Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 33° Track 53° Humidity 53% Wind 2.0 m/s
The oppressive tropical heat thrashed the circuit at Sepang, hot enough to make the asphalt sweat and grown men consider wearing shorts. The biggest question this side of the pond is, of course, whisky or coffee.
As ever, the greatest area of uncertainty outside the weather remains the start, a fact missed by absolutely no one at this point, as multiple outlets pointed out repeatedly.
Winning strategy last year was 3 stops but with a new surface it remains to be seen whether that will stand this year. Mercedes based cars may have to go 3 stops if it gets too hot, but cars kind to their tyres might find 2 stops the way to go. Interestingly Ricciardo does have a new set of Softs, the only driver at the sharp end to sport that option. And to celebrate his 300th start, Button will have no absolutely no Mediums whilst Lewis will have 1 set to Rosberg’s 2. Go figure. Alonso at the back and his fancy new engine will be having some fun as well as higher track temperatures will have the engineers nervously watching the tyre data like a hawk.
Drama on the formation lap as Massa was unable to leave the grid, reporting no response from the throttle and so he was unceremoniously wheeled off to the pit lane, not at all what Williams needed in its scrap with Force India.
As the lights went out it was my keyboard failing utterly, followed by a perfect start for Hamilton, but disaster for Rosberg as a coming together of Verstappen and Vettel wound up punting Nico into a spin. Vettel came away worst with a broken left front, but Rosberg was shuffled to the back when the VSC was brought out to clear the stricken Ferrari. Verstappen called Vettel “crazy” on the radio and on replay it was Vettel with a good start and up the inside of Verstappen into T1 which kicked it all off. All to be investigated after he race, however.
The big winners were Ricciardo, who had a fairly poor start but wound up P2 and Perez who went P3 once the race was neutralised.
Lap 2 saw the racing back on and it took no time at all for Raikkonen to overtake Perez into T1 on the outside at the start of Lap 3.
By lap 5 Ricciardo was definitely feeling racy, cracking off a fast lap and momentarily dragging himself into DRS before the Mercedes man responded. Massa added misery to his and Williams’ woe by picking up a left front puncture lap 7 that was the death knell for his chances, a shame as his actual race pace was quite reasonable. At the back Rosberg continued to carve away and found himself up to 12th by lap 8. Alonso, however was a rather astonishing 9th and Button, taking advantage of the first lap carnage, found himself circulating in P6.
Not much time to catch your breath, though, as a brake failure into T15 sent Grosjean deep into the gravel and straight out of the race, for the second time in a row, bringing out the VSC.
During the VSC, Verstappen gambled on the pit stop on lap 10, potentially giving him an advantage as the pit window had opened.
At the end of that lap racing resumed with Verstappen only 15s off Hamilton and well inside his and Ricciardo’s pit window.
The following lap saw Rosberg take P11 from Hulkenberg and Button in and out for some new tyres, rejoining in P12. Mercedes, well aware of the challenge from Verstappen must’ve got on the radio as Lewis lifted his pace and set fast lap as the diverging strategies began to play out. Rosberg in and out for Hards, given his position in traffic.
Lap 13 saw Alonso in for new tyres and out in P14, with a fresh set of Hards, matching Button’s choice. The following lap saw Button ding Palmer for P10 and back into the points for the McLaren.
In the paddock, Vettel placed the blame firmly on Verstappen in an interview whilst Verstappen on new Softs continued to plague Hamilton at the front. But the tyres felt good and on lap 16 it was decided that the stint might be extended for 3 laps. Ricciardo was told on the radio that it would be Hards for him but the trio at the top were all basically behind Verstappen at this point in the race once their first stop was factored in.
Magnussen was retired lap 18 with unspecified car trouble. Rosberg took P7 away from Ericsson during that little drama and the following lap into T15 got P6.
Lap 20 saw Verstappen into DRS on Raikkonen. End of 21 and into the pits and onto the Hards for Hamilton and Raikkonen followed him in. Ricciardo stayed out and it looked like Merc were going to gamble on a 1 stop with Lewis as Verstappen had at least 1 more stop to make to fulfill the regulations.
