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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Team tactics cause consternation in Sepang

If you hadn’t watched the Malaysian grand prix and just taken a quick look at the results, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was probably a pretty dull race.  A win from pole from Sebastian Vettel with his team-mate Mark Webber following him home; what could be more straightforward?  In reality, though, things weren’t quite that simple, of course.  All the post race talk was about team orders between not just the two Red Bulls, but also the two Mercedes cars, with Lewis Hamilton taking the final step on the podium, ahead of his team-mate Nico Rosberg.

It was the contrast between the two teams that proved most interesting.  Both Red Bull and Mercedes had ordered their drivers to hold station after the final pit stops.  Had that happened, Webber would have won the race from Vettel.  As you all know, though, Vettel chose to ignore orders and go for the win, while Rosberg obeyed instructions from the pit wall not to attempt to pass Hamilton (after the two had swapped positions a few times in the back to back DRS zones).  It made for a slightly uncomfortable podium and it raised the ugly spectre of team orders in Formula 1 yet again.

In the past team orders have been outlawed, but that rule proved to be completely unworkable.  Team orders, team tactics, orders from the pit wall – call them what you like, but they’re now very much part of Formula 1 again.  They will always cause disagreements between fans, teams and drivers, depending on who benefits, but, in my view, they’re a necessary evil.  The real problem comes when drivers choose to ignore such orders.  It can lead to mistrust and can be corrosive to team cohesion, much more so than when one driver is left frustrated at not being allowed to race his team-mate.

Vettel passing team-mate Webber on lap 46

Vettel passing team-mate Webber on lap 46

Let’s start by looking at the Red Bull situation.  After the final pit stops Webber emerged just ahead of Vettel on lap 44 of the race.  The two drivers – rightly in my view – battled it out for a few corners during which Webber was able to maintain the upper hand over his team-mate.  That should have been the end of it.  Both drivers were ordered to turn down their engine settings and save tyres in the final part of the race, with no more racing between the team-mates.  Webber did as instructed, but Vettel decided to ignore his team and take advantage by squeezing past Webber on the start-finish straight on lap 46.

The German went on to win the race, with his clearly unhappy Australian team-mate being forced to settle for second place in a race that he will feel rightly aggrieved not to have won.  Vettel fans will be delighted that their driver won the race, of course, but they should bear in mind that their driver did so unfairly.  We’ll never really know whether Vettel was actually quicker than Webber on the day because the Australian had clearly obeyed the orders from the pit wall to take it easy in the final stint.  It was only when Webber eased back, as he expected his German team-mate to have done, that Vettel passed his team-mate.

Vettel acknowledged after the race that he’d made a “big mistake”, going on to say that “We should have stayed in the positions we were in…I messed up in that situation.  I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to truth, and apologise.  I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better.  It doesn’t help his feelings right now. Apologies to Mark…”.

We all know that the will to win is an essential component of a championship winning Formula 1 driver, and Vettel certainly showed that he has that in spades in Malaysia.  But he also showed a complete lack of respect for his team-mate.  Yes, Vettel apologised after the race and acknowledged that Webber should have won the race, but that will be scant consolation for the Australian.  A clearly aggrieved Webber said on the podium “After the last stop the team told me the race was over and we turned the engine down to go to the end…the team made a decision which we always say before the start of the race is how it’s probably going to be: we look after the tyres and get the cars to the end.  In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes”.

As disappointed, upset and annoyed Webber clearly was after the race, I suspect that he will become even more so when he watches the race back, while listening to his team-mate’s radio transmissions.  We heard Vettel say to his engineer on lap 27 of the race “Mark is too slow, get him out of the way”.  Vettel clearly doesn’t like following his team-mate and obviously felt he was the quicker driver, but the manner of his comment, even when reading it back on paper, without the benefit of hearing the German’s tone of voice, was quite dismissive of his team-mate.  It certainly showed a complete lack of respect, and I think that Webber will be quite hurt by it.  When you add this to Vettel’s decision to ignore team orders and his slightly hollow post-race apologies, I think that there is some quite considerable work for Red Bull team management – Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko – to do to ensure that this does not prove to be extremely corrosive to the team.

Hamilton leading Rosberg in Sepang

Hamilton leading Rosberg in Sepang

We saw the other side of the coin at Mercedes.  Hamilton was told to go into extreme fuel saving in the final stint of the race, which allowed Rosberg to close up behind him.  Rosberg was clearly the faster Mercedes at that stage of the race and pleaded with team principal Ross Brawn on the radio to be allowed to pass his new team-mate.  The decision from Brawn was, though, that the cars should hold station and that Rosberg should drop back.  This is clearly something that had been agreed, as it is in most teams, before the race – team-mates should not race each other after the final pit stop.

