As the weekend of the 17th Malaysian Grand Prix held at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit unfolded, Ferrari’s potential pierced a chink in the Mercedes armor beginning in practice when both Vettel and Raikonnen were able to keep pace with the Mercedes duo, Hamilton and Rosberg.
Let’s face it, practice is a conglomeration of qualifying runs, low fuel, full fuel, tire pressure finagling and long runs. Practice gives a great indication of the proper order of things, but qualifying usually sets the stage for reality, which is the race itself. In Malaysia, the driver who wins pole position, usually goes on to win the race, at least that’s what history has shown.
Q1 started out with a blistering 90F and a track temperature of 131F. Not to mention Malaysia’s usual thunderstorm rolling in which left drivers scrambling to get a time in before the monsoon came in. It looked like an LA traffic jam before the first lights came on to go.
It wasn’t surprising to see Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button not advance to Q2, but they were managing to keep their lap times within the reasonable 1:41’s or so, a few seconds slower than the front of the pack. But so as not to be lulled into thinking they haven’t made progress, they actually were able to fight near mid-pack during the race before both cars retired.
This strategy is exactly what McLaren needs to continue. Should they use their allotted engines and have to take penalties for the remainder of the year, it would be to their benefit. As Alonso said, “If we improved 1.5 seconds in two weeks, at this pace we would be on pole in four races.” All true, but not likely. A continued effort of treating these races like testing is the best course to prepare for 2016.
When the rain finally rolled in, every driver was on the medium compound to get a fast time so they could advance to Q3. The drivers who couldn’t set a fast time before the rains came had to sit in their garage hopelessly while the track was empty. Common sense dictates that driving in the rain is slower than the a dry track, it isn’t a friend to a lap time, proving to be around 10 seconds slower. No doubt McLaren would have loved Q1 to have been wet.
After the imminent downpour, Charlie Whiting, Formula One’s Race Director decreed a half hour delay, the tire of choice became the full wet or the intermediate tires. Most teams didn’t want to take a chance and for the first part of Q3, so they went out on the blue full wet tires.
What wasn’t in Ferrari’s favor, initially, was the rain itself, case in point was Marcus Erricson on full wet tires passing Sebastian Vettel who was on intermediates. Ferrari was obviously testing the waters, pun intended, to see which tire would be most suitable given the amount of water on track and to gauge how quickly it might dry.
The full wet tires wasn’t the best of choice for the teams who went out on them and so in the middle of the session they all changed to intermediates. The last guy out on track usually, if it’s truly close, is the fastest but it wasn’t the case with Nico Rosberg. When the German crossed the line in third place on the grid behind Sebastian Vettel, it was a bit of a shock to him and a bonus for Vettel who was just behind Lewis Hamilton on pole.
Not only was I impressed, it had everyone, especially Mercedes asking questions. Can Ferrari really pull this off? What are Lewis and Nico’s thoughts about this? Not only did it spark questions, but it had me wondering what Ferrari had all along. Could they really expect to get ahead of Hamilton on the start, or even keep Rosberg in his place! Vettel is known for getting a great start, so tongues had to be wagging in the Mercedes paddock.
It all became clear when those five red lights when out. Lewis was able to make a start everyone was expecting, but Sebastian was holding off Nico handily.
To the delight of the Tifosi, the entire race consisted of the three drivers setting fast lap after fast lap. It was apparent that the correct decision was for Vettel to stay out when the safety car deployed due to Marcus Erricson’s incident. When the race resumed, Sebastian left the pack behind when lap 10 came around he was 9.4 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton in second. In Formula One that is a lifetime.
Lewis Hamilton was having communication issues, and probably a bit of disbelief, all the while Mercedes scrambling to find a way to get past the Scuderia and, to them, restore the ‘natural’ order of things.
With a ‘too little too late’ scenario Sebastian Vettel was already loudly pronouncing on his radio, “Ferrari’s back, Ferrari’s Back!”
Nothing but celebration is what the four time world champion should be doing. It’s the first time in almost two years since Ferrari has won a race, and with a new team principal, you could say for sure Ferrari has something to look forward to.
Mercedes said for themselves Ferrari won fair and square, it was unbelievable for a car that far behind in 2014 to be that far ahead of Mercedes in one weekend without a technical fault from the team that has been so superior.
You can come to your own conclusion, but it’s still too early in the season for anyone to change views, after all China is next and it’s a completely different track.
It may not suit Ferrari and then again, it might, it just might.