Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 32° Track 42° Humidity 62% Wind 0.9 m/s
Tropical weather reasserted itself in the hours before the start of the Malaysian Grand Prix, with a veritable deluge washing the track clean and punting the engineers into mild anxiety mode, the careful plotting of surface evolution booted straight out of the window.
Reconnaissance laps saw many drivers on Intermediates and a power issue for Raikkonen which saw mechanics working furiously at the back of the car as the formation lap approached. It was a battery charge fail and with 6 minutes to go, mechanics were hastily slapping the engine cover back on. Vettel,of course, started dead last with a new, 5th PU and a set of Soft tyres and even as this sentence was typed the Ferrari mechanics rolled Kimi off the grid and into the pitlane to continue to attempt to resolve whatever electrical gremlins were plaguing his car.
This was good news for Hamilton and the Red Bulls as a very slippery T1 awaited them. The long game of reliability again was turning out to be a an important card in Mercedes hand, making up for the circuit weaknesses that their design choices had baked into their season.
Regardless, Malaysia is brutal on both man and machine, and it’s worth remembering that Hamilton, too has had his share of misfortune at this circuit as the cars headed off on their formation lap on the still damp track, massive clouds swirling in towards the circuit.
Lights Out!!!! It was a spectacular start by Bottas and Hamilton held the lead from Max into T1. Bottas continued his forward momentum through the first turn complex and had a serious go at Verstappen as almost up to P2 as they exited the complex. It was a battle that continued into T4 before the order settled at the front, Max holding onto his P2. Ricciardo had a less successful getaway from the damp side of the grid, and found himself chasing down Bottas in P4.
At the back Vettel was furiously attacking the field, up to P12 at the end of the first lap. But it was Massa vying for most aggressive, forcing Hulkenberg off the track as he went by down the start/finish straight, the Renault dragging chunks of grass and mud up onto the track.
Lap 3 Ocon was in from P7 onto the Softs due to a puncture, massive bad luck as Perez had got the better of him from the off. Ocon, too, had started from the damp side of the grid, which left him vulnerable going into T1. Damage limitation was the name of the game from that point on for the young Force India driver.
On that same lap Hamilton radioed in he was suffering derates ( a loss of power as the battery was recharged) and according to the team reply it would be one more lap before the battery had recovered fully from the start. But then Verstappen, who had stayed planted on the gearbox of Lewis, was down the inside into T1 at the start of lap 4 and by, with nary a hint of defending from Lewis, the championship looming large in his thoughts.
2 laps later and it was positions reversed, with Hamilton having a look at Verstappen. But Ricciardo was the real story, putting serious pressure on Bottas, well inside DRS and looking fast. Lewis was warned on tyre temps and it was to be watchful waiting from the Mercedes driver as he was told by the team his opportunities would come later.
Vettel’s progress forward had slowed as well, stuck behind an Alonso in P10 who had access to DRS as the drivers settled into the long game. In replay, Ocon’s puncture came from the start as he was squeezed between Perez, who had a good start, and Massa. Happily enough for his team bosses, Ocon chose Massa as the lesser of two evils. And, quel surprise, Raikkonen was done like a dinner, into his civvies as it was a turbo problem that ended his day before it ever began.
Lap 9 and into T4 the ever patient Ricciardo finally got the job done on Bottas, who had gapped him off significantly from the two leaders. Vettel, too, was on the move again, getting by Alonso into the last turn and then by Magnussen in short order.
Hulkenberg was in for the undercut on Alonso lap 10 but apparently it was HAAS that were worried as Magnussen responded the next lap while Ricciardo was busy chunking massive time a lap out of Hamilton. Lewis was also slowly bleeding time to Verstappen meanwhile, slightly over 5 seconds back of the Red Bull as lap 12 entered the books.
Massa and Grosjean were both in lap 12, looking to be 2 stopping by the timing. Ricciardo continued to be 0.5s faster than Hamilton as Verstappen radioed in his tyres were starting to go at the rear. P7 for Vettel as Stroll boxed on lap 14 and a purple first sector was the immediate result of the free air available to the Ferrari driver.
Vandoorne was into the pits, and on exit emerged right into the middle of a battle between Massa and Stroll, neatly getting round the squabbling pair. With his teammate circling in P7, it seems that perhaps Honda had made some progress this season as the dark clouds began to close in on the circuit.
At the front, the tyre deg lottery continued with none of the top teams showing their hand. Behind, Vettel set his first fast lap, running the longer lasting Soft tyre as the strategy game began to tilt very much in his favour.
Lap 19 and it was a 9 second gap between Lewis and Verstappen, with Ricciardo under 5 seconds. Verstappen on the radio again about his tyres going off, no surprise as he was running nearly 0.5s a lap faster then Lewis or Ricciardo.
