#F1 Forensics: Vettel’s Malaysian Magnificence – a fluke, stage-managed or genuine pace?

Brought to you by TJ13 Courtroom Reporter & Crime Analyst: Adam Macdonald (@adamac39)


The thought of a Ferrari win seemed, at best, ambitious to those who follow F1 and watched the Australian Grand Prix two weeks prior to the Sepang race.  Maurizio Arrivabene had stated his intention to win this year, but even his wildest fantasies would not have featured a top of the podium finish so soon.

Immediately after the race, there were the usual naysayers who cried foul of the German’s win giving a plethora of excuses as to why, but did they have any credence to them?

Let’s revisit some of the important events of the weekend and factors involved in the win in order to understand just why the prancing horse was so much kinder to its Pirelli PZeros throughout the weekend, which ultimately cost the Mercedes cars the chance of victory.

Fail to prepare…you know the rest

The weekend did not get off to the best of starts for the Mercedes drivers, as Rosberg had handling problems in FP1 and Hamilton’s running was curtailed by a shutdown of the telemetry relay, not managing a single flying lap.  Immediately on the back foot, Hamilton was also limited in his running during FP2 staying in the garage until the final 30 minutes and limited to around half (16) the laps of the Ferrari pair, even though he did go on to set the fastest time of the session.

That same session saw Sebastian Vettel fine tuning his car, steadily removing downforce before the spin that saw him flat-spot his medium tyres (after a red flag caused by Merhi meant his first flying lap had to be aborted).  Better prepared and more confident with the setup of his car, Vettel already held a slender advantage over the Mercedes drivers on Friday evening.

This drove the pit stop strategy which was the ultimate undoing of Hamilton and Rosberg, as a two-stop race was worked out to be 5 seconds quicker than the three-stop version, providing there was no interference of a safety car.  The 18.8 second pit lane loss meant that, in theory, pitting while under safety car conditions would have been the quickest way to complete the race, barring traffic and the varying characteristics of the cars.

Undoubtedly, there is a still a deficit of power between the Mercedes and Ferrari powertrains which, in the absence of rain, required skilful driving to make up for. The evidence of the lower downforce setup that Vettel elected for, compared to his teammate, is shown in the table below of the speed traps.  All of this only came as a result of the lower tyre degradation shown in FP1 on the hard tyre and consequent fine tuning during FP2.

Malaysian GP Intermediate 1 Intermediate 2 Finish Line
Sebastian Vettel 297.0 135.3 281.5
Kimi Raikkonen 293.0 128.3 279.0
Lewis Hamilton 297.6 133.6 279.0
Nico Rosberg 298.6 139.1 278.1

This was not the case in Australia two weeks prior to Malaysia, where Raikkonen had looked stronger and more likely to finish above Vettel.  Had it not been for the melee that ensued at the first corner and subsequent botched pit stops, then it may well have been the Finn who had taken the final podium spot at Albert Park; the street style circuit clearly suiting the 2007 World Champion.

Australian GP Intermediate 1 Intermediate 2 Finish Line
Sebastian Vettel 270.7 293.6 299.5
Kimi Raikkonen 271.9 296.9 304.8
Lewis Hamilton 274.2 288.4 295.7
Nico Rosberg 275.2 291.9 291.4

The defining factors between the two circuits were a) the extreme heat in Sepang, which caused the high tyre wear and b) the fact that Sepang was not as fuel or heat limited as Melbourne was.  A James Allison designed car is traditionally kinder to its tyres, as was shown by Kimi’s win for Lotus at Albert Park, in 2013, when Pirelli had brought the most extreme rubber to date – the fiasco of Silverstone still fresh in the minds of many an F1 fan.

The emergence of the safety car allayed any fears over fuel, meaning the Ferrari powertrain could be turned up to the maximum when racing resumed, in part cancelling out the advantage Mercedes held.  The high humidity meant the turbo was cooled far easier than in Melbourne, which is, as we know by now, is a benefit of the Mercedes power thanks to its split design.

