasonable consistency, weather-wise, in FP2, and Gutierrez for this little cameo was right up there with Romain Grosjean, Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. He was fastest, indeed, on my stopwatch. Romain had a big moment at the aforementioned high-speed esses but – unlike Melbourne – Esteban kept it all nicely on the island. Sauber didn’t have the greatest of days in the dry (fire extinguisher and cracked exhaust issues) so this should have cheered them at least for ten minutes or so. Also impressive in the wet (as in Melbourne) was STR’s Jean-Eric Vergne. Unlike Kimi (who should know better) JEV also kept his car nicely to the right-hand side of the finishing straight all day whilst accelerating through the gears. Kimi, for some strange reason, was running diagonally across the straight over to his braking point for Turn One.
- It was good to see Daniel Riccardo juggling a trio of tennis balls as he walked to his garage this morning. I’m sure most F1 drivers are able to juggle if they put their minds to it, but it’s not often you actually see the skill in motion in the F1 paddock. Ross Cheever, the mega-quick American, was also a serious juggler and we know that both Lewis and Nico are mono-cyclists of some repute. Then there’s Kimi. I’ve seen him balancing a motionless mountain bike for well over a couple of minutes. Again, I’m sure he’s not alone. Why don’t we organize some sort of “circus” day for the F1 stars? It’s one thing to see them plying their skills at 280kph. It would be quite another to seem them displaying their co-ordination, balance, timing and eyesight in ways that we can all understand.
- I may be wrong, but I suspect – I say I suspect – that still nothing has formerly been done about the pre-race national anthems. Certainly it looked to be the usual shambles in Melbourne. The AGP Corporation, like all organizing bodies, went to great lengths to execute the anthem with a local singing star and with suitable respect for their country – “Please be upstanding for the National Anthem of Australia”, said the circuit PA – but the F1 world, from what I could see, just went on about its business on the starting grid, sucking drink bottles, looking at watches (sorry, “timepieces”), checking tyre warmers, downloading data and generally milling around. There was no observance whatsoever, in other words, of the local national anthem. Can it be that hard for the F1 industry to set itself a new standard of behaviour? We can’t expect the drivers to stand to attention – or even sit to attention if they’re already in their car – but why isn’t it de rigour for each team to nominate a representative to stand to attention at the front of the grid whilst the anthem is played? Is the opening anthem any less important than the post-race podium anthems? Pre-race, the TV cameras could pan along the row of uniforms, rugby-style, and commentators could stay quiet for a minute whilst the anthem is respected. It would be a poignant, respectful moment. A moment that at present we don’t have. And that, I think, is wrong.
Anyway, time for dinner. I’m staying at an amazing hotel called the Golden Palm Tree. Our cottage is on stilts; the water shimmers beneath us; and the circuit is but a 40-min adventurous ride away in a battle-scarred Proton. This weekend the locals are due to set fire to elaborate paper decorations they’ve been keeping specially for the occasion. Should add nicely to the general heat and haze. As I say, I love Sepang.