Final F1 Malaysian Grand Prix to prove pivotal in title fight

Malaysia will take its bow from the Formula One stage this weekend with the final running of the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang International Circuit on 1 October.

Malaysia’s inclusion among the long list of countries to have hosted a grand prix was noteworthy principally for it being the world championship’s first modern foray into South-East Asia.

It proved the start of aggressive push for a foothold in the growing Asian region — after Malaysia’s first race in 1999 Formula One struck deals with China in 2004, Singapore in 2008, South Korea in 2010 and India in 2011, though only two of those continue to host grands prix.

The Sepang International Circuit was similarly groundbreaking, being the first designed entirely by Hermann Tilke, who went on to become the sport’s de facto circuit designer and whose super-circuits now dot the globe. His influence is felt on no less than half the current calendar.

“It’s always sad to say goodbye to a member of the Formula One family,” said F1 commercial boss Sean Bratches. “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Sepang International Circuit for their hospitality and professionalism over the years and their ongoing commitment to motorsport.”

Despite Formula One and Malaysia enjoying a happy relationship for much of their 19-year shared history, increasing hosting fees and declining attendance numbers pushed the race beyond viability, especially when compared with the circuit’s annual MotoGP race, which comes at a reduced price and has little difficulty filling grandstands.

But the split, one year earlier than expected, was ultimately amicable. Malaysia saved on the cost of hosting the loss-making event for another year, and the sport’s commercial rights holder was able to constrain the calendar to 21 grands prix in 2018 after the inclusion of races in France and Germany.

Indeed with the sport’s growth strategy finely balanced between a desire to increase the number of races, particularly in the United States, and the need to keep logistics manageable for the teams, many of which are in precarious financial positions, Malaysia’s decision to leave the sport can be seen as convenient for Formula One.

The race promoter has promised a spectacle for attendees at the final event, which will comprise a two-day music festival, an expanded fan zone, improved access for Kuala Lumpur-based fans and cut-price ticketing.

More important, however, is that the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix will be a crucial race in the narrative of the world championship fight between Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton leads the championship by 28 points after Vettel crashed into his teammate on the first lap of the Singapore Grand Prix, sending both, along with Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso, into immediate retirement.

Vettel, whose four wins at Sepang make him the race’s most successful driver, has a mandate to win at all costs knowing that victory for Hamilton in Malaysia could put the result of the championship out of his hands.

The Sepang International Circuit should present a balanced challenge to both drivers’ teams, with the long straights favouring Mercedes’s power but its technical corners allowing Ferrari to excel.

The hot temperatures and high humidity, more trying than conditions in Singapore thanks to this weekend’s 3PM local start time, have historically proved difficult to manage, and the last three races have delivered three different winners as a result. Tropical thunderstorms also tend to play a role in the weekend.

It will be a typically testing race for teams and drivers, but the final Malaysian Grand Prix promises to pack a punch.