Conclusions from Malaysia GP
Rewrite, rewrite! F1 is back as Ferrari beat Mercedes fair and square with Sebastian Vettel a driver reborn in red...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 12/10/15 2:28pm
Jump for joy, F1 and 2015 is back in business
After the soporific procession of Australia, when Mercedes won with over half a minute to spare, Ferrari’s unpredicted victory in Malaysia was the injection of adrenaline that F1 and its new season desperately needed. To widespread relief, which even spread as far as the defeated Mercedes team itself, 2015 just got interesting.
That’s not to say that Mercedes are no longer favourites or that Lewis Hamilton should be losing sleep just yet. The advantage Mercedes held in Australia – and in the eight races they won before that – hasn’t simply vaporised into thin air. Even in qualifying at Sepang, they were around half a second clear of Ferrari – although that’s a lot less than the 1.4 seconds advantage they boasted around Albert Park. And the Scuderia’s victory owed plenty to the searing heat in Sepang which meant tyre preservation was more than a useful rebuttal against outright pace; in China, the opposite may be true, in so much as the challenge in the grey cool of Shanghai is likely to be turning on the tyres rather than just keeping them turning.
But all that said, Ferrari’s victory was welcome relief because, founded on good pace, good strategy and very good driving from their new main man, it was genuinely credible. "We beat them fair and square," proclaimed Vettel with justification. Unlike the three victories of Red Bull last year – which, judging by his description of Ferrari being “the first one to beat them really fair and square”, Vettel didn’t hold in much esteem – this was no fluke or weather-dependent freak occurence. “Jeez, they had some good pace today,” concurred the vanquished Hamilton. "We knew coming into this weekend that they had made a step, we didn’t know how big but they were too fast for us today."
That might not have been true without the game-changing intervention of a Safety Car, the trigger for Mercedes’ early stop and their fatal decision to surrender the lead of the race to Vettel. But it was hardly as if Hamilton had crushed Vettel beforehand. Despite the frontrunning Hamilton running in clean air, and even as Vettel kept his tyres in shape for a longer stint than the Mercedes could manage on the mediums, the gap between the Ferrari and Mercedes never headed north of a second over the opening five laps. “Lewis was struggling in the first stint and I was able to keep up with him, which I enjoyed a lot,” trenchantly noted Vettel in the press conference.
Mercedes’ pace advantage in qualifying just wasn’t there in race trim. Ten seconds behind Vettel after the Safety Car returned from whence it came, Hamilton's Mercedes remained ten or so seconds behind the Ferrari when the chequered flag fell 50 laps later despite both cars making two stops in the intervening period.
Mercedes might have lost the race on strategy and tyre management, but they would still have had one helluva fight to win it on pace – especially with the Ferrari boasting superior straight-line speed.
Thank heavens, F1 has its new season back.
Rusty Mercedes gave the game away
Despite predicting Ferrari’s resurgence even before the weekend, perhaps the most memorable aspect of Mercedes’ defeat was just how rattled the team sounded as their race unravelled.
If Lewis Hamilton could just about be forgiven for losing count of how many sets of unused medium tyres he had left after his final pit-stop, Nico Rosberg’s struggles to comprehend that being passed by Sebastian Vettel wasn’t helpful was inexplicable. Throw in an apparently-flustered Paddy Lowe mistakenly telling Hamilton he needed to pit one more time, and Hamilton’s headline-grabbing shout to his race engineer not to bother him when cornering, and the clear impression emerges of a team unnerved by the rare inconvenience of an actual challenge.
Forewarned but not seemingly mentally forearmed for their first proper fight in over six months, Mercedes’ apparent discomfort can, generously, be attributed to the complacency and lack of race-strategy sharpness that inevitably seeps in when a team is so far in front for so long. But the disclosure that they themselves first afforded Ferrari the first sniff of victory in Q1 on Saturday when both Hamilton and Rosberg only ventured out on the medium tyres – effectively confirming their intention to three-stop in Sunday's race – will have stung. Ferrari were already fixed to their two-stop strategy after their successful long runs in Friday practice, but Mercedes’ mistake in letting down their guard at the start of qualifying was symptomatic of a team mentally unprepared for the fight ahead and afforded Ferrari the clear-minded benefit of knowing precisely how Sunday’s race could be won long in advance.
Why Renault's weakness has become their strength
For an engine manufacturer holding such a weak set of cards, Renault are playing a very strong hand. From what ought to be a position of weakness, if not embarrassment, Renault find themselves with the whip hand over both Toro Rosso and, more remarkably, Red Bull.
It's a curious state of affairs for its overarching paradox. Largely because of the inadequacies of Renault’s V6, the Red Bull hierarchy, spoilt by the routine of routine victory, have warned they will consider quitting the sport, while the racing team itself have seemingly suddenly woken up to the reality that they need their under-performing partners far more than Renault need them. Reanult's weakness, in other words, has become their strength.
And Red Bull are stuck. As Christian Horner plaintively admitted in Friday’s press conference, with neither Ferrari nor Mercedes minded to provide his team with engines, and Honda likely to prefer exclusive provision for McLaren, Renault’s exit may “force” Red Bull out of the sport as well. An apologetic Cyril Abiteboul has attributed his awful description of Adrian Newey as “a liar” to “frustration”, but it’s the Red Bull team, caught between the rock of their partner’s failings and the hard place of their owners losing patience with a situation beyond their control, who ought to be feeling frustrated. Perhaps they are. Perhaps that frustration was the midwife of Horner’s mistaken call for Mercedes to be reined in, a public relations error of grievous proportions that, despite the impossibility of their invidious position, has resulted in Red Bull conclusively losing the battle for public opinion they should be winning with acres of sympathy to spare.
Alonso isn't for the faint-hearted
Everyone had their day in Malaysia. On Sunday, it was a tearful Vettel; on Saturday it was Hamilton in the limelight after a pole position lap that stressed with glorious freedom what a natural feel he has for car control; Friday was all about Renault after their threat to quit; and Thursday was exclusively devoted to Fernando Alonso after the Spaniard systematically demolished McLaren’s painstaking account of his accident in pre-season testing at Barcelona.
It was, by any measure, a remarkable performance from Fernando; calm, composed, confident, consistent. Most dramatically of all, it entirely contradicted McLaren’s claim that a random gust of wind had caused his crash. Inevitably, the contradiction has reignited speculation about what precisely occurred on February 22; and for some, with Alonso acknowledging that there was no trace of a steering lock he claimed caused the crash to be found in the data, his account has fuelled suspicion that he fainted at the wheel before veering off track.
But think about it from an alternative perspective. Alonso would have been abundantly aware that his account is bereft of any corroborating evidence. Had he wanted to starve the story of oxygen, all he had to do was agree with McLaren’s testimony. If he had anything to hide – such as a fainting fit, for instance – all he had to do was stick with the party line. Instead, Fernando tore McLaren’s version asunder.
Alonso might be a gambler, he might have rolled the dice on Honda going from back to front before his career reaches its twilight, but, in a twist of logic, it’s his decision to raise suspicions about his health that is the most reassuring reason to believe that sometimes, even in F1, accidents just happen.