No race victories in Formula 1 are ever easy, least so in sweltering Sepang where drivers lose around three kilograms during the 56 lap encounter – a significant quantity, considering their enforced weight restrictions this season. Yet Lewis Hamilton’s drive to 25 points in the Malaysian Grand Prix was a demonstration in serenity as he cruised to his first victory at the circuit and stamped his mark upon this nascent 2014 season.
It would have been overly premature to suggest prior to the race that Hamilton required victory to stay in the game, but he could have ill afforded to lose further ground to team-mate Nico Rosberg after his mechanically-induced retirement at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Over one lap it is widely thought that Hamilton has a couple of tenths advantage over Rosberg but such conclusions will have to wait until this Saturday, for wet weather once again disrupted proceedings in qualifying. The biblical-sized deluge had dried up somewhat by Q3, but it was still wet enough for the full Wet tyre to be used and Hamilton put in a banker lap 0.055s ahead of reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel. Conditions deteriorated marginally as the 12 minute session progressed, but a sign of the confidence harboured by the Mercedes drivers was that Rosberg improved to jump ahead of Fernando Alonso into third.
Hamilton made his track position count once the red lights were extinguished as he maintained his lead exiting the first corner. Rosberg had got the jump on Vettel and kept his foot in it when his compatriot edged him towards the pit wall. “I just closed my eyes and went for the gap,” Rosberg explained after the race and as the field exited turn two the Silver Arrow was ahead. Rosberg set off in pursuit of Hamilton but got a tank-slapper on the run down to turn three and did well to retain control of his W05. But the speed he scrubbed off allowed a charging Vettel and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo – who had scythed his way past Alonso into turn one – to close in on the run down to turn four. Rosberg maintained his position but Vettel’s attempts to get through left the world champion on the kerb exiting turn four and prey to Ricciardo, who swiftly dispatched with his more experienced team-mate.
Rosberg’s minor error handed Hamilton a two second lead after the first lap, which he extended to 3.2 after the second tour and four seconds by the end of the third lap. It was a Vettel-esque strategy: get out of the DRS range, open up a gap and maintain control. Vettel, meanwhile, had spent two laps harrying Ricciardo before getting the jump down into turn one.
The top four subsequently spread out and completed their first stops without any major problems, before Vettel began to close the gap to Rosberg. Hamilton had to briefly be patient before easing past the yet-to-pit Nico Hülkenberg, while his team-mate saw an increasingly larger Red Bull RB10 in his mirrors. Vettel was tantalisingly within the DRS reach of Rosberg but was hampered by two events; the first was Adrian Sutil’s Sauber crawling to a halt at the hairpin, which led to DRS being activated for a crucial few laps. The other was that, even with DRS, the inferior top speed of the Red Bull would have made passing a difficult feat.
Vettel eventually slipped back and settled for the third step of the podium, behind the dominant Hamilton and the sister Mercedes of Rosberg, who claimed the team’s first 1-2 finish since 1955. The Mercedes W05 is a poised machine which has every chance of claiming the world championship, but the speed achieved by the Red Bull RB10 through the high speed second sector will give rivals cause for concern. Considering the rapid progress made by the team since its abysmal pre-season campaign, Red Bull will soon be battling Mercedes for wins and perhaps even the world title. Mercedes needs to make its advantage count over the next couple of races in Bahrain and China.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Red Bull, which now has two retirements and an exclusion (provisional, of course) from their opening four results. Ricciardo’s demise was rapid and was a repeat of Red Bull’s pit stop problems from 2013. So rapid is the team at completing tyre changes that they sent Ricciardo on his way before the right front tyre was properly affixed. The team stopped him halfway down the pit lane and wheeled him back, during which time one mechanic cooled the brakes while not wearing protective head gear, for which Red Bull was reprimanded. The force of the jack is also thought to have contributed to a damaged front wing, which necessitated a further stop. The FIA’s clampdown on unsafe releases means that Ricciardo will head to Bahrain with a 10 place grid penalty; considering his luck in 2014 and where he’ll be on the grid, what chances of him being the victim of a first corner collision?
Ricciardo’s woes elevated Fernando Alonso to fourth place. The Spaniard assumed his typical position in qualifying but conceded afterwards that he expected to be closer to Mercedes and Red Bull in the race. Alonso ran a three stop strategy and came home over half a minute down on the race winner. He had to make a late move on Hülkenberg, who once again excelled and dragged the maximum out of his machinery.
Sixth place went to Jenson Button, who admitted that McLaren struggled in the hot weather and around the high speed turns. He was aided by team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who made early contact with Kimi Räikkönen and consequently held up the Williams drivers for a few laps as he toured around with front wing damage.
Seventh and eighth went to the Williams pairing of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, who again scored points but ultimately lost out for the second successive event due to wet weather in qualifying. The concern will be that the downforce – a weakness in previous seasons – is again lacking; with rival teams sure to make ground, Williams must bag some good points early on. A more pertinent issue in the race though was the attempted implementation of team orders. Massa was livid early on in the race when Bottas pressurised him, which led to an ice cool rebuke by the Finn telling him to go faster! Bottas was on fresher tyres during the final stint while Massa’s situation was exacerbated by high engine temperatures. Williams wanted Bottas ahead of Massa as they believed he would be able to have a go at Button – sixth and eighth would obviously have merited a few more points than seventh and eighth – and would have ordered Bottas to concede the position to Massa had his move on Button failed. Ultimately Massa held position, while the message of ‘Felipe, Valtteri is faster than you’, was probably insensitive on behalf of the team considering it was near-identical to the phrase used by Rob Smedley on that infamous day in Germany four years ago.
An apologetic Magnussen recovered to ninth place after his contact with Räikkönen while Toro Rosso youngster stayed out of trouble to bag the final point for tenth place. Romain Grosjean gave Lotus some hope as he completed the race distance and led home former team-mate Räikkönen, despite suffering from a sudden loss of downforce during the final stint of the race. Räikkönen was way down the order after the contact from Magnussen led to a puncture, while the handling of his Ferrari F14T was also negatively affected.
Caterham enjoyed a productive day as they moved into the top 10 of the constructors’ championship for the first time since the end of 2012. Kamui Kobayashi showed good pace and preserved his tyres to do battle with the Sauber drivers, while Marcus Ericsson was no pushover as he defended well against faster rivals before eventually edging out Max Chilton at the finish.
A number of drivers failed to make the chequered flag; Sutil said his Sauber lacked pace and grip before it mercifully packed up while Esteban Gutiérrez’s race came to an end when he was unable to select first gear as he attempted to leave the pits. Jean-Éric Vergne suffered a power loss at the start and clipped Jules Bianchi, which gave the Marussia man a puncture and left him helpless to avoid Pastor Maldonado. Bianchi was rather harshly penalised for the collision but all three retired soon after with mechanical problems. Meanwhile, Sergio Pérez didn’t even start the race as his Force India kept entering neutral as he attempted to shift down the gears on his way to the dummy grid.
For now, Rosberg holds an 18 point lead over Hamilton as the championship heads to Bahrain this weekend. But can the German hold off his advancing team-mate; more pertinently, will Vettel and Red Bull become the bigger long-term threat?