Sunday 29 March 2015

Malaysian GP Report: Red revival

It was supposed to take years. But it transpired that all it required was an hour and a half. Something thought in advance as good as impossible happened, in that the haughty Mercedes were faced down and beaten in a straight fight. And in today's Malaysian Grand Prix it was none other than Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari that did it.

Sebastian Vettel claimed a surprise win
Photo: Octane Photography
Even after Seb's stellar job in wet qualifying both driver and team were resolute that Merc's pace advantage of yore will not have disappeared. For it to have done so was simply is not the way of this game. Granted Seb speculated about a race victory, but that was (by my interpretation at least) said in the strictest context of the local notorious rainstorms shaking up the kaleidoscope, and being able to take advantage therein. But they didn't require anything like that. The red team might just have surprised even itself in Sepang's proceedings this time.

And make no mistake about it, today was different. Mercedes was beaten three times last campaign; but even Daniel Ricciardo who took advantage on those occasions would likely admit that each owed a great deal to the Mercs treading on their own tails. Seb was absolutely right to note that today he and his team 'won fair and square', and that was a first since the silver lot started its glorious run at the start of last season. As you'd imagine too the joy of driver and team afterwards was unconstrained.

Maybe today was peculiar? No race is as hot as Sepang after all, particularly with its earlier start time for this year. Almost no track is as tough on tyres either. Perhaps with a dry qualifying session and without the early safety car Seb wouldn't have found a clear track anything like as quickly. You could make a case that in this race the cards fell just like the red team was the house rather than the gambler. Whether precisely this sort of competitiveness can be repeated elsewhere remains filed under 'wait and see'.

But all of the evidence of this calendar year so far pretty much without fail has been that this Ferrari has something real kicking about in it. And today provided the firmest evidence of all to that end. All of a sudden too, Seb's just three points off the championship lead.

Its worth reflecting the bigger picture also. This was Ferrari's first win in not that far off two years. And even with Merc's chasm-like advantage of 2014 if anyone was going to bridge it Ferrari hardly looked the most likely, what with it being a distant fourth in the standings and apparently descending into the sort of acrimonious chaos of its darkest of days.

Ferrari's James Allison rightfully reflected on a job well done
Photo: Octane Photography
But after its encouraging pre-season testing and opening round, the SF15-T looked on Sepang's Sunday every inch like the Lotus cars of recent years - all fine handling and other-worldly tyre life without equal. And who designed those? Ah yes, James Allison. The guy behind the Ferrari of now

And Vettel like his team and his car seemed to today confirm that he's re-establishing glories of the not-so-distant past. For all his struggle last year at Red Bull today in his new abode he looked just like the guy that we got to know so well that once in the lead of the motor race is imperious. After the early safety car mentioned - caused by Marcus Ericsson spinning off on lap four - Seb never relinquished the net lead. He looked imperturbable with it too. And he was rewarded with his own first win in upwards of a year.

Furthermore, while we can have our fun looking for the ways that Mercedes got it wrong with strategy and the like today, Ferrari's Technical Director Allison was absolutely correct to point out that on raw pace the Seb-Ferrari combiantion might have had the edge too. Merc's Niki Lauda reckoned further that his lot wouldn't have won even had they replicated Ferrari's strategy (and team boss Toto Wolff hinted at something similar). Ferrari's triumph was a matter of a nearly-as-quick car managing its tyres much better.

In victory too in another throwback to his not-too-distant days of glory Seb in his words afterwards was his familiar mixture of charm and impudent jibe. 'Niki is a fan of straight talking' he noted, 'and I think today he was right we were quicker, that's why we beat them.'

'We know that the Mercedes are very strong, usually the advantage doesn't just disappear, today it seemed it did.

'We were strong on the tyres, looking after them, which gave us a bit of the edge. Maybe the heat didn't favour the Mercedes power train. But things worked well and we made the most of it.'

And underlining it all, when asked to confirm if the Ferrari is quick he affirmed 'it is'.

