Sunday 1 October 2017

Malaysia GP Report - Max power

Rarely can an F1 weekend have contained so many twists. There were planety on Friday and Saturday. And the Malaysia Grand Prix's Sunday had plenty more.

Max Verstappen reminded us of his star
quality with a crushing win
Photo: Octane Photography
And quickly. The first was before the race even started, as Ferrari sank further into its recent quagmire. Kimi Raikkonen reported a power loss on the way to the dummy grid, which proved terminal. He didn't start.

But in another twist this did not give us a Lewis Hamilton benefit run. Mercedes's worries about lacking race pace were founded. Max Verstappen's Red Bull hounded leader Lewis from the off, sailed down the inside of the first turn after four laps, then left him.

On lap 12 he was five seconds up the road; on lap 18 it was nine. Almost like he was driving a Mercedes. He was never seen again.

"I think in the beginning, straight away the car felt good," said Verstappen later.

"I had a good run out of last corner and opted to go for the inside, I knew Lewis had more to lose as he was fighting for the championship.

"It was very decisive as I saw he was d-rating [running out of battery power] so I used all the battery I had to get close, and then he had a bad exit out the last corner."

His subsequent progress out front was as decisive. "As soon as Lewis was speeding up I could easily do a faster lap, it was really controlled," Max added.

Lewis Hamilton had to give best today
Photo: Octane Photography
"The car was really good."

On lap 9 the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo got ahead of Valtteri Bottas into third, and ate at Hamilton's eight second advantage.

It wasn't only Bulls on Lewis's mind either, as the perennial Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari was coming into the picture. Starting from the back on soft tyres after quali technical woes, aside from a few laps behind Fernando Alonso his rise was persistent.

On lap 21 he cleared Sergio Perez for fifth, and at that point was just 30 seconds off the lead (and 3.1 off Bottas!) as well as within a pitstop of Lewis. He cleared Bottas in the solitary stops and continued to set fastest laps, often a second a lap faster than second-placed Hamilton; on course to reach him before the end...

He had to clear third-man Ricciardo though - whose charge at Lewis flatlined in the second stint. Seb reached the RB13 with 10 laps to do, but there his rise stopped. He made one lunge with a few laps left, then he dropped away. It was just after an odd "let me do it!" radio message from him, suggesting he'd been told to turn something down. Fourth was his.

And in a doleful coup de grace it got worse for him and Ferrari after the race too. Seb and Lance Stroll's Williams somehow got together on the cool down lap, and the damage on the Ferrari's rear was like a bomb had gone off. He'll likely due to the damage get a gearbox penalty in Suzuka (one of the last places you'd want one).

Vettel was excellent coming through the
pack - but had more misfortune
Photo: Octane Photography
While all this was going on Max was cruising to the win with a minimum of fuss, reminding us of his sheer star quality sometimes forgotten amid his wretched fortune this year.

"Especially after the season I've had, I think this victory came at a very good time," Max noted appropriately.

His team mate paid tribute too. "I was never close enough...Max had really good pace," said Ricciardo. "I probably lost more of a chance at the start and Valtteri getting me.

"Once I got Valtteri I was trying to hunt down Lewis, but the pace wasn't really enough to close on him. At the end Vettel was really catching me so my sights really was holding on the podium."

Thus it's a lot like the last round in Singapore - Lewis and Mercedes somehow escape from jail and extend their title lead, now at 34 points. Yet Merc won't be content - as Martin Brundle pointed out that's two rounds in a row, on completely different circuit types, the Ferrari has been fundamentally quickest.

And two in a row in which Merc has looked distinctly off it. Its upgrade brought here didn't work. Five rounds remain - winning all would get Seb the title. The Red Bulls might get between too. A DNF or similar for Lewis would really stir things up.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff did not
deny his car's pace problems
Photo: Octane Photography
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff knew so. "I am just very down", he admitted afterwards, "you cannot just look at it and say 'we've scored more points than Ferrari'.

"We have lost so much pace - we were half a minute down on Ferrari; probably if he pushed to the end half a minute down on Max.

"If you look at the real pace today it would have been P5 [without others' problems]."

Lewis was similarly downbeat. "Considering he [Vettel] started last it's not really that great," he said. "Just didn't have the pace. Our deltas were the Ferrari were eight tenths faster than us, and also Red Bull five or six tenths quicker.

"When Max was closing down I had to make the decision to not fight him and risk him crashing into me; he has nothing to lose.

"The car's still having big problems in certain corners."

Then again with a possible Japan grid drop and Suzuka expected to be Merc country it might still for Seb get worse before it gets better.

Once again Bottas was beleaguered, coming home fifth 56 seconds after the winner and 44 seconds after his team mate. His running the updated aero didn't help, but this deficit is threatening to become a habit.

There were worthy drives behind though. Sergio Perez in that way of his stretched out tyre life longer than anyone which helped him to sixth place. Stoffel Vandoorne continued his recent good form with a smooth run to seventh, which he justifiably called "his best in Formula One". The Alain Prost comparisons aren't entirely fanciful.

The Williams with Stroll ahead were next and Esteban Ocon completed the scorers. His race was spoiled by an early stop after first lap contact (again involving his team mate) then later spinning after more contact in battle with Carlos Sainz.

In a sense everything changed but nothing changed. A new winner for the season, perhaps an unexpected one. And Mercedes continues to stretch its points advantage. But the Ferrari continues to look fast. And if the Scuderia can stop treading on its own tail we might yet have a championship on.


  1. Vettel has lost his rhythm for sure after post race mistake in Malaysia and team definitely has Quality control issues going on also.
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