a monsoon tyre

Wanted: a monsoon tyre 01

It’s just the volume of water coming off the low cloud that causes strange currents and manages to submerge everything in no particularly logical order. That’s by no means unusual: Malaysia is in a tropical zone after all. When it happens, the rain can cause chaos. And normally the precipitation arrives in the form of short but heavily intense showers. Once the heavens have finished opening, the sun comes out again to produce a strange warm fog that dries everything in a surprisingly short space of time.

Wanted: a monsoon tyre 02

That’s just how it goes in Sepang, the venue for the Malaysian Grand Prix for the last time, which will be round 15 of this year’s championship. But it’s a rule that could cause a few surprises this year. Because those short but sharp showers in the tropics ¬– and so by extension in Sepang, just 40 kilometres from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur – are a typical phenomenon of Spring in the region: from March to April, which is when the grand prix took place from 2001 until 2015. But since last year, the date has returned to autumn, which is when the first two Malaysian Grands Prix were held, in 1999 and 2000. And the rain that comes down during this season, while remaining extremely heavy, can continue for several hours. And because of this salient fact, the possibility of a wet race – or rather, a wet weekend – is one that holds fear for a number of people.

In these monsoon-like conditions, Sepang is the ideal territory to test out the Cinturato full wet and its capacity to expel up to 85 litres of water per second (up from 65 last year) on every wheel at 300kph. That might be just a theoretical concept according to some: who would go at 300kph in those conditions, after all? But the answer is everyone. Sepang, the first in a long line of tracks authored by Hermann Tilke – the man who these days is practically the father of all non-European circuits – also contains two long straights, connected by what is essentially long left-hand hairpin following on from the start-finish straight. By ‘long’ we mean not much less than a kilometre each: the reason why such high speeds are reached even in extreme conditions. And that’s why monsoon tyres are needed: both on those straights, where traction and braking means penetrating a layer of water that can be millimetres thick, but above all through corners, where finding lateral grip is a challenge in the extreme wet – especially as this can vary on different parts of the track, with rivers of water flowing across the asphalt depending on the camber.

Wanted: a monsoon tyre 03

And there have been conditions in the past – on more than one occasion – much better suited to Noah’s Ark than Formula 1 cars: already in 2001 the grand prix went on for a good 10 minutes longer than most races at the time. In 2009 and 2012 the race was actually stopped after a few laps, due to a downpour. Still, at least the full distance was eventually completed on the second occasion. In 2009 there was little to do as the rain continued and the result was declared after just 31 of the planned 56 laps, with half points awarded for the championship.
Even in the dry, Sepang is a special place. With its long corners and high lateral forces, together with extremely abrasive asphalt, the Malaysian Grand Prix has always been one of the toughest tests for tyres all year. Now it’s a bit different: the whole track was resurfaced to get rid of many of the bumps and lumps last year, with the new asphalt generally smoother and slightly less demanding for tyres.

Wanted: a monsoon tyre 04

So perhaps the greatest hazard for the drivers could come from…nature. While Sepang is only half an hour’s drive away from downtown Kuala Lumpur’s skyscrapers and the architectural marvel that is the Petronas Towers, it’s still located in the very depths of the jungle. Which is obviously a place that many animals of different types all call their home. A few days ago, in Singapore, a lizard – albeit a relatively small one – appeared on the track, but in Malaysia the most notorious interlopers are snakes. Including the occasional cobra…

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