With such a straight line speed disadvantage in Sepang, the Mercedes cars had not been setup to do a great deal of overtaking, instead optimised for outright lap time and wet weather running.  When they found themselves taking on cars with similar straight line speeds, in a DRS train, they were faced with difficulties.  The two DRS detection points were needed in order to pull off the passes required, showing how the Silver Arrows’ advantage was nullified.

Would Mercedes have lost even without a safety car?

In truth, it would have been a very close fight.  At the very least Hamilton or Rosberg would have needed to make the pass out on track to take the race win, which as discussed would have proven tricky.  Martin Brundle was pressing the point home of the advantage that Vettel held at the end over Hamilton was merely what he had built up after the safety car left the track and the Mercedes cars scythed through traffic, although this is not entirely fair.

Vettel’s final lap was 3 seconds slower than where he had been lapping previously, showing little, if any, signs of degradation beforehand.  Laps 39-52 were within three tenths of each other (excluding the fastest lap which was one tenth faster and one lap where he encountered traffic), showing that the Ferrari driver was far from the end of the tyre life at the end.  If anything, the lap charts merely show that Hamilton was lucky the race ended when it did, as Rosberg was hot on his tail.

The return of 'the finger'

The return of ‘the finger’

Victorious Vettel Validated?

The conclusion to all of this then would be that the perfect storm came together to make the SF15-T a race winning package.  Mercedes seem to have returned to their 2013 design, whereby the car was lightning quick over one lap but used the tyres up far quicker than others, albeit a far less pronounced version.

The extreme heat of Malaysia made the problem even worse for Mercedes, whilst it played perfectly into the hands of Ferrari – especially when they had track position.  Furthermore, the lack of a second car for the Scuderia challenging at the front also made pit stop decisions easier, with there being no need to cover off a teammate.

The most sensible decision, on hindsight, for Mercedes to have taken would have been to split the strategies and avoid the stacking up in the pits, which ultimately cost Rosberg any chance of anything higher than third place.  It appears Vettel’s words on the podium were the truth, “We beat them fair and square.

There were claims within the TJ13 jury that Mercedes may have turned down their engines given the outcry after Melbourne over the perceived advantage the Silver Arrows held.  Of course the only ones who know the truth are Mercedes engineers, but when analysed critically, Malaysia would not have been the race to do it at.  With no German GP this year, this was the home race for the title sponsors – Petronas – of the German, Malaysian backed team, which would hardly impress them failing to take the win.

Not stage-managed, not a fluke, but unfortunately not entirely genuine pace, this was a mixture of all three factors combining to give the Maranello team a first win in almost two years.  They will not care one bit though in Italy as they have a new German idol, which must have brought back floods of nostalgia to the Tifosi.  Given the characteristics of Spa, Monza and Singapore, we may even see another Ferrari win this season.

A Ferrari win at Monza is pretty much as good as it gets for a Ferrari driver, something a certain Fernando Alonso managed in his debut season for the Scuderia, back in 2010.  A penny for his thoughts right now…

44 responses to “#F1 Forensics: Vettel’s Malaysian Magnificence – a fluke, stage-managed or genuine pace?

  1. Not necessarily a direct comment to the respected scribe of this article, but it puzzles me that, strolling around the internets, it seems so hard for some people to accept that Vettel & Ferrari just drove a kick-arse race that I’m reading increasingly far-fetched conspiracy theories …

    I mean, I’m one of those who was on the anything-but-Vettel bandwagon back in the days, and I think he got served his due piece of humble pie last season but to this pair of eyes and ears, he just did a really great job last Sunday and, with Niki Lauda, I tip my (metaphorical) hat – neat job Seb, and for once the finger didn’t annoy the shite out of me 🙂

    • This race was a lot like Brazil 2014, where tyre deg was also extremely high – which itself comes back to the 2011 season. Vettel was the only one who visited the Pirelli factory and really got to grips with them. People put that World Championship down to the blown diffuser, but forget that Webber did not finish 2nd, but it was Button – another master of tyre deg.

      Thanks for commenting Conzo.

      • But how many drivers have actually visited the Pirelli factory before and after 2011?

        Also wouldn’t it not be against the rules if they (Pirelli) were to give him performance data for the tyres? Wouldn’t that be similar to testgate 2013?