Rosberg was clearly unhappy with the situation and a lengthy debate ensued on team-radio, but in the end he obeyed orders and held position.  After the race Hamilton looked slightly embarrassed with his podium and acknowledged that his team-mate should have finished ahead of him, saying on the podium “If I’m honest I feel Nico should be standing here”.  In turn, Rosberg commented after the race “It’s a team effort and I respected the team’s opinion”.  Commenting further, the German said “For the team to want us to bring it home third and fourth is fully understandable and I know if it had been the other way around they would’ve done the same thing.  There will be times to fight between team-mates in the future”.

There is clearly respect between the two Mercedes drivers, and while both aren’t entirely happy with the situation they understand it and accept it.  They each know that the team will treat them fairly and equally in the future.  The same clearly cannot be said of the Red Bull drivers.

Amid all the post-race debates, it’s easy to forget that Fernando Alonso crashed out of the race on only the second lap, after losing his front wing following a brush with Vettel on the first lap.  That DNF may well prove costly at the end of the season.  Disappointed also will be Kimi Raikkonen, who could only finish in seventh for Lotus – one place behind his team-mate, Romain Grosjean – after his win in Australia.

It’s looking like consistency will be a key factor in this year’s championship, as it was last year, as unpredictable tyres and changing conditions make for exciting racing.  At least we’ve got time to pause for breath now – there’s a three-week break before we see the cars return to the track in China.  It’ll certainly be interesting to observe the body language at Red Bull…

Moving on from Gherkin-gate

Probably the biggest talking point from the recent Malaysian Grand Prix was the coming together between Narain Karthikeyan and Sebastian Vettel. The contact, which occurred as the Red Bull attempted to lap the HRT, resulted in front wing damage for the Indian and a left rear puncture for the German, with the resulting pit stop for fresh rubber dropping Vettel from 4th to 11th position; out of the points.

After the race Vettel called the HRT driver a “gherkin” and an “idiot”, placing the blame for the coming together squarely at the Indian’s door.  The stewards agreed that Karthikeyan was at fault and handed him a post race 20 second penalty.  Some disagreed with this verdict and judged that the contact was a “racing incident”, while others thought that the clash was actually Vettel’s fault.  I’m of the view that the incident itself was Vettel’s fault.  The Red Bull appeared to clip the HRT rather than the other way around.  Yes, as the driver being lapped Karthikeyan is responsible for moving out of the way to let the faster cars through, but in this case I don’t think that he was given anywhere to go by Vettel.

However, given that the penalty for Karthikeyan had no impact on the race result – and, should the stewards have decided the opposite way, a similar penalty for Vettel would have been just as meaningless given his finishing position – the controversy has centred on Vettel’s post race comments rather than the incident itself.   A case can clearly be made that the double World Champion’s comments were harsh and, some would say, ungentlemanly.  Certainly Karthikeyan would agree with this assessment calling Vettel a “cry baby” and labelling the German’s comments “shameful”.  So were Vettel’s post race comments fair or justifiable?  Putting aside the fact that Vettel clearly felt that he was the aggrieved party, the short answer to this question is no.  Remember, despite Vettel’s own views, and indeed those of the race stewards, fault for the clash was far from clear.  In his heart of hearts, Vettel must have realised this.

So, then, why was Vettel so vocal in his criticism of Karthikeyan?  My answer to this question can be summarised in one word: frustration.  Looking at the situation from the outside, it certainly looks like Vettel is far from happy that the Red Bull RB8 is not, at least at this stage of the season, the fastest car on the grid.  It’s possible that, after dominating in 2011 in a car that was the class of the field, Vettel is finding it hard to adapt to a situation where he needs to fight and scrap for race wins and podiums.  Throwing away what would have been a valuable 12 points for 4th place, through what I believe was his own carelessness, must have been particularly galling given the current situation.  I think that this could be a real test for Vettel, who needs to focus on helping his team out develop McLaren, rather than wasting his time and energy on a spat with a backmarker.

Although he’s a double World Champion, it’s easy to forget that at 24 years of age Vettel is still a very young driver, with a degree of maturing still to do.  You could argue that this lack of maturity can be further evidenced by the fact that he didn’t retire the car in Malaysia, seemingly ignoring his team’s orders – through the “emergency” message from his race engineer, Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin – to do so.  Red Bull have since claimed that Vettel didn’t hear this, or other similar messages, due to an issue with his radio, but as an outsider, with no inside information, it’s hard to know whether this is true or not.

Don’t count Vettel out yet, though.  A fighting win from behind in 2010, where he won the championship despite having never lead the standings until he crossed the line in the final race in Abu Dhabi, should serve as sufficient warning to his competitors that he remains a threat.  He’s currently 6th in the championship, 17 points behind the current leader, Spain’s Fernando Alonso, but only 7 points behind the winner in Australia, Jenson Button, who is 3rd in the championship.  A race win for Vettel in China, would see him, at worst, draw level on points with the Englishman.  If results go his way Vettel could even be leading the championship after China.  It’s going to be a great season; there are still 18 races left to run…