Ricciardo was in the following lap onto the Hards in addition and it wasn’t hard to see that Red Bull had Mercedes in quite the little pincer given Ricciardo had a fresh pair of Softs in reserve to play with.
Rosberg had a big lock up and flat spotted his left front getting past Bottas into T15 on lap 22. But the payoff was being into the top 5 and only 2 seconds back of Raikkonen.
Lap 24 saw Ericsson ahead of Nasr for P13 and lining up Sainz just ahead whilst Hamilton turned a fast lap and it was down to 6.5 seconds from 8 to Verstappen in the lead in just 2 laps.
Lap 26 saw Verstappen radio in that his tyres were going and he was losing balance. This was bad news for Red Bull as they needed a faster stint and bigger gap to make the strategy work for Max. Advantage Ricciardo then as the 2nd VSC may have been the knife in the back for Max, shutting down his window to make a proper gap. Likewise, at that point in the race no one expected Mercedes to be that fast on the Hard tyre.
Lap 28 was the end of Max’s big adventure as he was in for the Hard tyre and Lewis was promoted to the race lead, with Ricciardo P2 nearly 11 seconds in arrears.
The following lap saw Hulkenberg in from P9 and out on the Hards P13 just behind Alonso. And then it was Bottas’ turn to ditch the Mediums and it was out on the Hards and out in P8 leaving Sergio Perez the only runner in the top 10 on the Mediums.
Back at the front, it looked like Mercedes had unleashed Hamilton to try and get Red Bull out of his pit window, as he turned a fast lap on lap 30 and put Ricciardo nearly 14 seconds back and Verstappen nearly 18 seconds. He continued on that pace the following lap while Rosberg was in from P5 to undercut Kimi, confirming that a 1 stop might have been a few laps too much.
Ferrari responded bringing in Raikkonen in the following lap and due to Rosberg’s slow stop was able to get back out in P4 just ahead of the Mercedes. It was game on then as the gap was down to 1.5 seconds.
Lap 34 saw Verstappen into the 1:38’s as Red Bull, anticipating Mercedes next stop were anxious to keep Verstappen in the game as his tyres were likely good to go to the end. Making matters fun, a radio message from Lewis was played saying he was starting to lose a little grip in the tyres. Despite that, Hamilton continued to eke out a couple a tenths a lap on Verstappen and Ricciardo.
Lap 36 saw Rosberg into DRS on Raikkonen and looking to have a proper go. For McLaren it was also looking good, as Alonso was back to P9 and Button all the way to P6. A radio message from Mercedes telling Rosberg he was good to go on the tyres to the end ensured he was free to use all his tools.
Into T2 Rosberg dove into the apex inside of Raikkonen from very far back and on exit he collided rather squarely with the Ferrari’s sidepod. Sparks showered at the contact and though Rosberg was rather properly alongside into the turn, it was rather reminiscent of some of Verstappen’s more optimistic moves and Raikkonen seemed rather nonplussed, though to be fair that seems to be his default setting.
Lap 39 brilliant racing between VES and RIC as VES got up the inside and for a series of 3 corners traded the lead before RIC finally managed to hold it going into lap 40. Meanwhile the gap was almost 23 seconds as the battle continued the following lap into T1-2-3.
Investigation into contact of Rosberg and Raikkonen was announced as the Red Bull battle continued….
And then Lewis’ car caught on fire lap 41 because why not, bringing out the VSC and crushing Hamilton’s weekend and bringing Mercedes’ dream of winning the Constructor’s to a halt for the weekend.
Raikkonen immediately seized the advantage and pitted under the VSC. The following lap both Ricciardo and Verstappen were in, with Verstappen held up for about 5 seconds. Rosberg in 3rd came in as well and during that sequence Gutierrez retired his car with his tyre having come off the car as he was on track.
Lap 43 saw the racing back on with Verstappen 2 seconds back and both the Red Bulls on the Soft tyre. The same lap Rosberg got dinged with a 10 second time penalty. which mattered a bit as he was only 6 seconds ahead of the Iceman.
Mercedes announced it as an unexpected ICE failure for Hamilton, perhaps implying that there was such thing as an expected ICE failure in a race or possibly Twitter and irony are no good match.
