Mighty Mercedes dominate in Malaysia

So, it’s two wins out of two for Mercedes so far in 2014. Not only that, but this time both cars were reliable meaning that the Brackley based team achieved their first one, two finish in nearly 60 years as Lewis Hamilton led home team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first win, and first podium finish, since last year’s Hungarian grand prix victory. The team now lead the world constructors’ championship.

To be absolutely frank, Hamilton’s victory never looked in doubt from the time that the lights went out to signal the start of the race. Unlike in Australia, the 2008 world drivers’ champion’s Mercedes engine was firing on all cylinders from the get go as he streaked away from pole position and led into the first corner, with his team-mate slotting into second place behind him.

Hamilton was at his dominant best in Malaysia

Hamilton was at his dominant best in Malaysia

While it was Rosberg who dominated in Australia as Hamilton was forced to retire just a few laps in, in Sepang it was most definitely Hamilton’s turn to stamp his authority on proceedings. The Englishman pulled seemingly effortlessly away from the rest of the field, including Rosberg who seemed to be struggling with his tyres, and, like Rosberg in Melbourne, he was soon asking his team whether there was anything more he could do for reliability purposes.

Indeed, Hamilton only relinquished the lead once during the entire race, albeit very briefly to the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg – who drove an excellent race to claim fifth place – which was on a different tyre strategy. Hamilton even achieved the first Grand Chelem of his Formula 1 career by leading every lap of the race and setting the fastest lap in addition to his pole position and race victory, eventually finishing the race 17.3 seconds clear of Rosberg, with Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel a further 7.2 seconds adrift.

Vettel seemed pretty upbeat after the race, though. The German appeared pleased that the Milton Keynes based squad looked like they had closed the gap a bit to Mercedes, but I wonder how much of that is positive spin winning out over harsh reality. While it was certainly true that, just as in Australia, Red Bull looked to have the second fastest car, the fact of the matter is that they still finished around 25 seconds behind the race winner, just like in Australia (before the disqualification of Daniel Ricciardo, of course).

Vettel was upbeat after the race, but while he got close to Rosberg at times, he was never able to attempt a pass

Vettel was upbeat after the race, but while he got close to Rosberg at times, he was never able to attempt a pass

You’ve also got to consider that Sepang is a circuit that plays very much to Red Bull’s strengths, with plenty of high-speed corners that allow them to show off their continued aerodynamic edge. Unfortunately for them, though, Sepang also features some long straights which allowed Mercedes to show of the undoubted superiority of their power train, as Vettel seemed to indicate when talking to Rosberg before the podium ceremony. The bottom line is that, Red Bull were never close to challenging for victory, and with a pit stop error resulting in the eventual retirement of Daniel Ricciardo (who also gets a 10 place grid penalty for Bahrain), Red Bull also only got one car to the chequered flag.

Another reason to suspect that Red Bull might not have made the inroads they seem to be suggesting that they have is Ferrari’s optimism that in Bahrain they will leapfrog the reigning world constructors’ champions. Ferrari were a very distant fourth in Malaysia, with Fernando Alonso finishing over 10 seconds adrift of Vettel, but Bahrain will bring different challenges to Sepang, challenges that the Maranello based squad think that they are better placed to overcome than Red Bull.

Alonso battled with Hulkenberg at Sepang, but he'll hope to be further forward in Bahrain

Alonso battled with Hulkenberg at Sepang,
but he’ll hope to be further forward in Bahrain

Bahrain is a track where fuel efficiency is expected to play much more of a role than it did in Malaysia and Ferrari think that their power unit is more efficient than its Renault counterpart. When you consider the fuel consumption figures displayed during the race, it certainly looked like the Red Bull cars were using more than Mercedes, certainly when compared to Lewis Hamilton who was considerably more fuel-efficient than Rosberg.

The only other talking point of note in Malaysia was Williams. After the trauma of “Fernando is faster than you” at Ferrari, poor Felipe Massa had to endure “Valtteri is faster than you” from his Williams engineer at Sepang. So long the dutiful and faithful company servant at Ferrari, Massa must have thought that he’d left those sort of radio messages way behind in his rear view mirrors when he move to the Grove-based team for 2014. That appears not to be the case, however.

Despite being ordered to move aside, Massa finished ahead of Bottas

Despite being ordered to move aside,
Massa finished ahead of Bottas

Williams believed that Massa’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, on slightly fresher tyres than the Brazilian, was quicker and better placed to challenge the McLaren of Jenson Button for sixth place in the closing stages of the race, hence the radio message urging Massa to make way for his Finnish team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ championship runner-up wasn’t having any of it, though, refusing to yield to his less experienced team-mate meaning that Williams had to settle for seventh and eighth places, with Bottas following Massa across the line.

While Massa and Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams denied that there was any issue in their post race interviews, Bottas was pretty taciturn and didn’t look at all happy. Massa will be welcoming the arrival of his Ferrari race engineer, and long-term friend, Rob Smedley at Williams in Bahrain. He may well need the moral support.

