News and views on motorsports

Sunday, April 08, 2007

High Compression

Since 2001, in every other year I somehow find myself attending the Malaysian Grand Prix. Nothing will ever beat being in paddock in 2005 but nevertheless, I was persuaded to watch qualifying yesterday in the cheap seats. Cheap, hot and dirty it may be but sometimes, the best vantage points are from these less than glamorous locations.

So we ended up watching from the very highest spot in Sepang that is at the top of the hill at Turn 11. Its not my first time at this spot but the last time I was here we placed ourselves in between Turns 9 and 10 which in hindsight is not the best of spots. Sitting yourself so that the entry to Turn 11 is directly in front of you gives you a great view. You get to watch the action all the way from under braking for Turn 9 all the way to Turn 14 and a little bit of the back straight.

I hadn't planned on going to Sepang but at the last minute I thought what the heck. After all, I've never heard the scream of the latest V8s nor have I seen these new cars in action. I'm glad I did for every single time you see these cars in action, it just takes your breath away. I believe anyone who's ever had any time behind the wheel of any car on the track will have an even greater appreciation of it, particularly if you've driven the track that you're currently watching.

Turn 11 is not my favourite turn at Sepang. Its slowish in nature, the road seems to fall away from you and in a front wheel drive car, it feels like the car just wants to slide wide into the gravel. I've seen one chap who uses his left foot to tighten the line but all in all it just sucks. You really want to finish your braking and downshifts before turning in, so to see these grand prix drivers braking, shifting down and turning inside the corner is just simply amazing. The sheer grip these cars have is simply mind blowing.

All the while, I'm treated to that phenomenon I just absolutely love, the amazing sound effects. I just love the way those engines pops and bangs on the overrun under braking. Pop, pop, pop. It sounds like someone turned up the bass on the sound of 9mm gunshots. And of course once the cars are on the rumble strips on the exit of Turn 11 the traction control comes on and the engines goes into machine gun mode as the ignition is turned on and off by the electronics. Down the hill and as the drivers shift up and and once again, you truly appreciate how incredibly high the compression ratios are in these engines.

The amazement doesn't stop for whilst the rest of us will lift or brake before the fast turn 12, these guys keep the throttle constant and simply turn in. Whilst even the Porsche Carrera cup racers are sliding wide on the exit of this turn, the grand prix cars simply stick. Then they're hard on the throttle confident as you like through thirteen and poised for the trickiest turn in Sepang, Turn 14.

Everyone needs to turn and brake into this one because Turn 13 blends into 14 without any straight bits. Its sometimes downright dangerous during track sessions. A lot of people don't make it and end up ploughing straight into the gravel. Rear wheel driver cars get into a habit of spinning here. Added to that apex of Turn 14 is blind as you come up to it, so picking your turning and braking points are damned difficult.

Myself, I always brake either way too early and just way too late into this corner. The problem as I said is that you're coming up fast and flat through 13 and way too much on the inside. Probably not the best line but unfortunately normal cars just slide too wide out of 12 that you have very little choice. And at the same time as keeping the wheels turned, you need to find a good braking point through a blind apex. And the whole action unsettles the car and more than once I've felt the tail really move. Its scary but really you ought not to be too afraid because the run off is quite big.

But of course if you have a car with a couple of tonnes of downforce pushing it down things get a little bit easier. But as a spectator you cannot help but feel the awe as these guys simply attack 13 and 14 with abandon. From my vantage point you can tell they're flat through 13 and the cars then visibly slowing down and of course turning in, braking and downshfting at the same time. I wonder if these guys could still do that if they weren't using paddle shifters and semi auto gearboxes.

Quickest at this section? Felipe Massa for sure because he's quite smooth through Turn 11. His teammate Kimi by comparison is a little more aggressive and you can hear that he's on the traction control for longer on the exit of the corner. Mark Webber is aggressive as well, consistently kicking out the tail of his Red Bull in the turn. And so do the Toyotas. What surprises me though is just how similar the McLaren boys perform through the turn. If there's any difference at all between Alonso and Hamilton, well I can't really tell. Whatever it is, they seem quite smooth and quick.

At the end of the day, I'm quite glad that I went. Today I shall be watching from the comfort of home. Whilst I shall not be enjoying the live special effects but nevertheless, I shall be more aware of whats going on in the race. And of course there's instant replay. But getting a dose of live action reminds me again of what its all about and just why these guys and their cars are the world's best.

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