Wisely perhaps Lewis kept his helmet on and visor down as he ran the press gauntlet back to the Mercedes garage, but it won’t be a happy debrief today for anyone.
Lap 46 saw Rosberg putting in the fast laps and bringing the gap over Raikkonen out to 9 seconds. At the front it was a slow burn between Verstappen and Ricciardo, with the gap yo-yo-ing between 1.5-2 seconds.
Lap 48 saw Nasr in to retire and Sky nickname a shove up the inside a “Rosberg Barge” in honour of the penalty he acquired getting through Raikkonen earlier in the race. Vaguely ominous message from Mercedes to Rosberg about his engine, not allowed to access Strat 3 to maintain his podium. 2 laps later they decided 2 laps of Strat 3 were good to go but no more.
At the front Max was nearly into DRS with 7 laps left while an investigation into Gutierrez loss of his tyre was bootted to the end of the race. Ericsson loomed in front of Ricciardo at the end of lap 51 and Rosberg successfully got outside his penalty window on Raikkonen.
Perez had caught up to the gearbox of Bottas and was inside 2 seconds while Rosberg continued to expand the gap to Kimi, nearly 12 seconds with 4 laps left in the race.
At the front, Ricciardo continued to hold off Verstappen and Kvyat radioed in his brakes were going. Sure enough, the gap between the top 2 was out beyond 2 seconds as it seemed that Verstappen had used up all of his slightly older Soft tyres without being able to make much of a dent.
Alonso and Button had swapped positions as Alonso managed to snag a pit stop under the late VSC and was running P7 with his teammate running 9. Verstappen locked up rather luridly into T15 on lap 54 and the gap was out beyond 3 seconds. Palmer was running a quiet race but was hanging onto P10 delightfully enough for him and the prospect of his first points ever.
And thus it was to the checquers, all the thoughts of brutally fought last laps dispatched by the pit stops under that late VSC brought on by the Mercedes Flambe, which looked to be of the oil leak variety with flames blowing out the exhaust as the car rolled to a halt.
Brilliant stuff from Red Bull and a breath of fresh air for Ricciardo, who has had the strategy disaster of Barcelona and the bitter taste of Monaco no doubt washed from his mouth from the stench of the shoey in which he indulged atop the podium. And a result F1 needed, though once again courtesy of a Mercedes failure rather than on outright pace. And kid yourself not, there was no real need to pit Verstappen and it was very much to give Ricciardo an even playing field that they brought them both in. The racing between the two just before Hamilton went boom not only was the best of the event, it won Ricciardo the race as it gave him first priority in the subsequent pit sequence.
Unfortunate, though for those wanting a proper battle to the last for the WDC, as it will have to be a comeback from 23 points now for Hamilton instead of a margin of just a few points between the top 2. 5 wins for Hamilton now required assuming Rosberg makes it to the end of all the races. For Rosberg 1 win and 4 2nds will do the trick. And frankly, a bit of an own goal for Mercedes as well, as wrapping up the WCC at the home race of one of their principal sponsors has gone up in smoke as it were.
Solid result for McLaren as they manage to finish solidly in the midfield and last to P7 pretty good for Alonso who seemed to be enjoying his new engine quite a bit. Even though Bottas managed to hold on to P5 ahead of Perez, the dual points finish of Force India keeping them just ahead of Williams in the WCC, as Massa’s day of woe kept him out of the points.
Best of all, and against all odds it would seem, Jolyon Palmer scored a point. Congrats to him as it’s been a long and brutal season for Renault and a tiny bit of much needed validation, particularly after the disappointment of qualifying.
No doubt there will be plenty of hot air and ink spilled over this latest Mercedes’ failure. It’s worth casting your mind farther back, to an era when reliability regularly robbed drivers of championships and race wins, and yet somehow the drivers managed to get on with it. Paddy Lowe sounded more than a bit nervous when the question was put to him about it and although he acknowledged the weirdness of it all, and the unfairness in a fundamental sense, at the end of the day, Mercedes’ would seem to be just as perplexed and unhappy as Lewis at this latest turn of events.
Thanks, as always, for stopping by.
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