The Malaysian Grand Prix could be a turning point in the V6 Turbo era, because for the first time since its inception Mercedes were beaten fair and square. An emotional Sebastian Vettel executed Ferrari’s two-stop strategy brilliantly, and realised a childhood dream by winning a race for the Maranello outfit.
But make no mistake, this was no fluke: there was no conspiracy, no technical issues, and no dilemmas; this was Ferrari winning by speed, and speed alone. What will of course now be asked is whether or not this was a one off, a case of Ferrari being ideally suited to the punishing conditions of the Sepang circuit and unable to replicate this result elsewhere. And of course only time will tell; but for now, its time to hail the Scuderia for their massive improvement; and I think a large part of this goes down to James Ellison.
This was the first car Ellison had a real impact on, and automatically the results are noticeable. He’s improved the chassis, and with it the aerodynamics and down-force. What was most apparent in Malaysia though was the Ferrari’s ability to manage its tyres: a characteristic of the Lotus cars Ellison designed and Raikonnen drove to success a few years ago. In such conditions, it would appear that Ferrari have a slight, though genuine edge, over the Mercedes.
And if you want any further evidence of Ferrari’s improvement, look no further than Raikonnen. He was completely despondent after the race, despite a very impressive recovery drive and a forth place finish. But what had Kimi so frustrated was that he knew if lady-luck had smiled upon him in qualifying, we could have been looking at a number of different results: including him on the top step, or a Ferrari one-two.
Despite all this, Mercedes will still be confident and rightly so: but there was one problem which has developed with the Silver Arrows over the last couple of days and his name is Nico Rosberg.
In qualifying not only did Rosberg fail to adapt to the evolving conditions of the track, but also looked to have blocked Hamilton, before then asking what his teammate’s driving lines were. Thankfully this information is now unavailable, but Rosberg’s potential shenanigans and request for information points to two things: he’s lacking in confidence; and he’s been more affected by the radio rule change than Lewis. For all the talk about him being a smarter driver: it appears, unsurprisingly, that it is Hamilton’s superior racing ability that is coming up trumps.
A lack of confidence was also seen on track for Rosberg, when with more than half the race still to go, he asked if Vettel overtaking would spell the end of his race. This of course could be put down to a number of things, but considering how much importance is placed upon the mentality of racing drivers, this was a bad sign for Rosberg. He appears to be a world away from the bullish and relentless performer who harassed Hamilton to most chequered flags last season. He needs to rediscover his mojo and bring back his relentless streak.
If Sepang is a sign of things to come and we genuinely do have a four-car scrap on our hands, this really could be an issue for Mercedes. Because while Rosberg looks to be fading, both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikonnen look to be rejuvenated after last year’s respective batterings: both have a point to prove, and perhaps more significantly, both seem to be working well together within the team.
If the Constructors Championship does now truly develop into a two-team tussle, and the ability of the driver is more of a factor than vehicle performance, I would not be surprised if Rosberg is the weak link come the end of the season. He is after all the only one of the quartet without a World Championship to his name, and if he gives away positions as easily as he did to Vettel today, he will find himself fourth more often than not.
After the deserved backlash from Melbourne, it appears isn’t all gloom and doom for F1. As well as the excitement up front, there was also plenty of midfield action, including more impressive rookie performances from the likes of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr: both of whom look far more promising than the likes of Marcus Eriksson who eliminated himself with one of the most embarrassing and unnecessary spin offs I have seen.
Before the weekend began it was difficult to know what to make of McLaren: the contradictory stances taken up by the team and Fernando Alonso regarding his pre-season crash was rather bizarre, and I began to wonder whether Ron Dennis was simply creating a smoke screen because he was hesitant over any kind of negative press.
And yet they do seem to be making consistent improvements, with Jenson Button even joking on the team radio about being able to catch up with other cars. It is said that progress for the Woking outfit will have a domino effect, and then we will really see what the car is capable of: and after Malaysia, they might be even more confident, because the midfield pack didn’t seem that far away.
With Red Bull continuing to struggle and Williams seemingly stagnating, though still happily in third, maybe it won’t be as long as we think until the mighty McLaren starts climbing up the pecking order once more.
Bernie Ecclestone described Formula 1 as an old house that needed fixing earlier in the week, but while there is no doubt that the foundations are still shaky, the sweltering conditions of Sepang and the surprise return of the Scuderia, has at least demonstrated what an attractive property the sport still is.