For eighteen years the Sepang International Circuit, with its wide track, overtake-inducing layout and pop-up weather, has offered an interesting challenge to Formula One’s star drivers. The final Malaysian Grand Prix may not have offered race-day showers but it did provide one of the most popular victories of the year and added yet another intriguing chapter in the wider championship story…
Following the controversy of Singapore, the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix was an opportunity for certain drivers to make quick amends, not least former championship leader Sebastian Vettel.
Having lost the championship lead last time out, Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari arrived in Malaysia to find a circuit ear-marked as a track that would favour the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team.
Yet, if practice sessions were anything to go by, Ferrari had found a Sepang sweet spot. Meanwhile, Mercedes appeared to struggle, especially with their upgraded aerodynamic package affixed to Valtteri Bottas‘s car for the entire weekend – not so for Lewis Hamilton who reverted to the old package.
Ferrari’s advantage wasn’t to last however, as a blown turbo put a halt to Vettel’s qualifying challenge before it even started. The team had rebuilt Vettel’s power unit in the lead up to qualifying, it having failed late in the third practice session on Saturday morning.
Questions were asked whether the failure in qualifying was due to the hasty rebuild and answers were perhaps provided minutes before the race start on Sunday when the same failure struck front-row starter Kimi Raikkonen; fault with assembly back in Maranello appeared to be the issue.
With that, Ferrari’s weekend had been turned on its head; Vettel lined up last on the grid while Raikkonen was on his way to the nearest ice-cream shop as the race started. Hamilton held the lead from pole-position, chased by Red Bull Racing‘s Max Verstappen, Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.
Vettel engaged damage limitation mode meanwhile, and began his charge from the tail of the grid, gradually edging his way closer to the points and demonstrating Ferrari’s clear pace advantage over the mid-field – Fernando Alonso putting up perhaps the most stubborn fight, to nobody’s surprise.
But the key race move came at the start of lap four when Max Verstappen, who had stalked Hamilton for the first three laps, launched an attack on the race leader at turn one. The move was decisive and clinical and defeated a defence befitting of someone with a healthy championship lead to protect; firm but void of excessive risk.
The sting in the tail for the demoted Hamilton was that Verstappen proceeded to pull away with apparent ease, the Dutchman extending his lead up to nine seconds before the leaders’ one and only set of pitstops.
Hamilton gained somewhat through pitting a lap earlier than Verstappen for Soft tyres but the Red Bull soon became a matte blue dot in the distance as Verstappen claimed his second Grand Prix victory and his first podium since April. Remarkable then that Verstappen, given his first opportunity to dominate a Grand Prix, did so emphatically; Verstappen has sent a message to his rivals and everyone has paid attention to it.
Hamilton trailed him home to claim a solid second, leaving Mercedes scratching their heads as to where their car’s pace had disappeared to compared to rivals Red Bull and Ferrari.
Hamilton therefore, extends his championship lead, but not, perhaps, as much as many predicted he would following qualifying as Sebastian Vettel invoked nostalgia in those who remember his dominant championship winning years by storming through the field to finish fourth, limiting his loss to Hamilton to just six points.
Vettel came close to snatching a podium from Daniel Ricciardo even, were it not for a need to steady engine temperatures and conserve fuel. Still, Vettel and Ferrari’s pace in Sepang poses tantalising prospects for the remaining five races of the season…
Ferrari will be buoyed by Vettel’s performance in Malaysia, despite worrying reliability, and Mercedes will be rightly concerned.
On two completely different tracks in Singapore and Sepang they were off the pace of Ferrari, despite Hamilton rescuing a victory and second. Mercedes’ aero update clearly didn’t work as Bottas could only manage fifth place in Sepang, nearly a minute behind the race winner.
With Ferrari showing strong pace – when the car is running – it’s entirely feasible that Kimi Raikkonen could yet take points away from Hamilton, and with Bottas enduring “the most difficult time of his career”, it’s less likely that he will take points off Vettel.
Throw a resurgent Red Bull into the mix and the fight for the championship is still very much alive. Although out of the championship fight, Verstappen and Ricciardo’s pace in recent races suggest Red Bull may become key figures in the race for the title.
Elsewhere in Sepang, a bizarre incident away from Verstappen’s victory celebrations dominated post-race discussions. It’s been common practice for many years for drivers to drive “off-line” after finishing the race in order to pick up rubber marbles discarded to the track’s edges during the race.
Indeed, that’s what Vettel was doing when entering turn five on his way back to the pits when Williams Martini Racing’s Lance Stroll, who had finished eighth, turned right in order to perform the same task and collided with the left rear of Vettel’s Ferrari.
The damage to Vettel’s car was substantial and the lift he received aboard Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber was entertaining, albeit frowned upon by race stewards. The greater concern for Vettel however, is what internal damage as been done to his Ferrari; with the drive shaft plucked from the gearbox in the incident with Stroll, there will be concern that a new gearbox will be required, leading to a five-place grid penalty for the next race.
Away from Ferrari’s headaches, the mid-field once again provided entertainment throughout as the likes of Sahara Force India, Williams, Renault Sport F1 Team, Haas F1 Team and McLaren-Honda F1 Team all appear to be striking a similar level of form.
Sergio Perez was “best of the rest” in sixth, ahead of an ever-improving Stoffel Vandoorne, both Williams and Esteban Ocon while Fernando Alonso narrowly missed out on points in eleventh. There followed the Haas pair of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean in twelfth and thirteenth respectively.
But in fourteenth was the impressive debutant Pierre Gasly, temporarily replacing Daniil Kvyat as Scuderia Toro Rosso asses and afford Gasly time in a Formula One car.
Gasly’s strong one-lap pace and solid effort in his first grand prix, coupled with good performances from the like of Vandoorne, Stroll and Ocon behind a race-winning Verstappen suggests that Formula One’s future is bright. Add Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi to formula one’s roster of young talent and the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton will soon need to be looking over their shoulders rather than at each other.
Formula One’s immediate future however, lays in Suzuka for the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix this coming weekend where Sebastian Vettel will look to turn the tables on Lewis Hamilton and eat into his championship lead. Thirty-four points separate them, five races remain…