Formula 1 Insight

Twilight in Sepang

With only a week between the first two races this season, thoughts are already turning to Sepang and the possibility of the order changing on so different a track from Melbourne. The "twilight" race has not been forgotten completely, however, and both Nakajima and Rosberg have expressed doubts about starting races so late in the afternoon.

Malaya map
Malaysia - or the bit that concerns us

The Malaysian GP is set to begin at 5:00pm local time and so it too raises questions as to the wisdom of racing in low light conditions. What seems to be missed by most commentators, however, is that Sepang is within the tropics and has virtually no twilight therefore. The closer to the equator, the more abrupt is the change from daylight to night - and Sepang is pretty close (it is near Port Dickson on the map above).

Looking at the sunset times for Kuala Lumpur, north of Sepang (7:21pm for Sunday, April 5th), the GP has about half an hour leeway before darkness falls and so all should be well - in theory. The potential problem is complicated by the weather forecast for race day, however. An 80% chance of rain means that it is likely that the light will be made worse by heavy clouds overhead, even if it does not actually rain. And anyone who has seen monsoon rainclouds knows how dark it can get underneath them.

The combination of gloomy weather and gathering darkness near the end of the race begins to look pretty dangerous to me. We were lucky in Melbourne in that the light lasted just long enough for the race, although much mention was made of the difficulties of driving directly into the setting sun, something that was apparent from the onboard camera shots too. The chance that conditions will be worse in Malaysia is obviously present.

It is possible, of course, that the Sepang GP is run without the light conditions causing any accidents. But it must be recognized that it would be a matter of getting lucky again - and it seems foolish that F1 is flirting so unnecessarily with disaster. The whole idea is to make things easier for the European television audiences, remember, and it is debatable whether such considerations should even be entertained when there are safety matters at issue.

Sooner or later these twilight races are going to run into a serious problem. That could mean a curtailed race (not the end of the world but not good for the image of the sport either) or a serious accident that will be avoidable in retrospect. In my opinion, the idea was a bad one from the start and should be ended now before the inevitable happens. We have accepted night races, although it remains to be seen what happens when it rains; but twilight races are a disaster waiting to happen.

On a lighter note (pun intended), I cannot resist pointing out that F1 has a new driver of its medical car. Alan van der Merwe has been appointed to the position and I know that this news will make all Southern Africans smile - but not for the reason you might think. Ask me nicely and I might let you in on the inside joke.


i am wondering if anyone has looked at the viewer numbers and polled to see how much the european viewership went up for australia just because the time was more convenient.

i have no reason to own a tivo or dvr other than for f1 so i am seriously considering sleeping this one out and hope speed reruns it at a time when i'm home.

i have to agree about the safety aspect. rain is one thing and pretty uncontrollable. actually creating a situation where the conditions are less than ideal is just stupidity(-and sour grapes on bernie's part if you ask me) i remember a cart race at surfer's paradise one year getting dicey (there had been a large number of caution periods, i believe) because night was falling. most of the drivers got smart and didn't take many risks, so really it just ruined their race and the spectators' i think they ended up calling the race for time.
Date Added: 31/03/2009

I haven't seen any viewing figures for the Melbourne race yet, Vera, but, according to the returns on the FOTA fan survey, a large proportion of the casual fans say they don't bother to get up for a race held in the early hours of the morning. I would have thought that is what makes them casual but all Bernie cares about is the numbers.

Even cutting the race short is not a desirable outcome, especially if it is caused by such a silly thing as starting too late. I really think that this is a case of greed overcoming common sense and twilight races should be dropped as soon as possible.

And I don't care if they give great light for photography...
Date Added: 31/03/2009

Adelaide 1991 was stopped after 14 laps, was that? It didn't harm the race any. Early race stoppages aren't harmful to the sport, so long as it doesn't happen often.

An accident on the other hand, may be risky...

But here's what: Malaysian sunset is at 7 PM. When we watched the Singapore GP last year, the sun never really faded out until 7:30. Since the race can only run from 5-7 at Sepang, I think we'll be all right.

And the thing with van der Merwe? It HAS to be related to this link, right? ;)
Date Added: 31/03/2009

I dunno, Journeyer, I always feel a bit cheated when they cut a race short. It's not the end of the world, as I said, but I'd rather have the thing completed if possible.

And right on the money regarding van der Merwe! I'm impressed with how quickly you found that link (it's a good one too). Ah, the wonders of Google... ;)
Date Added: 31/03/2009

Well, It's risky, indeed. Specially if I don't know if they have lights on the track, like in Losail or in Singapore. What if the race starts with Safety Car, for exemple? Evreryone knows that in the tropics, rain usualy is a very strong one...

And yes... Adelaide 91 was stopped after 14 laps!

And about van der Merwe... I will not comment. For now!
Date Added: 31/03/2009

no, journeyer, i was thinking of a cart race in aus( 'though i could be wrong there), probablylate '90's( and maybe wrong there, too) i think, not f1.

i can't recall the last time i slept through a race but, given a choice between staying up 3 hours later than usual for the start and getting up 3 hours earlier than usual for the start i just have a feeling i'm going to end up nodding off either way.

the other thing about twilight races is that the light can't be ideal for the people who have just handed over a weeks wages for a ticket to be there. what we see on tv is not actually the light conditions that the fans see. the ambient light is significantly murkier.
Date Added: 31/03/2009

Speeder: As far as I'm aware, Sepang does not have lights on the track. Maybe Journeyer could give us more info on that.