        Surely the visit was just to see how the tyres were manufactured and nothing else?

        Ok, so Jenson another master of tyre deg finished 2nd that year and did so by not visiting the Pirelli factory. So whar if it was he who visited the factory, are we to assume by your reasoning, that he would’ve won the 2011 championship? So had he gone to the factory in 2013, then there wouldn’t have been a need for Christian to come and public scathe Pirelli to the point they had to change the tyres to suit Seb and Redbull, right?

        I mean to suggest him winning in 2011 was due to that visit, is ludacris at best. And as for Jenson finishing 2nd that year, does not support your argument either.

        • Fortis, you are trying to flip the argument here. The fact was that Mark Webber was nowhere near Vettel that year, so there was some other defining factor.

          • Mark Webber was nowhere near Vettel after 2010.

            Not flipping the script just highlighting the flaw on your reasoning.

          • Again not true, he was the stronger of the two drivers in the first part of 2012.

          • adamac, Fortis wasn’t flipping the argument at all. That’s an excuse to defend Vettel either somehow being a tire genius because, in a walkthrough of the factory he gleaned enough knowledge to know, better than any other driver, how to use the tire F1 was to use throughout the season.

            Then the vague answer/reply, “some other defining factor” only means the “defining factor” is something for which you have no real answer – but it certainly cannot mean a visit to the Pirelli factory.

            Right after this Fortis makes a flat statement that, even a cursory glance at the Vettel v. Weber post-2010 race records shows is altogether true.

            In response, you mention the first part of 2012 and use that to cover for 58 races?! You mean the part of the season that Weber won two races to Vettel’s one? Really?! Nine races out of 58 when Weber held a double-digit points lead over Vettel after Silverstone? And after that???

            Oh wait, Seb must’ve gone back for another Pirelli, tire-human emote session. Or maybe in the intervening years between his first visit and that crucible moment between the teammates, Vettel, never left his living room, as he’d gained the ability to scan the factory by remote viewing.

            Jokes aside adamac, you’ll have to reply with something concrete to account for Ferarri’s, “Malaysia Surprise” – unless, of course, an inexplicable return of the Toto and Paddy Ineptitude Hour is the rack on which you want to hang your hat (a convenient nothing of an excuse if I’ve ever heard one; the two successfully navigate the 2014 season despite the season-long specter of dealing with mechanical failures and and on-going driver v. driver psycho-drama).

          • I offered a reason which have so dutifully shot down as impossible without offering a plausible alternative. Driving style could also be a possibility

          • You asked for a time where Webber performed the better of the two drivers, which is pointed out, then you say that is not sufficient? You really are deconstructing your own argument and making your own rules then.

          • As for the thing that accounts for what happened in Malaysia…there is a 1,200 word article about this, which I wrote and did the research for…

        • The reason for winning the 2011 championship is clear…the RB with the blown diffuser was the strongest package.

  2. a brilliant article! let us see how things shake out between now and the conclusion to the Spanish GP.

    have not been a fan boy ever since April 7, 1968, but I do like Seb and Kimi. while I have always been an overall fan of Ferrari, (250 GTO and 275 GTB-4, etc., etc. over the decades), it has not been that way for their F1 teams and dangerous cars, politics, firehouse pit disasters, and non-team favored policies over the decades …

    me thinks Ferrari legitimately snagged this win and will likely grab another or 2 this year along with a bunch of podiums.

    the driver line-ups ain’t gonna determine much – they are all pretty top notch peddlers. it comes down to dollars, infrastructure, technical and managerial skills and depth and luck and strategies and weather and Pirelli..

    my guess is that it will be somewhat reasonably tight and interesting come the last race or so with Merc holding the advantage this year. but all bets off for 2016…

    Max coulda woulda shoulda pushed those extra few inches to cause a wreck all race long. he did not. the kid has maybe got this and next year to make the really BIG screwup, but is impressing me so far. good for him. good for F1. and Sainz is sooo totally right there in being a legitimate force in F1!!! RB will need to re-think their policies…

    Marcus on the other hand needs to be sat down by Sauber and Ferrari b4 the FIA gets involved… 🙁 haha. and Nasr was exactly where??? WE are sooo time dependant on our instant thoughts…

    and I just gotta luv the comparisons between the future WDC Bottas and Massa. never a Massa fan since he failed miserably in supporting Kimi’s WDC run, but holly crap, he is like 10 times better today than that whining Barrichello bitch who failed miserably in IndyCar… good for him!!!

