Issue 7: Malaysian Grand Prix Review

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1 April 2014

Race Summary: Mercedes scored their first one-two finish in F1 since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton dominated from lap 1 with Nico Rosberg finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Fernando Alonso overtook Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India in the dying laps. Jenson Button battled the Williams drivers for points. Daniel Ricciardo’s race was ruined by a catalogue of errors while Kimi Raikkonen suffered a puncture early on.

Great drives and wheel-to-wheel racing

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton produced a commanding performance to take victory at Sepang. He controlled the race superbly from the first corner until the chequered flag without putting a wheel wrong. The strength of Hamilton’s performance underlined that he has been able to adapt to the new formula as well as his team-mate and demonstrates to the doubters that he will be a force in 2014 championship. There were several other stand-out drives in Malaysia, not least Nico Hulkenberg who managed a two-stop race – showing that the Force India is kind on its tyres – to finish just behind Fernando Alonso. If there was ever an example of a driver out-performing his car, it is Hulkenberg (again). Daniel Ricciardo produced a great start off the line to overtake Alonso and his team-mate with some bold driving around the outside of Turn 1. Ricciardo is proving to be a gutsy character on track, which makes for great viewing, so it’s shame for him that his race was ruined by a pit-stop error, a suspected front-wing failure and a penalty. If Ricciardo’s second place in the Australian GP is not reinstated following Red Bull’s appeal hearing in April, the Australian will have put in two eye-catching drives for no reward. Button meanwhile gave Felipe Massa a lesson in the art of defensive driving late on in the race. Massa had the faster car at that point, but by putting the McLaren in the right place on the track at the right time, Button was able to resist Massa’s challenge. For all the pre-season talk of the intra-team battles at Mercedes and Ferrari, which may yet heat up, there’s a nice one developing at Williams. I bet that when Massa left Ferrari in 2013 he never thought he’d hear the order ‘your team-mate is faster than you’ again! However, unlike at the 2010 German Grand Prix, Massa did not move over and let the faster Valtteri Bottas pass in the closing laps. This situation mirrored a phase earlier on in the race when Bottas claimed he was faster than Massa and should be allowed to overtake him. A bit of needle between these two good drivers will make for some intriguing viewing this season. A final mention goes to Kamui Kobayashi. He may be driving a slow car, but that doesn’t stop him from racing at close quarters. It’s great to see him back in F1!

Advantage Mercedes

Mercedes confirmed that their superior race pace from Round 1 was no fluke. And I doubt we’ve seen everything that Mercedes have in the tank. Hamilton’s fastest lap on the harder compound tyre on Lap 53 suggested as much. Why push the car and powertrain to the limit when you don’t need to in order to claim victory? FOM’s fuel consumption graphic that appeared throughout the race showed the advantage that the Mercedes’ runners have over the rest of the field on fuel consumption. Williams consistently used less fuel than the cars ahead of them and the Mercedes works team wasn’t that much thirstier. However, it was the difference in fuel consumption between Hamilton and Rosberg that stood out. By the end of the race, Hamilton had used around 3% less fuel than Rosberg and was 17 seconds further up the road. Hamilton showed the value of starting on the front row and leading into the first corner. Instead of using up fuel fighting to keep competitors behind him, Hamilton was able to build a small lead in the early laps – while Rosberg was preoccupied with the Red Bulls – and then save fuel later on by controlling the pace. As Mercedes need to worry less about fuel consumption, it’s likely to mean that it will be easier for them to keep sufficient heat in the tyres, which is a big advantage.

However, I have mixed feelings about the fuel consumption graphic. It does give us the fans important information, not least who’s got fuel remaining to attack cars in front towards the end of the race and who’s a bit marginal. But F1 is about racing; it’s not a fuel economy battle, so why is my attention being diverted to that and away from the track action?

A warning from Red Bull

An improved performance from Red Bull in Sepang was a warning to Mercedes. There is no doubt that the RB10 is quick due to its superior rear-end downforce and stable aero platform. And it would be surprising if Red Bull were not to close their performance deficit to Mercedes once Renault gets on terms with its powertrain. However, Mercedes won’t be standing still aerodynamically or with their powertrain. Yes, Mercedes might face the law of diminishing returns a bit sooner, but Red Bull is likely to need to find more than a second a lap in performance to overtake Mercedes. Crucially, Red Bull will need to improve their straight-line speed because If a Mercedes gets anywhere near the back of a Red Bull now, an overtake is surely just a matter of time. And even if Red Bull do out-develop Mercedes in 2014, on power circuits like Montreal, Spa and Monza, Mercedes is likely to be competing for wins as Brawn GP did in 2009 when the rest of the field closed down their competitive advantage.

Ferrari, McLaren and Williams left trailing

Sepang showed that F1’s established teams are being left behind by Mercedes and Red Bull. As in Melbourne, Williams under-delivered in the race following a wet qualifying session, which left them out of position on the grid and forced them to come through the field. Massa and Bottas got caught up battling each other and the McLarens instead of focusing on Hulkenberg’s Force India and Alonso’s Ferrari, which their car is probably on a par with in terms of outright performance. However, it was McLaren that was probably the biggest disappointment in Sepang. After talking up their performance gains since Round 1, they had a poor race with Button finishing over a minute behind Hamilton. With the best powertrain in their cars, Williams and McLaren ought to be doing better. Ferrari, on the other hand, looked to have improved their car since Round 1. However, Alonso’s post-race comments shed light on some of its remaining shortcomings, namely that the F14 T lacks driveability and traction on corner exit. The result of this was that the Spaniard finished over half a minute behind Hamilton. I imagine this is pretty tough for Alonso to take given that he’s spent the previous four seasons chasing a Red Bull…

Even though the race was not a thriller, Sepang did give us a better picture of the competitive order in F1 and crucially, the battle to come between Mercedes and Red Bull. Up next, Bahrain.

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