The Formula 1 circus braved the sweltering heat of Malaysia last weekend as the best drivers on the planet did battle around the Sepang International Circuit.
The race was similar to a game of chess; a little low on explosive action, but filled with simmering tension. There was drama, elation and heartbreak, each of which had a turn in the spotlight as the race ebbed and flowed. In light of this, it is no surprise that there were several things to learn from the sport’s visit to Sepang…
It ain’t over yet for Lewis
A key race in the title battle, but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet Lewis Hamilton seemed in the clear and on his way to a well-deserved victory on Sunday when his Mercedes power unit gave up the ghost on lap 39 of the race. The result is a devastating one for the Briton, especially when he had done everything right up until that point. To add insult to injury, teammate and rival Nico Rosberg crossed the line in third place, which leaves the German 23 points clear of Hamilton at the top of the Driver’s World Championship.
With a 23-point buffer in hand and only 125 points left on the table, it cannot be denied that Rosberg is in a strong position. However, the 2016 title race has ebbed and flowed all year. Several times this season, the F1 community has called the result in favour of one of the Mercedes drivers, only for such calls to be proven premature. Rosberg is certainly not immune to meeting a similar disaster before the end of the season, or to falling prey to some other outside influence. As for Hamilton, the world champion should simply do his best to control the things that he can control, namely his own performances.
Nico Rosberg has a really good day
Nico Rosberg saw his championship lead evaporate before his eyes as he was punted off circuit by the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel at the start of Sunday’s race. The German looked set to relinquish his 2016 title advantage to Hamilton, only for the latter’s efforts to come undone due to reliability gremlins. Despite the obvious good fortune that befell Rosberg, his own efforts during Sunday’s race should not be overlooked. The Mercedes man remained calm after dropping to the back and slowly but surely made his way up the field and back into the points as the laps ticked by.
His overtake on Kimi Räikkönen on lap 38 was aggressive and decisive, and although the stewards deemed that he had caused a collision with the Finn, that ruling is debatable at best. On the whole, Rosberg did everything that could reasonably have been expected of him on Sunday. On the outside, the German will maintain that he is disappointed not to win the race, and that Hamilton’s retirement is a pity for Mercedes. Beneath his studied, calm composure, however, Rosberg will be ecstatic. He came off the winner in his duel with Hamilton in Malaysia, even after everything fell apart at the first turn.
Ricciardo delivers when it counts
Daniel Ricciardo seemed set for a less-than-perfect weekend in Malaysia, being generally out-paced by teammate Max Verstappen in practice and ending up a tenth of a second short of the Dutch youngster in qualifying. On Sunday, however, the Australian stayed out of trouble at the start and was in prime position to take advantage of Hamilton’s misfortune in the second half of the race.
It is true that Verstappen generally looked the faster of the two Red Bull drivers during Sunday’s proceedings, but it was Ricciardo who delivered when it counted. The Honey Badger saw off Verstappen’s aggressive overtaking attempts on lap 39, and won the final sprint to the line between the pair when both were on new soft tyres. A first victory of 2016 is well-deserved for the Australian, who had seen possible wins in both Spain and Monaco come to nought due to no fault of his own. Much of the attention on Red Bull in 2016 has been focussed on the meteoric rise of Verstappen, but Ricciardo has proven once again that he remains one of the most exciting drivers on the grid.
Another underwhelming weekend for Ferrari
Ferrari’s race pace on longer runs during free practice seemed like a cause for optimism, with the Italian outfit looking to build on their success in Singapore two weeks ago. On Sunday, however, the Scuderia were more-or-less anonymous during much of the race. Sebastian Vettel made a nasty error in judgement and put paid to his own hopes for a strong finish by colliding with Nico Rosberg at the first corner.
The sister car of Kimi Räikkönen had enough pace to come home in a comfortable fourth place, but not enough to seriously trouble the eventual podium finishers. While the Finn briefly looked like he might cross the line in third place, he ended up finishing well adrift of the Red Bull pair and Rosberg’s sole surviving Mercedes. Frankly, the 2016 season can’t end quickly enough for Ferrari. They have fallen well behind Red Bull in terms of pace and have endured a difficult time both on and off the circuit. Unless some misfortune befalls both Mercedes and Red Bull on a given weekend, the Scuderia are unlikely to enjoy much more significant success this season.
A crucial point for Palmer
It is no secret that Jolyon Palmer is under pressure for his seat at Renault, with rumours suggesting the British rookie may be dropped by the French team at the end of the season. In Malaysia, Palmer was optimistic about his prospects for the race after free practice, only to qualify in a lowly P19. Sunday, however, saw a change in fortunes as the Briton produced a strong drive to finish in P10, thus earning the first point of his Formula 1 career.
Palmer had an opportunity to earn his first point earlier this year in Hungary, only to spin off track and finish outside the top ten. It is unlikely that this performance, considered in isolation, will be enough to earn him a seat at Renault for 2017, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. His performances against the more experienced Kevin Magnussen in the final five races of 2016 will be critical for his future, with rumours that Renault will only keep one of the their two current drivers for 2017.
Success for McLaren
McLaren-Honda’s slow but steady progress towards the front end of the grid continued in Malaysia as Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button came home in P7 and P9, respectively. Button progressed to the third and final segment of qualifying on Saturday and held his point-scoring position to the finish, capping off a solid effort from him on his 300th Grand Prix start. However, it was Alonso who was truly impressive.
The Spaniard started dead last after incurring sizeable grid penalties for using a new power unit during practice, but scythed his way up the order to grab a fistful of points. Alonso looked feisty during Sunday’s proceedings; a far cry from the frustrated and forlorn figure he has often cut during his second stint at McLaren. Button recently mentioned his desire for a late-season scrap with Ferrari. While such an objective may still be some way off, the McLaren-Honda partnership is certainly heading in the right direction.