    Honda has got no mojo going on in IndyCar. I get it is a different organization, but they got no mojo going on in F1 either. they have been left in the dust… 🙂

    Fred is forever dead as far as another WDC… Jens is not the greatest ever, but I always kinda liked him. he done did pretty good against Lewis. I bet he will do decent against Fred too. wanna bet?? like Damon and Jaques, he gets no respect IMHO…

    so funny that spat between Renault and Red Bull. Renault maybe wants to buy Torro Rosso and they then kick Red Bull’s arse. I gotta wonder how many $$$ that added to the equation??? haha. the disingenuous games of subterfuge have begun…


    • Many thanks Titan, a pleasure writing when we receive feedback like this. Rumour is that RB will be bringing upgrades for the European leg of the season.

    • “never a Massa fan since he failed miserably in supporting Kimi’s WDC run”

      I beg to differ. Kimi wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the WDC in 2007 if Massa hadn’t gifted him the top spot at the Brazilian GP… Contrast that to Jense, the “champion who lucked in”, to whom Barrichello never yielded a position in 2009 (from memory, at least).

  3. Good read, thank you

    Your analysis agrees with my initial thoughts that it was a win on merit for the red cars but due to a combination of factors; maybe the fear of rain put merc of trying a lower down force setup.

    I don’t think Ferrari are quite there yet to challenge consistently every weekend; I’m not a fan of any one team or driver but I would like to see kimi have a ‘normal’ weekend

    • But Mercedes didn’t run a lower downforce setup. The Ferrari were faster in the first and last sectors which were mainly straights, but in sector 2, they were consistently around .6 slower, which the more tight and twisty section of the circuit. If anything, it was the Ferrari that ran a lower downforce setup.

      • Fortis – Glad you mentioned that about the sector times. Thanks!

        The sector trap speeds won’t be as strong an indicator of handling, aero drag, and PU torque strength as would be comparisons of sector times.

      • Not true mate, high downforce means slow straights. Twisty sections they were slower as they lacked the traction…

  4. Adam – Good thoughtful analysis! Thank you for this!

    I like how you focused on Friday, and the reliability problems that prevented Mercedes from tuning Hamilton’s car.

    Peter Windsor’s “The Racer’s Edge” youtube post race analysis with Scarbs expanded on the importance of what happened Friday at Sepang in two surprising ways, btw.

    First PW mentioned that Paul Hembry had said to him that Ferrari had identified early on that they wanted the SF15-T work well on the medium compound tire. PW also noted for example at the Jerez pre-season test that Seb tested only the first two days, and set the fast time of the test on the medium compound in the middle of the 2nd day of that test.

    Scarbs then noted that Mercedes he walked by the Mercedes garage during FP1 when they were working on Hamilton’s car after it had failed. He noted that in addition to trying to fix the failure, he saw something surprising which is that they were swapping sway bars front and rear. He noted that is unusual to change out sway bars trackside. Usually teams roll off the truck close enough to do little or no adjustment to the bars to tune (vs the wholesale bar change-outs he saw). They noted that HAM was struggling with handling all weekend, whereas VET’s SF15-T was easier to drive. Scarbs suggested that this chassis may have a narrow, difficult sweet spot for the engineers to find, based on what we’ve seen at Melbourne and Sepang.

    They also noted that the laptimes by Mercedes were slow all weekend in comparison to what they did in 2014, in comparison to the performance differential we saw at Melbourne and pre-season testing.

    • Well it was easy to see why Hamilton was struggling in the race, he barely did any running.

      After FP2, he said that the setup they used was basically the one he ran in Australia. So that could account for all his handling problems in the race.

      In preseason testing, the Mercedes also did majority of their running on the medium tyres as well, given that they everyon knew What the tyre allocations were for the first 4 races.