As intimated matters opened up for Seb with the early safety car. Such was the SF15-T's tyre handling as established in Friday's race simulation Ferrari felt confident for Seb to push on. Mercedes as planned dived in together and re-emerged on hard tyres but in traffic (seemingly the team expected that more would pit). Poleman and habitual pace-setter Lewis Hamilton dealt with that quickly as you'd imagine but even so he had ceded 10 seconds to Seb by the time that he got up to second, and on his hard tyres versus Seb's mediums subsequently didn't really make an impression on the gap. Then worse for him when Seb did pit and took on more mediums the German tore chunks out of road to the two Mercs ahead.

It cannot be denied however that Merc's approach today was curious. After that early safety car its initial plan was for a very stretched out and lopsided two-stopper. It seemed to take the team half the race to work out that to beat the red challenge it would have to attack it rather than sneak by it via the back door. Odd for a team that if it had anything it had pace. And later after switching back to a more appropriate three-stop and just when it looked like all were set to rescue things, Lewis emerged from his final halt not on the medium tyres but the hards - a fact that surprised even the man himself - but it transpired that his only available set of mediums was 'well used'. A legacy of qualifying when the Mercs went straight out on the medium tyres, rather signposting that the team planned to use mainly the hards on race day. That swung things decisively back to Seb, and that's how it stayed until the end.

For once, Lewis Hamilton had to follow home
Photo: Octane Photography
It puts one in mind too of the rare occasions last season when the silver squad found itself under pressure (see Hungary or Spa), its race day approach often established a curious bent. In fairness this current Merc outfit doesn't have much recent practice with pressure from elsewhere. But on today's evidence it'll have to get a little more used to it. And sharpen itself up ever so slightly.

The team sought to put a brave face on things afterwards, but the air of a collective that just had its plasma screen nicked couldn't be concealed. It yet remains the favourites for both titles as things stand, but there will be a sharp jolt in expectations down Mercedes way.

But such considerations can wait. For now just about all (outside of Brackley at least) will be glad to see the sport's most famous and impassioned of all old soldiers back at the sharp end. And with all of the self-flagellation of a fortnight ago, it felt like exactly what the sport needed too and more. F1 is like any game in that the more credible competitors there are the merrier. And even Wolff admitted that it was 'a good day for Formula One', albeit adding that it was also 'not such a perfect day for Mercedes'.

Lewis too was magnanimous. 'I don't feel too disappointed to be honest, I did everything I could' he insisted.

'You can't win 'em all, and it's nice for the sport to see another winner...I'm looking forward to a battle now.'

Behind the top two, Nico Rosberg followed Lewis home. Unlike Lewis he had a set of mediums to proceed on for the final stint, but he was rather impeded much earlier by having to queue behind Lewis in his safety car period pit stop, giving him more traffic to clear. And not for the first time too he seemed rather more scratchy than his team mate in getting through the pack.

Kimi Raikkonen meanwhile provided more grist for the red revival mill by recovering from a lowly grid slot and early puncture (though he was one helped by the early safety car) to finish a clear fourth. He didn't quite have Seb's pace but in mitigation may have sustained chassis damage during that early puncture.

After that it was rather Noah's Ark stuff, with in the following order two Williams (Valtteri Bottas winning out after a late, and exhilarating battle); two Toro Rossos (Max Verstappen ahead, again impressing) then two rather diminished Red Bulls (Daniil Kvyat ahead), which again had a tough time.

McLaren was another to be encouraged
Photo: Octane Photography
Further back though we had a team giving tentative indication of going in the other direction. Neither McLaren finished (more engine woes), but the team's day was an encouraging one, as both seemed capable of running with the midfield pack, and indeed Fernando Alonso was in P8 when his day came to an end. It was another team that seemed to surprise itself - captured quintessentially by Jenson Button's apparently incredulous radio comment that he was actually catching cars ahead!

It's very early days of course, but you wonder if it was the start of the sort of journey that its old rivals from Maranello benefited from being further down today.

But if today was about anything it was that we shouldn't seek to be too smart about predicting F1 futures. Yet equally we should not assume either that matters will stay the same for long. Don't let anyone tell you this game is predictable. We're reminded constantly; it seems too we need to be reminded constantly.

And don't let anyone tell you either that this is anything other than a wonderful sport.

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