Preview: Can Vettel bounce back from his Singapore nightmare at Sepang?

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Controversy, drama, championship-defining moments have all been a feature of the Malaysian Grand Prix since the inaugural race back in 1999. 

Michael Schumacher returned to the sport after breaking his leg in the first race at Sepang and would have won that race had he not gifted the win to his team-mate and championship contender Eddie Irvine. Two years later, Schumacher triumphed in a true classic race. Extreme, diverse weather defined that race and that has been a trait of so many Malaysian GPs ever since. 2017's race is likely to follow that trend with thunderstorms predicted all weekend. 

2017's race is likely to follow that trend with thunderstorms predicted all weekend. Mercedes has proven to be strongest in the wet conditions so far this season with Lewis Hamilton in particular repeatedly demonstrating his wet-weather prowess. On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel may need a crazy race akin to Singapore to cut the 18-point gap to Hamilton in the drivers' championship. 

A repeat of Hamilton's 2016 misery wouldn't be unwelcome for Vettel, the British driver's shock engine blowout at last year's event will undoubtedly be playing on Hamilton's mind. Then again, Hamilton smashed the opposition in qualifying last year, beating Nico Rosberg by over four tenths. 

With or without rain, Red Bull will be a major factor in the title fight. Its race pace has been considerably strengthened since the summer break and while they're unlikely to beat Ferrari or Mercedes in a dry qualifying session, they will be a major threat on Sunday. Daniel Ricciardo won his fourth grand prix last year at this track and Max Verstappen achieved his maiden points finish in F1 here back in 2015. 

Hoping to emulate Verstappen's rapid rise to fame will be Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who will be making his F1 debut this weekend. The 2016 GP2 champion has been thrown in at the deep end in order for Toro Rosso to evaluate if he should replace the outgoing Carlos Sainz Jr. Daniil Kvyat will be watching from the sidelines but should be back in the car at Austin when Gasly returns to Japan for the final round of the Super Formula series in which he's just half a point off the lead of the championship. 

Gasly raced in GP2's Sepang round in 2016 so has a reasonable knowledge of the track but with an inform team-mate in Sainz, impressing critics will be extremely tough. A realistic target for the 21-year-old would be getting out of Q1 and having a clean race.

Toro Rosso is just seven points adrift of Williams who lie fifth in the constructors' championship and are 10 ahead of Renault. Jolyon Palmer picked up his first points of 2017 last time out in Singapore and scored his maiden F1 points finish at Sepang last year. 

In the almost certain event, Fernando Alonso fails to take pole position on Saturday it will mark the 100th qualifying session since his last pole (Germany 2012). Stoffel Vandoorne and Lance Stroll are the only two drivers who haven't previously raced at the track in any category. However, both drivers showed in Singapore that a lack of track experience doesn't hold them back from claiming a good result. 

Stroll has shown his strength in wet conditions and Williams will be hoping for Saturday at Monza-esque conditions in order to pull clear of its rivals. Force India is bringing both aerodynamic and engine upgrades to this weekend, Sergio Perez picked up his maiden podium in 2012 and almost beat Alonso in a thrilling duel. 

A thrilling duel is hopefully what fans will be treated to in what will sadly be the final Malaysian Grand Prix... for now at least.