      • Right, so one take away from the first two races are that the Ferrari SF15-T is easier to tune to a well handling racer vs Mercedes’ W06.

        In Melbourne, Mercedes struggled with the handling during the weekend, but it performed well in the race. At Sepang, they failed to tune the W06 to its sweet spot.

        Another is the Ferrari may have an advantage on mediums, (but need more evidence as Sepang is an outlier due to track temps).

        • To be honest, in the beginning of the session they did struggle a bit, but I think as the weekend carried on, they got better.

          I just listened to the PW video and the general assumption I got from it was…

          The W06 needs a little more work to fine tune it compared to that of the Ferrari, which seems easier to play around with, without causing too much headache for the drivers.

        • What were the track temps in Melbourne? The race was either alot colder or warmer than the rest of the weekend, right? We all know how much the tyre temperature of Pirelli’s can affect performance (2012-2013). I really believe this wont be the last time Mercedes is going to struggle eventhough Malaysia produced extreme track temps. China tends to do a number on tyres aswell in various ways.

          Side note: Last years Pirelli’s were prone to getting cold which might have masked any overheating problems with the W05.

    • While Friday was important, (as Adam mentioned), one thing that no-one has mentioned is how Saturday set the results of both races so far.

      At Melbourne, Lewis had a beauty lap in Q3, Rosberg wasn’t able to get a solid lap in. At Melbourne, it’s very difficult to pass on track unless there is a substantial pace advantage. Pirelli choose too hard of compounds, so only one pit-stop to try a clean air hot lap pass. But Mercedes has a policy of giving the lead driver preference in choosing his lap to pit, so it was always going to be advantage HAM if he could retain 1st from pole position on the first lap. Game over!

      Likewise at Ferrari, Kimi was faster in practice, but Ferrari was conservative in qualifying due to a wasted set of tires. So Kimi and Seb set near idnetical times, (87.790 & 87.757 respectively for 3/100ths of sec diff). But, a slower Williams car was able to grid in front of Kimi (vs Seb having a fast Mercedes W06 directly in front of him). Kimi got bottled in traffic during first turns, took a hit from a mid-pack car, and lost some aero consequently. Where as Seb was clean through the first turns but was bottled behind Massa’s slower Williams.

      Given that Kimi was faster in SF15-T all weekend, if he had cleared the slower FW37 and Seb, and instead raced the two SF15-T cars straight up, Ferrari and Mercedes might well have been fighting each other to the checkers.

      In Malaysia, Rosberg was faster in the race, but qualified poorly (again). The safety car muted Mercedes chance of victory, but without it Rosberg certainly could have been pushing Hamilton. If Rosberg had qualified ahead of Hamilton, and no safety car, given how Hamilton struggled during the race, it might well have been Rosberg standing on the top step.

      Folks who should know better, such as the journo James Allen, are questioning Rosberg’s strength. We should not be surprised if Rosberg wins soon.

      • Oops! Typo; meant to write, “Given that Kimi was faster in SF15-T all weekend, if he had… instead raced the two _W06_ cars straight up…”

    • VM Merc did this in AUS as well, right before Hamilton came out and wiped the floor with everyone, I believe prior to FP3. At the time, I thought he had held off so Rosberg would be unable to copy him, but now I wonder if Merc suspension development is headed the same direction as their brakes, ie different sets for different races.

      It’s also noteworthy that even management have acknowledged handling difficulties inherent in the car this year. The curse of the Leprecorn perhaps? We shall see as the season progresses.

      • The car is still fast though. The problem is just that it takes alittle longer to get the balance right. I’m sure that’s something that will get better as the season progresses.

      • Wow! That is interesting that the team were swapping anti-roll bars on Hamilton’s W06 in Melbourne Saturday morning.

        With all that preseason mileage, they’re behind the curve in figuring out how to get the W06 to behave well.

    • @Vortex Motio
      “Scarbs suggested that this chassis may have a narrow, difficult sweet spot for the engineers to find, based on what we’ve seen at Melbourne and Sepang.”

      How about that? By any chance, may the Leprechaun have imported McLaren know-how into Merc? 🙂

      Last year we saw Paddy’s hand in the Merc’s bullet-proof unreliability. Now we’re hearing about a chassis with a narrow, difficult sweet spot… McLaren déjà-vu, anyone?