And yes, I know - van der Merwe is a bit of a shock to the system at first... ;)

Date Added: 31/03/2009

Vera: Good point about the TV cameras, Vera. In Australia the commentators made several comments about the light getting worse but it looked fine on TV. Those cameras have incredible lenses on them and compensate a great deal for low light conditions.
Date Added: 31/03/2009

I'm quietly hoping something like Adelaide 91' will happen to expose Bernie's folly in organizing a race start at such a time.I thought I was watching a world championship here but that doesn't seem like the case with no North America race and the flyaway start times being adjusted to suit European viewers (and spite further American fans).

Not sure with television schedules being fixed but I'm wondering whether would be allowed to bring forward the race start as a contingency if there's scheduled downpour.

With there being no room to postpone the race start if there is a massive downpour (and with the visibility problems following - look how dark Suzuka was back in 1994 even when certain parts of the track were lit) I think there could quite potentially be massive problems.
Date Added: 31/03/2009

The North American fans are ignored, Francois, because Bernie doesn't want to admit they exist. He might have to organize a race or two there if he did. But the Asian and Australian fans are treated with complete contempt - let them have the inconvenient race times, the important thing is to keep the European TV viewers happy.

It is such a short-sighted policy on Bernie's part that I have to assume that his business sense has disappeared along with his interest in F1 as a sport. Everything he does these days seems calculated to appeal to those who do not care about F1 and never will; meanwhile he alienates the loyal fans more and more.

I don't think there are any instances of a GP being brought forward because of forecast downpour at the scheduled time. F1 is like all of us when it comes to weather forecasters - if it doesn't suit you, hope they have it wrong as usual!
Date Added: 31/03/2009

Steven Roy
Starting a race with two hours of daylight is just asking for trouble. Any sort of delay and you end up either running cars in near darkness or stopping the race. I guess it is just as well that we know Max is so interested in safety that we can be sure no-one will be put at undue risk. Any driver suffering a serious accident late in the race is going to have to be rescued in the dark.

It is absolutely disgusting that the pursuit of the almighty dollar is allowed to take priority over safety and common sense.
Date Added: 31/03/2009

Peter Boyle

F1 has lost it's sense of purpose and identity.

All decisions should be made based fitness for purpose
and performance.

* Tyre choice. Instead of choosing the best tyre
for their car teams are told to use bridgestone.
Instead of choosing the best bridgestone for their
car teams are told which bridgestone to use.
Now, teams are being deliberately forced to jump through
hoops using a farcically useless bridgestone to "spice up"
the racing.

It will end with single laps on a tyre made of cheese,
just to pay lip service to the dumb rules.

* Pit strategy. Rules now ban zero stop strategies
as a tyre change is mandatory. Why is strategy legislated
by the rule system?

* Fuel choice.

* Stupid non-optimal start times

The management have got altogether too cosy since
the last big safety effort and are carelessly treating their
caged tigers as performing dogs.

It is about time the rules were simplified to not prescribe
"how" but only prescribe "goals" freeing the implementation to be decided by the engineers and not the muppets.

It is also about time that the safe operation of
a serious racing discipline was NEVER subordinate to the

(another) big accident will sadly happen eventually to force
the safety issue. For the performance, F1 needs more
effective competition, and I mean from other series, not
push to pass!

Date Added: 31/03/2009

Nick Goodspeed
I don't understand why the drivers accept to race under these conditions. If there happens to be an accidenttowards the end of the race those who must do the rescuing have absolutely no experience of dealing with a charged KERS system. If the first rescuer is electrocuted how long will it take to get help to the driver taking into account the rapidly dimming light? I don't mean to sound morbid but this would seem to be a possibility. Let's hope it doesn't happen.
Ecclestone knows his days are numbered so he's bleeding F1 for all he can get out of it. The perverse troll would probably be pleased as punch if he could take F1 with him when he goes.
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Peter Boyle

you just need to give the marshals light bulbs with which
to touch the car and the problem is solved. ;)

Date Added: 01/04/2009

I have to say that they could easily have started the race at 09:00 GMT and given themselves a bit more of a buffer zone. Most people in the UK would be perfectly willing to get up for a 09:00 race. For earlier times there is always the DVR.
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Nick Goodspeed
Peter: You go first :-)
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Steven: Agreed completely.
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Peter: Agreed - what more can I say?
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Nick: The drivers have "accepted" the situation because they have no power whatsoever. Driver strikes have never been effective and just end up costing the participants huge fines. The FIA know this and ignore the drivers' opinions - the drivers are left with nothing to do but whinge occasionally to the press.
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Lee: You know this and I know this and anyone who is a true fan of F1 knows it. But how can we get it through Bernie's thick head?
Date Added: 01/04/2009

Alianora La Canta
When Bernie put that question to the casual fans, did he ask whether they watched the re-run instead or simply skipped the race? If it's the former, then surely telling all channels with races at unearthly hours to rerun at a time more congenial to people appreciative of their beauty sleep (i.e. with a start time of between 8am and 8pm the day after races beginning the previous evening/night) would be a better option than moving race start times about.
Date Added: 02/04/2009

Excellent point, Alianora. I'm amazed that no one has suggested it before.
Date Added: 02/04/2009

Alianora La Canta
Probably because the TV stations (or the British ones, at any rate) do it automatically - and Bernie hasn't figured it out yet. Which he should have done, given the amount the stations pay for the priviledge of showing his stuff.
Date Added: 02/04/2009

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