The following lap and it was Perez next on the menu for Vettel. Inside DRS, late on the brakes, bit of a lockup as Perez defended into T1. Hamilton started putting purple on the board, lighting up S1 and suddenly matching the times of Verstappen as all the top 3 were within 0.05s of each other.
Lap 21 and there was no hope for Perez, Vettel polishing him off with nary a fuss into T1. With the Force India dispatched, Sebastian set his eyes up the road at his next victim.
Meanwhile, Lewis had stopped the bleeding with Ricciardo well outside the window for the undercut and was beginning to get on terms with Verstappen also. Unlike Max, on the radio Hamilton reported his tyres were fine as he continued to peg a tenth or so a lap back from the race leader.
But it was the ever darkening sky over the circuit that was grasping the imagination of the pitwall, with track temps having dropped to 40°C. Bottas was the sitting duck as lap 23 came to a close. Unable to keep up with the leaders he was nearly a second a lap SLOWER than Vettel, who continued to use his Soft tyres to maximum advantage.
AS the crowd waited for Vettel to close in for the kill, the battle between Ocon and Sainz hotted up, at least until Ocon spun into T1 on lap 26, with Sainz having punted him off Ocon’s right rear making contact with Sainz’ front right as the battled for possession of the corner. P12 for the unlucky Force India driver meant there was even more work to do.
Lap 27 and Lewis was IN!! Out just in front of the Bottas/Vettel battle which had just kicked off and that was the smart choice, as once Vettel was past Valterri it was track position advantage given the pace of the Ferrari. The Ferrari followed suit at the end of the lap and Vettel was off on the fastest tyre in pursuit of his championship rival.
Verstappen boxed as well the following lap and was in and out, leaving Ricciardo in the lead. Alonso dove in as well and back out P14 went the McLaren. Red Bull officially decided to split strategy, telling Ricciardo they wanted him to go long. Delightfully enough, the Force India pit wall was on the radio telling Ocon he had to complain about the contact with Sainz in order to get the stewards to investigate. His response, “wasn’t it clear enough?”
Despite the obvious coaching, the stewards decided to have a look and in an interview from the pitwall, Franz Tost was equally clear that the problem was with Ocon, not Sainz. And then it was all suddenly irrelevant as despite the investigation, Toro Rosso was forced to retire the car as Carlos reported a loss of engine power.
Lap 29 and Bottas came in for his only stop of the race. Next was Ricciardo, with Hamilton setting fast lap while Danny Ric was in the box. Lewis was loving his new tyres, immediately off and setting fast laps, putting time into Ricciardo. But as Ricciardo got his new set of Softs up to temperature, he too was playing the fast lap game, setting a personal best lap 33 almost a second faster than the top 2. Vettel continued on his first set of tyres, P4, looking to extend the gap to Perez to beyond a pitstop.
Another Magnussen tiff occurred lap 34, with the Alonso having a go up the inside of T1. Magnussen executed a nice cutback to try and defend and on exit of the complex, they touched front wheels as Fernando gained the advantage. Lots of complaining from both drivers as Ocon and Massa had another incident. Massa, apparently beginning to lose his chill Brazilian attitude a bit as discussion about whether or not he would be replaced has been getting hot. Alonso, as usual given the last word on radio, found himself agreeing with Hulkenberg’s assessment of Magnussen “What an idiot”. Needless to say, the stewards didn’t even bother to investigate, which reveals the true nature of the incident.
20 laps to go and the track temps continued to drop, down to 37°C. Vettel still lapped faster than the rest of the top 3, but in no way threatened them. On telly, it became clear that a chunk of floor was dangling from Ricciardo’s Red Bull, sparks shooting out the back of his car. But no major difference noted in his lap times.
Palmer had a spin lap 38, which brought Magnussen into play and as they battled down into T1, Verstappen lapped the both of them. Fortuitously, as it turned out as a touch between the pair turned into another spin for Palmer and yet more complaining on the radio from the involved drivers. Blame firmly assigned to Palmer for that one though, and Magnussen radioed in damage to the car, which the team couldn’t see in the telemetry.
Lap 41 and Ricciardo continued to lose time to Vettel, who was clearly the fastest car on track. 2 laps later and it was just 4 seconds between the pair, with Sebastian roughly half a second a lap faster than the Aussie.
4 laps later and the gap had halved, which had the knock on effect of bringing Hamilton inside the 10 second mark with 11 laps to go.
Vettel could smell blood in the water, and the following lap had brought the Red Bull to just outside a second, setting up the premiere battle for the end of the race. DRS for Vettel lap 47 and it was on. Slightly farther up the road, Lewis lifted his pace to match Vettel, sending the signal that P3 was going to be the best Ferrari could do on the day.
