This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix offered up plenty of action for fans to get their teeth into, but it also signalled what could be a pivotal point in the 2016 Driver’s Championship.
Mercedes AMG PETRONAS driver Lewis Hamilton obviously went away and had a word with himself after his performance in the last round at Singapore, for he was back on song with a vengeance in Kuala Lumpur.
A supreme and near perfect lap in qualifying, saw the Brit take pole position and clear command ahead of Sunday’s race. The current world champion’s start was one of his best this year, and he lead off the line, remaining cool up ahead to what eventually seemed like certain victory.
But once again lady luck was not on Hamilton’s side, and even though team-mate Nico Rosberg had a somewhat hampered race, cruel misfortune was to rear its ugly head once more, and the Brit was unable to monopolise…
A compromised start…
Having got away well, Hamilton lead the pack through the first corner, blissfully unaware that behind him all hell was about to break loose.
Team-mate Rosberg who was coming round the outside at Turn 1, was tagged by the Scuderia Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, who had thrown his SF16-H down the inside of Max Verstappen in a somewhat opportunistic attempt to get past the Red Bull Racing driver. The move was not quite on however, and he collided with the Mercedes driver, who was oblivious to the Ferrari’s presence, sending Rosberg into a spin and ending up the wrong way on track, facing the oncoming traffic and with plenty to do if he was going to recover from here.
Vettel meanwhile was forced to retire from the race after damaging his front left suspension in the incident, parking the car on the side of the road, which activated the virtual safety car (VSC) until Lap 3. The collision also saw the German handed with a three place grid penalty by the stewards, for the next round in Japan.
A number of drivers took the opportunity to pit during the VSC, including Kevin Magnussen, Esteban Gutierrez, Daniil Kvyat and Felipe Nasr, who had all clashed during other Turn 1 melee’s. Many drivers moved onto the hard compound tyre, an attempt at a one stop strategy perhaps on their minds.
It’s a strategical game…
At the re-start Hamilton immediately pulled away from Daniel Ricciardo now in second, with team-mate Verstappen moving up to third place after dropping a few places during the start line shenanigans.
The race had barely sprung back into life when a brake failure for Haas F1 Team driver Romain Grosjean, saw the Frenchman take a trip into the gravel trap at Turn 15, where the VF16 remained. A further virtual safety car was deployed, and it was at that point that both Rosberg and Verstappen pitted for a new set of tyres, the hard compound for the German and softs for the Dutchman, who Red Bull decided to switch onto a different strategy to cover all possibilities likely to be presented in the race.
On Lap 10 we were back racing, but crucially having pitted under the virtual safety car, Verstappen was just under seventeen seconds down the road from Hamilton in third place, a small enough gap to see the Dutchman take the lead when the Brit would eventually pit.
The Red Bull driver caught and passed the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, as the Finn pitted for the hard tyre on the same lap as race leader Hamilton, before second placed Ricciardo did the same next time around.
Verstappen took over at the front as had been expected, leaving both Mercedes and Red Bull to make sure they were on the ball in terms of strategy calls from here on in. For Hamilton the one stop was most certainly on, whereas the Dutchman would have to make at least one more pit to use the mandatory hard rubber.
The 19-year-old did pit again for the hardest tyre on Lap 31, resuming his position of being seventeen seconds behind Hamilton, now they just had to race.
Rosberg meanwhile was steadily rising up the order, having already made a number of crucial passes to now find himself in fifth place. It was a pretty mixed up field with many drivers not opting to pit at the second VSC, which made for an unlikely list of drivers in the top ten.
The German pitted for his second stop, and a new set of the hard rubber, and began to hunt down Raikkonen further up the road, who had also recently been in for a fresh pair of hard tyres.
Up ahead Hamilton was inching out his gap to Ricciardo and Rosberg knew he had to get by the Finn now, and start progressing further up the order. In what was a somewhat uncharacteristic lunge from way back for the German, he took his chance to make a pass on the 2007 world champion. Rosberg aggressively pushed his way by the Finn and the pair touched, but both were still able to continue on their way, though it was later reported that the Finn had sustained floor damage in the incident that made things more difficult for Raikkonen from that point forward.
Rosberg was handed a ten second penalty by stewards for causing the collision, which would be added at the end of the grand prix. It was a meaningless penalty however, as it did not alter the result of the race.
The German moved up to third place, and it was in this position that the current championship leader finished the race.
Racy Red Bulls…
By now Verstappen was right up onto the back of his team-mate and pushing to be let by, not only on track but over team radio too. It was a showcase of how to race your team-mate that was played out to perfection by the Red Bull duo.
