Issue 50: 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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3 April 2015

Race Summary: Sebastian Vettel took a surprise victory ahead of the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Kimi Raikkonen claimed fourth place in front of the duelling Williams drivers. The Toro Rossos of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz took seventh and eighth places ahead of the Red Bull works team who were lapped! Neither McLaren saw the chequered flag.

This horse will prance

The value of any sport lies in its ability to thrill, entertain and crucially, to surprise and shock. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari not only surprised many by winning the Malaysian Grand Prix, they stunned Mercedes and the F1 world. A Ferrari winning again on merit so soon after the catastrofe of 2014? Impossible.

I got it so wrong in my pre-race forecast. I am glad. Who wants to know the outcome of a sporting event in advance anyway? The Malaysian Grand Prix is a reminder that there are limits to accurately predicting the outcome of an F1 race, no matter what you know – or think you know – in advance.

So why did Vettel manage to conquer the mighty Mercedes? A range of reasons have been cited post-race including a failure of tyre strategy, mis-communication on the Mercedes pitwall, Hamilton blaming understeer (where the front of the car slides wide instead of turning into a corner) and so on. My reading is this: the blisteringly hot temperature on track at Sepang (a high of 61 degrees centigrade, which compares with a high of 38 degrees centigrade in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix and a high of 46 degrees centigrade in the 2014 Malaysian Grand Prix) turned this race into a rear tyre-limited event for Mercedes in particular. The limit of the tyres, not the performance limit of the car, was the critical factor. Thermal tyre degradation had become a more important performance variable than usual. And Ferrari was better prepared than Mercedes to resist such degradation. Vettel could lap competitively for longer: 20 laps on the faster Medium compound tyre compared to Hamilton’s 14-lap run. Mercedes, by contrast, were trying to get the slower Hard tyre to work believing it to be the better race tyre. Once Mercedes had decided to sacrifice the lead on Lap 4 when Hamilton and Rosberg pitted for Hard tyres under the safety car, the degree of thermal degradation they experienced on both tyre compounds meant that they could not unleash the W06 Hybrid’s phenomenal pace to catch and overtake Vettel.

It took unusually hot track temperatures to reveal a chink in Mercedes’ armour. The race seemed reminiscent of the 2013 season when Mercedes faced similar, albeit much starker, tyre degradation problems. The German marque had a quick car that year too but it simply cooked and ate its rear tyres. This problem appeared to have been rectified in 2014, but apparently not cured entirely.

Will Ferrari challenge Mercedes again in 2015?

Was Ferrari’s victory in Sepang a one-off? On the face of it, yes. Malaysia was the ‘perfect storm’ of extremely hot track temperatures, an abrasive surface, high lateral loads on the tyres due to fast corners and a choice between pitstop strategies. This set of conditions is uncommon, especially 60 degree centigrade track temperatures. However, Ferrari is likely to enter Mercedes’ strategy calculations again this season because at least one of these conditions will come into play again. When this happens, expect Ferrari to at least threaten Mercedes due to their ability to keep their tyres in better shape for longer, enabling Vettel and Raikkonen to make fewer pitstops than Mercedes. In this scenario, Mercedes will in all likelihood be forced to sacrifice track position to Ferrari, as they did in Sepang. However, for Ferrari’s tyre degradation advantage to translate into Vettel or Raikkonen winning, the track temperature must be very high (50+ degrees centigrade) to make it impossible for Mercedes to lap to the full potential of the W06 Hybrid and catch and pass Ferrari. The other way for Ferrari to stay ahead would be if the track layout does not offer Mercedes good overtaking opportunities.

In sum, Mercedes retain the quickest car, but the window in which they can deploy their superior pace is narrower than Ferrari’s. Ferrari are not yet quick enough to worry Mercedes in a normal race, but they retain better strategic options.

What did the Malaysia Grand Prix reveal about Hamilton vs. Rosberg in 2015?

Hamilton got the better of Rosberg again in Sepang. Rosberg’s limited running in practice meant that he had less time to engineer the perfect setup and dial out the imbalance between the front and rear of his Mercedes. Hamilton was similarly compromised by missing Free Practice 1 due to a mechanical problem. However, in the race, Hamilton managed to improvise and ultimately cope better than Rosberg did with a less than perfect handling car. This is revealing as it shows that for Rosberg to match and beat Hamilton he really needs his car to be in the sweet spot. Therefore, in some ways, it is advantageous for Hamilton that the W06 Hybrid is not perfectly balanced because his superior ability to drive around car problems will more often than not give him an edge over his team-mate. Rosberg needs maximum practice time to find an engineering solution that allows him to get on terms with Hamilton. However, it was often through finding a better setup than Hamilton that kept Rosberg in play in many races last season.

If one or both Mercedes struggle again in hot races this season, it raises the prospect of Ferrari interfering in the world championship battle. Vettel and Raikkonen are likely to cost one or both of the Mercedes drivers world championship points again and these points losses could be critical in the title race.

Equality must be earned

One fantastic outcome of the Malaysian Grand Prix is that it will squash tedious calls for an equalisation of F1. Ferrari has shown that it is possible to turn a bad car into a good car and even more compellingly, take on Mercedes and beat them. The Scuderia has earned this success, as Mercedes earned it in 2014 and Red Bull before them. If Red Bull want to be top dogs again, they will have to re-earn that privilege.

Ferrari has delivered a great shock. Here’s hoping for more surprises in F1 in 2015.

@TheWheelspinner

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