Lonely in the lead, Verstappen began to struggle a bit with balance, being reminded by the team to use his tools to keep the car in trim.
Lap 48 and it was Alonso holding up Vettel, making the Macca driver the target of the Sebastian’s radio ire, the Spaniard diving in between Vettel and his target into T1. The following lap brought the whiff of grapeshot, with Ricciardo making the late move to defend into T1. The gap went back out through sector 1 but it was the long straights at the end and beginning of the lap that were the Achilles heel of the Red Bull.
That bit of action brought an immediate response from Ferrari, asking Vettel to manage some parameter of the car, which sent the gap out to nearly 2 seconds by the end of lap 52. 4 laps to go and suddenly it was Ricciardo with personal bests, running 0.5s faster than Vettel.
Late pit for Hulkenberg, who’d been told he needed to manage to the end of the race, with just 3 laps left in the race, the worst of all possible outcomes for the Renault driver.
Red Bull radioed Danny Ric that Vettel’s tyres were spent and it was going to be a milk run to the end, his fierce defending having run out the clock on Vettel’s front tyres. But given his start, losing just 6 points to Hamilton will seem a moral victory will have seemed the maximum result possible, especially as he now will carry an extra PU to the end of the season.
2 laps to go, and it was Grosjean v Gasly that the telly found to liven up the finish. Grosjean with fresher tyres, but Gasly doing a nice job of defending from the HAAS. But it was a relatively low key affair.
At the front, it was Verstappen swanning his way round the last laps as Grosjean got the job done. Gasly put in a fair effort to retake the position but the tyre differential was too great, and it was Verstappen, across the line for his 2nd F1 victory, his first as a non-teenager. Hamilton across P2, again a low drama affair.
…and it was a collision with Stroll AFTER the end of the race that left Vettel with his left rear wheel sat atop the remains of his rear wing, rolling to a stop in T5. Everyone was stunned, including the commentators. Vettel climbed out, catching a ride with Wehrlein but the likelihood of a gearbox change loomed large for Vettel. That would come with a penalty, as Vettel had completed the race prior to the collision. An utterly bizarre incident, compounded by Sebastian taking the steering wheel with him, also a violation of the sporting regs.
Thus it was a no brainer the stewards would investigate the incident, but it remained far from clear who was at fault, based on the sole replay, though no doubt Stroll was going to have the uphill battle, PR wise, given his rookie status.
The WDC lead for Hamilton goes out to more than a race win, and Lewis confirmed he was racing for the championship in the cool down room, telling Verstappen he could’ve closed the door, to which Max replied “you’re racing for the championship”, giving exactly 0 as he celebrated his second race win, along with his birthday weekend, not a bad shout. Not quite as happy a day for Danny Ric, but P3 hardly the occasion for tears as he earned his podium with a stout defense of Vettel, Red Bull delighted no doubt with a double podium.
Ferrari’s day was a bit of a Rorscharch test, with Vettel limiting the damage about as well as could have been hoped and the car looking mighty indeed. Still, the reliability issues both cars had will weigh heavily on their minds, accented by losing Raikkonen on the start grid. Pulling back a bit further, given they’ve had arguably the fastest cars the past 2 races, seeing the lead extended by Mercedes will be the sort of thing to haunt one during the off season.
Miserable day for Bottas, P5 and a fair number of questions for Mercedes to answer as neither of their cars looked on form, and it was their development package that looked significantly weaker on track. Bottas, too, has some work to do getting on top of the driving style needed to extract the maximum from the car. Still, it was likely Merc stuck him out there as a sacrificial lamb to generate some data and a path forward.
Perez was the best of the rest, his advantage established out of T2 over his teammate (whose race was all about limiting the damage from his early puncture) and Vandoorne coming good P7 for McLaren shows that the Honda PU is starting to come on song, PR from Macca notwithstanding. Outside the incident with Vettel, Stroll had a good day, finishing up the road on his increasingly scrappy teammate, perhaps a faint whiff of desperation coming from that side of the garage as Stroll gains experience. And the P8 and P9 finish for Williams was just what the doctor ordered, to give them a bit of breathing room in their own WCC struggle.
Gasly had a drama free run in his GP, which is perhaps not what Kvyat wanted to see, but the big takeaway is both Ferrari and Red Bull were faster than Mercedes, an outcome easy to miss thanks to Hamilton finishing P2. Despite the falling temps, post race Wolff mentioned overheating tyres as the Pirelli tyre pressure lottery was apparently more damaging to the Mercedes than Red Bull or Ferrari.
And to top it all off, a big fat no further action on the Stroll/Vettel incident, meaning endless argument fodder for the next week, the last gift from the final Grand Prix in Malaysia, as F1 sets sail for new horizons!!
Thanks, as always, for stopping by.
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