The Dutchman, having become impatient at being stuck behind Ricciardo, made a move at Turn 3. Verstappen was able to get a better exit coming out of the corner but the Australian held his line perfectly to see the pair emerge side by side all through Turns 5. 6 and 7. Both drivers thoroughly respected one another and there was no contact throughout their heated battle, which saw Ricciardo come out on top and retain that all important second place.
A smoking performance…
Hamilton had carved out a strong lead at the front, almost enough to make an extra pit stop and still come out ahead if required, and appeared to be cruising to victory until a cloud of smoke was seen from behind the W07 and the Brit’s engine exploded in spectacular style, with flames blazing from the rear of the Mercedes.
The three-time world champion has never sounded as dejected as he was heard to cry “Oh No…No!” over team radio before parking his car at the exit of Turn 1. It was utter devastation for the Brit who had looked almost certain to take victory in Malaysia and the lead back in the Driver’s Championship, but today it was not to be.
A third virtual safety car was deployed on Lap 40, allowing the front runners to pit for a fresh set of soft tyres that would see them through to the end of the race. The Red Bull’s double pitted which meant Verstappen lost time to his team-mate even before the grand prix was back under way.
With just thirteen laps remaining Ricciardo was able to hold onto the lead and comfortably come across the line for what was his first race victory in 2016. The Australian was 2.6 seconds clear of team-mate Verstappen in second, with Rosberg, who had needed to ensure he stayed ten seconds clear of Raikkonen due to his penalty, came home in a hard fought third, 3,2 seconds ahead of the Finn, whose damaged floor halted his ability to chase the German.
And the rest…
It was an admirable fifth place finish for Valtteri Bottas and the Williams Martini Racing team, who started from eleventh on the grid due to a poor qualifying session. The Finn made the one stop strategy work in his favour, and was crucially able to come home ahead of the Sahara Force India of Sergio Perez in sixth place.
The fans driver of the day was Verstappen, however another case for that accolade had to be Fernando Alonso, who having started from the back of the grid due to engine change penalties, came across the line in seventh place. The McLaren-Honda F1 team driver put in a fantastic display to overtake his way through the field, taking advantage of the three virtual safety cars, and judging his race to perfection.
Nico Hulkenberg was eighth in the second Force India, just ahead of Jenson Button who was the big loser in the final virtual safety car, having been on a two stop strategy and already pitted just prior to its deployment. Though he came home in the points, it was not really the 300th race result the Brit had been hoping for.
Jolyon Palmer, who claimed his first ever point in F1 on Sunday, rounded out the top ten for the Renault Sport F1 team. A special moment for the Brit who must have been feeling the pressure to bring the RS16 home in a points paying position, after spinning off track and losing his tenth place at the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier this season.
Carlos Sainz Jnr was eleventh, ahead of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Massa, who experienced a throttle problem on the warm-up lap forcing the Brazilian to start from the pitlane, immediately compromising his race.
Brake problems late in the grand prix, saw Kvyat resounded to fourteenth place, ahead of the rear guard that was in the form of Manor Racing Team pairing Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, who received two five second penalties for speeding in the pitlane.
There were a number of retirements from Sunday’s race with Sauber F1 Team driver Nasr forced to stop just prior to the end of the race, whilst Haas driver Gutierrez found himself without a wheel when it tore completely off his car as the Mexican headed towards Turn 9 following a recent pit stop. Magnussen meanwhile was forced to return his car to the garage on Lap 18, after damage sustained during a first lap collision was deemed too serious to continue.
Sunday’s result see’s Rosberg steal a twenty-three point lead over Hamilton in the driver standings, with just five rounds of the season remaining. Could the Brit’s further engine failure have sealed the German’s first world championship?
Having looked set to claim the Constructor’s Championship at the home of their sponsors PETRONAS, Mercedes will now have to wait until the next round in Japan to take that honour.
Red Bull have further cemented themselves into the runners-up spot, having built up a healthy fifty-six point lead on Ferrari who appear destined to finish in third, after Vettel’s retirement.
Force India have moved a further two points ahead of Williams in the standings, with the battle between the two teams looking like it will go down to the wire before we definitively know who will take fourth place.
McLaren are now fifteen points clear of Scuderia Toro Rosso in fifth having recorded some strong results in recent rounds. The Woking based squad look set to have a strong end to the season, and are hoping that the best is yet to come at their home race in Japan this weekend. With Alonso having successfully trialled an updated engine and new parts during the Friday practice sessions in Malaysia, the team have every right to feel optimistic as we head to Suzuka.