Rossi wins in MotoGP. Montoya wins in IndyCar. And a German wins in a Ferrari.
No this isn’t the year 2000, but it certainly felt like it on Sunday. In what was a proper season opener for Formula 1 with all bar one car taking the start at the Sepang circuit, Sebastien Vettel triumphed in his prancing horse after Mercedes let their strategic guard down in somewhat similar circumstances to Hungary last year.
In truth though their fate was secured on the Saturday. After using up a crucial set of Medium tyres because they felt that the Hard compound would suit their race pace, they didn’t see the oncoming threat of Ferrari – who usually flatter their crack at the timesheet by filling their cars up with low fuel.
From then on in you could see the race slowly crumbling around them. Poor tyre choices, the indecision on the radio messages, Hamilton not knowing what he is doing and referring to his engineer with “hey man,” Rosberg being switched to a three-stop, it just looked like they were so used to winning that they forgot how to strategically beat the opposition. Mercedes themselves admitted they were “paralysed” by wanting to have fairplay between their drivers, something they say could change in the future.
You could see the race slowly crumbling around Mercedes
Whilst I can see where they are coming from, the team should be careful in how they apply this. It is widely known that they settle on a strategy between their two drivers before the start of the race, and because of their pace advantage they stick with it. We saw this in Monaco last year when Sutil brought out the Safety Car; the team didn’t want to bring Hamilton into the pits so he could jump Rosberg – who was further up the road past pitlane – because they knew it wasn’t in the script.
But if you have a situation on your hands like yesterday, its obvious that you need to change strategy if you want to beat/compete with the opposition. The difficulty with Mercedes is making sure they don’t issue team orders for one car to pass another because they’re faster, otherwise they’ll lose that element of fairness between their drivers and be accused of favouritism – which isn’t good for the sport.
Otherwise I commend theirs and others comradeship in congratulating Ferrari taking the win yesterday, revering the team for putting the sport in a good light after what has been non-stop bad publicity the last couple of weeks. It’s also quite ceremonial for Sebastien Vettel, and particularly at this circuit where he caused such a stir of controversy two years ago.
He has proved that he can win in a car that clearly isn’t fastest after they were 30 seconds off the pace in Melbourne, and become only the third driver to win for two Italian teams in F1 history with Toro Rosso and Ferrari. Only the classic greats Fangio and Farina have completed such a feat racing for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – the latter of which has its logo coincidentally on the side of the SF-15T. Lapping his former team Red Bull must have also been a wake up call for the soft drinks company, who were seemingly battling brake issues throughout the entire race.
It all looked a bit tiresome from Red Bull. They were not only slower than their sister team Toro Rosso, but they also got out strategised. Add to that the public spat between them and engine supplier Renault, and the images of Cyril Abiteboul, Helmut Marko, and Christian Horner in the garage after the race tell a very significant story in what is clearly an ongoing strain in their relationship as partners.
Meanwhile Toro Rosso looked rather handy out there, with both Sainz and Vestappen finishing ahead of Riccardo and Kvyat in what was a display of magnificence all weekend from the two rookies. Vestappen impressed me most. After retiring with a Power Unit problem in Australia he came back with bundles of confidence in Malaysia, out-strategising Sainz and overtaking him in what was a bold move up the inside of turn four.
This is perhaps the best lineup at Toro Rosso we’ve ever seen. The World Series seasoned Sainz and the plucky teenager Vestappen have earned even more of my respect after Sunday’s race, and I only hope they continue this throughout the season.
Elsewhere I thought the Force India drivers looked like they forgotten the width of their car after getting caught up in some silly incidents. Hulkenberg’s move on Kvyat was perhaps slightly more justified than Perez, who just looked like he ran into the side of Grosjean expecting him to disappear. Williams seemed to just lack the pace to get in on the mix between the front runners, McLaren produced yet another ‘smile and wave’ moment for their drivers after double retirement, and Sauber were predictably underwhelming after their cunning performance at the season opener.
And that is your lot. Next up is China for round three of the 2015 contest.