  5. i think hamilton and rosberg (possibly the team also) are so cocky about their car advantage that are becoming lazy in setting up the car for “outside competition”, then the perfect storm and they left with the faces of children deprived from their pudding…
    de-tuning the engines? well anything can happen who knows
    let me remember the words of the GOAT, you must always strive to be the n1 but you better never believe it

      • yes, and why the tone of your comment¿? can`t i express my opinions here? i repeat yes i did read the article and what i wrote i still think, relevant or not for you or the article

  6. Only sentence I don’t agree with is: If anything, the lap charts merely show that Hamilton was lucky the race ended when it did, as Rosberg was hot on his tail.
    We all know Rosberg can’t pass him. No matter what. 😉

    • That sounded like what Nico said in Spain last year…

      “I would’ve won if I had a couple more laps”….

      I guess they should think about extra laps just like how they’ve got extra time in football for Nico

      But Adam, there’s no luck in that, the race was 56 laps, so it wasn’t going to end any later than it did.

    • Haha Rosberg’s advantage was his compound at the end of the race. Give his tyre deg,highly unlikely he would have found his way past Hamilton,especially given that he set fast. In fact,having just had a look, by lap 51 Lewis was faster and it stayed that way for the duration. So 8 laps on a light car and then it’s cliff city for Merc. They do seem to have effed it up a bit, just taken them longer than I thought.

  7. Adam, fantastic article, thoroughly insightful. Iwould mention, as did others, that Sector 2 was the big advantage for Mercedes so had they kept it close, that would have bee where the action was, with the Ferrari trying to retake in S3 throughs the start finish.

    Sad that didn’t happen the last 5 laps or so.

  8. “the perfect storm came together to make the SF15-T a race winning package.”

    When SH1T hits the fan… Or how do they say it?

    “They will not care one bit though in Italy as they have a new German idol, which must have brought back floods of nostalgia to the Tifosi.”

    Which of course makes a mockery of all those under the illusion that no driver is bigger than the team at Ferrari… Fred got dumped because he didn’t win (for whatever reasons), while Michael got sanctified because he did. Kimi previously got dumped because he had no interest in canonization as the “savior of Ferrari”. Since 2000, the drivers are always bigger than Ferrari…

  9. Good article. I think the fact Merc went with outright lap time rather than a car that could easily overtake cost them quite heavily. I can understand why they did it, given the forecast for rain and so on, but in reality it didn’t play out like that.

    It was a bit like watching a Red Bull as the Mercs tried to overtake (and were passed by Vettel). A lack of straight line speed means it’s far trickier to pull off a move. That said, plenty of fans just wanted to call that poor overtaking skills when in the hands of a Red Bull driver of old hmm..

    The big surprise for me in the race was the pit stop strategy on the Rosberg side of the garage. It was way way off optimal, to the point where we’d have seen masses of complaints about it had that happened to Webber in 2012/13. Not only did they queue behind Lewis at the first stop, but then in some deluded mess they tried to tell Nico that he was on a two stop strategy, which they eventually amended as soon as he got close to boy wonder – and that was no where near an ideal time to stop. A complete shambles, and one that was easy to see unfolding mid race.

    I genuinely think Rosberg with a decent strategy could, and probably should have finished P2 as Lewis was obviously struggling setup wise.

    • Yeah the pit stop thing was to give drivers equal strategy as stopping under SC saved them time according to strategist. I don’t know but the fact that Nico took on Hard tyre for middle stint where Lewis went Medium might have been his choice. Typically Merc give trailing driver choice to go opposite lead driver with tyre strategy.

      That said, ROS was losing time to Hamilton by lap 50 as his Mediums were starting to go. At least in those conditions, car looking more and more like 2013 car, with the bonus of being more difficult to set up.

      Perhaps there is a reason Hamilton bought a Ferrari and hasn’t signed a contract yet. 😉

  10. Still early in the season and I think the fact that Merc got it all wrong on Friday, with very little running for Lewis, meant setup compromises that resulted in never having a good setup for the race.

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