The second grand prix in the whole new era of Formula 1 regulations has yet again brought its challenges and surprises but also confirmed the general consensus that Mercedes are the current favourites of the season. A commanding double-whammy by both Silver Arrows has made history for the legendary team – both in past and future terms.
The Mercedes 1-2 in Malaysia was the first double top podium finish for the German manufacturer team since the 1955 Juan Manuel Fangio and Piero Taruffi’s feat. For Lewis Hamilton, it was his first grand prix win since Hungary 2013, when he became the last race winner of the season before Sebastian Vettel put a relentless grip on the top podium spot thereafter. The Brit was visibly relieved to have broken the string of bad luck that seemed to have clung onto him, having consistently lapped the fastest time of the race in Sepang and cruising to the chequered flag with no technical issues this time round – although the team’s technical director Paddy Lowe admitted the stress levels in the garage were sky high, expecting disaster to hit the car’s computer at any time.
“I’m incredibly happy today. This is my first win in Malaysia after eight attempts and to do it for our Petronas family in their home country makes it even more special,” Hamilton said.
Nico Rosberg was also content with his second place finish, with which he placed himself firmly at the top of the season’s classification. The realisation of how good a machine the W05 challenger was in respect to its competitors gave him a cocky edge, which saw him juggle his microphone while waiting for his turn to be interviewed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch and – when the time came – speaking over the celebrity to remind the local crowds this was very much a win for them as well.
“The team did a phenomenal job over the winter and my thanks once again for that. I also want to thank our partners Petronas. They have given our team so much support, along with the best products for our power unit, so we are proud to be associated with them and I hope they enjoy the celebrations today.
Prior to the racing weekend Mercedes had undertaken an intense (but fun looking) promotional campaign in Malaysia for their lead sponsor, Petronas – a state-owned petrochemicals company and one of the international majors in the oil and gas remit.
The Silver Arrows’ unison and obvious partnership stands as a stark contrast to last year’s Malaysian grand prix when the Multi 21 affair left a huge scar on Red Bull’s profile.
Of course, Mercedes’ 2014 success built on Red Bull’s demise. The team struggled again in Sepang with more fuel-flow issues, a repeat of Melbourne problems, Vettel’s 2. place qualifying and subsequent 3. place finish suggest the team is well on track of returning to its winning ways. Obviously, the podium finish was not exactly what the reigning champion had hoped for, as his first words on the team radio after crossing the line were: “Thanks boys. Well executed race. Not yet there where we want to be. There is still a lot to improve but we will get there.”
However, his team-mate had much more reasons to complain following an afternoon that went from bad to worse for the Australian driver. After a decent start to the race which included overtaking Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo eventually having to settle for his qualifying position in 4., looking confident to secure the two best-of-the-rest finishing spots behind elusive Mercedes for the Bulls. But the usually highly consistent and efficient team made a mess of the Aussie’s second pitstop on lap 41 by not screwing his front-left wheel on properly before giving him the green light. Not only did the mechanics have to wheel Ricciardo back to their pit box to adjust the tyre, which cost him an equivalent of one lap time in racing terms; he was also handed a 10-second penalty for unsafe release in the pitlane – as well as a 10-place grid penalty for the next race.
Although the possibility of the Aussie reclaiming his grid position was all but a dream, he bravely ventured out for the fight – just to experience a front-wing collapse which meant Ricciardo was back in the pits the same lap for a nose change. But the damage was already done and Red Bull’s junior had to call it a day, seven laps before the end of the race.
“I’m really disappointed, but at the same time there’s a little bit in me which is happy because I think I’ve come out the first two races how I wanted to, in a way,” Ricciardo said.
“It’s a bit addictive actually, I want more, so you’ll see me up there plenty of times this year.”
Fernando Alonso benefited from the Aussie’s misfortune in another afternoon that was not particularly successful for Ferrari. Despite showing some good pace in qualifying, both drivers struggled hard for position, fighting with teams formerly considered the mid- and back-field. As much as Alonso’s second finish in top points this year places him in 3. place of the drivers’ standings, Kimi Raikkonen left Sepang with nothing to add to his tally of 6 points, after a puncture on lap one from a contact with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen robbed him off valuable time for the remainder of the race, leaving him with a mere 12. place finish.
Malaysian GP produced another handful of retirees, out of which the least fortunate was probably Sergio Perez, whose Force India never made it off the grid on Sunday due to an expected hydraulics issue. His team-mate Nico Hulkenberg made it up to the team, however, by securing 5. place finish after a brave battle for position with Alonso.
Behind him Jenson Button stuck firmly to his spot, which he still considered an achievement in the light of difficult practice sessions and qualifying that saw him start the race from 10. In his backyard, however, all hell threatened to brake lose – and still might at the Williams’ garage in the race aftermath – as team-orders sparked a fierce battle between Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. The Finn was given the right of passage by the management, due to his younger and faster tyres; but the radio message Massa received must have been a painful reminder of the dark Ferrari days: “Valtteri is faster than you!”. The Prancing Horse days behind him, Massa was not going to step aside for, what he must consider, the “second” Williams driver, and he held his ground until they both crossed the finish line, in 7. and 8.
“I will fight for my career, for everything I want in a way that I believe is correct. I didn’t do anything wrong because I was fighting against another car,” Massa told the BBC after the race.
Despite some potential internal issues, Williams’ 2014 campaign is currently proving the team’s revival from an uncharacteristically low form over the past few seasons. In the meantime, Lotus continues to struggle this year, managing only one driver over the line in Malaysia, but Romain Grosjean’s 11. position left the team outside the points once more. In the meantime, Sauber’s did not bring either of their cars across the line due to gearbox issues for Esteban Gutierrez in the pits and a complete car shutdown for Adrian Sutil on track.
Just as Mercedes has been generally accepted as the favourites entering the 2014 season, there also is a consensus across the paddock that the teams will generally overcome their technical issues and eventually the true class of the players on the grid will come out. But with the Bahrain Grand Prix due in only a week’s time, it is unlikely that this levelling out would happen just yet.
The guessing-game continues.