A happy Lewis Hamilton with his winner's trophy

A happy Lewis Hamilton with his winner’s trophy

Whatever the situation at Williams, one thing is for certain: Lewis Hamilton will not be remotely bothered. After the disappointment of Australia, Hamilton bounced back in the best possible way in Malaysia. His 2014 championship challenge starts right here, and if he can maintain this sort of form there may well be no stopping him. As the Malaysian grand prix weekend proved, whether the weather is wet or dry, Mercedes, and Hamilton, seem to fly

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The return of the Mack

So, that’s the first Formula 1 race of 2014 done and dusted.  In some ways you could say that, despite the new 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units and regulations changes, nothing has changed.  We still had a German dominating the race, by breaking clear at the start, leading the way for the whole race and winning by a huge margin.  In reality, though, we all know that the F1 of 2014 is different from 2013 in a whole raft of ways.

Nico Rosberg on his way to a dominant victory in Australia

Nico Rosberg on his way to a
dominant victory in Australia

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel – world drivers’ champion for the last four seasons in his Red Bull Renault – who dominated the race, but another young German in Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  Such was the manner of Rosberg’s victory, though, that it was very reminiscent of Vettel’s past dominance.  Rosberg won the race by a huge 24.5 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s new Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (later excluded from the results after a fuel flow infraction), with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen a further 2.2 seconds back.

While Red Bull Racing Team Principle Christian Horner’s prediction that Mercedes might win by a couple of laps proved to be very wide of the mark, it was certainly proved correct that Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field right now.  Unfortunately for them, and for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, that pace has not come hand in hand with total reliability.  Sadly for Hamilton, and for the race, he only managed to complete three laps because of a failed cylinder in his engine, which hampered him from the get go enabling Rosberg to cruise past him off the line.  Hamilton, though, handled the understandable disappointment well; you suspect that his turn will come, and before long.

Ricciardo drove an excellent race to finish second, and hold off Kevin MagnussenThere were also contrasting fortunes for the two Red Bull Racing cars in terms of race performance.  To be honest, the world constructors champions did amazingly well to be anywhere near the front after a disastrous pre-season, but they confounded expectations by looking competative in Melbourne.  While new boy Ricciardo was hugely impressive over the race weekend, both starting and finishing in second place before his subsequent exclusion from the results,  his team-mate, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, did not enjoy the same sort of performance levels.

Vettel was hampered by a software problem in qualifying, meaning that he could only manage to qualify in 13th place (he started 12th after a grid penalty for Valterri Bottas).  In the race, he never really got going, dropping back at the start and completing just one more lap than Hamilton before being forced to retire.  The frustration from the German was clear over team radio as he instructed his team to “Do something” while complaining of a lack of power and pace.  Things aren’t quite so easy when you’re not in the dominant car and you suspect that this is something that Vettel will have to come to terms with, particularly in the early stages of the season.

Eric Boullier has joined McLaren as Racing Director

Eric Boullier has joined
McLaren as Racing Director

While Mercedes cars, and in some ways the two Red Bulls, suffered contrasting fortunes the same cannot be said of a resurgent McLaren.  Martin Whitmarsh’s departure, the return of Ron Dennis and the recruitment of Eric Boullier as Racing Director has coincided with a huge turnaround for the Woking-based team.  McLaren struggled throughout 2013, finishing the season without scoring a single podium finish.  They ended that run in the first race of 2014 with rookie Kevin Magnussen’s brilliant drive to third place on his F1 debut.  Following Ricciardo’s exclusion this, of course, was upgrade to second.

Not only that, but Magnussen was followed home by team-mate Jenson Button who inherited third, meaning that McLaren leave Australia with a double-podium and the lead of the constructors championship.  While all is not quite as the team would hope – they’re still lacking in outright pace in comparison to Mercedes – this is a massive leap forward for McLaren.  They might not be the quickest, but they have proved that they’ve got consistency.  Not only that, but the tactical errors that have blighted the team over the past couple of seasons look to have been eradicated.  There was clear evidence of that as Jenson Button was moved forward through the pit stops from his 10th place starting position, leapfrogging cars with some good strategy, particularly when taking maximum advantage from the single safety car period – caused after Valterri Bottas brushed the wall in his Williams – by diving into the pits at the last possible moment.

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

While McLaren – the Mack of this article’s title – are clearly back amongst the front-runners, they’re certainly not the only ones.  Williams were hugely impressive in pre-season and they seem to have carried that forward into the season proper, along with a new title sponsorship deal with Martini.  Although they perhaps didn’t achieve the results that they might have hoped for in Australia, Bottas’s sixth place finish still resulted in eight world championship points for the Grove-based team.  That’s three more than they managed for the whole of the previous season.  Things might have been even better for the team had new recruit Felipe Massa not been taken out at the first corner by Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi, and Bottas not brushed the wall at turn 10 on lap 10 when running in sixth position, triggering the safety car.

We’re only one race into the season, of course, but Williams and McLaren look to be back where they would say they belong.  Ferrari, clearly have work to do – the Scuderia where never really in contention at Albert park, finishing fifth (Alonso) and eighth (Raikkonen) places (both upgraded following Ricciardo’s disqualification) – but not as much as Lotus who, as expected, struggled badly, with both cars forced to retire.  Pastor Maldonado’s move from Williams to Lotus, is not looking like the wisest one right now.

One thing is clear, though, Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over their rivals.  If they can maintain that throughout the season, and minimise the sort of reliability issues suffered by Hamilton, there’ll be no stopping them in 2014.