Winners and Losers at the Malaysian Grand Prix
31 March 2014 – The Malaysian Grand Prix saw Mercedes record its first one-two finish since 1955, with Lewis Hamilton getting his title challenge well and truly underway. GPUpdate.net presents its winners and losers from Sepang.
Mercedes was expected to lead the way in 2014 and after two races they've certainly lived up to pre-season predictions. Lewis Hamilton's performance at the Malaysian Grand Prix was as comfortable as Formula 1 victories get as he cruised to his first win of the year, while team-mate Nico Rosberg survived an early Red Bull onslaught to collect a measured second place. It was Mercedes's first 1-2 since 1955 and one achieved with ease. Hamilton was 17 seconds ahead of Rosberg, with Vettel a further seven seconds behind. The only other drivers to get within 80 seconds of Hamilton at the finish were Fernando Alonso and Nico Hülkenberg. It's also highly unlikely that the race winner was pushing to the maximum throughout the 56 lap encounter. Mercedes already has a 25 point lead over McLaren in the Constructors' Championship, but perhaps more crucially its buffer to Red Bull is already 53 points after just two rounds. The most interesting part of Mercedes's win was that it came courtesy of Hamilton, whereas Rosberg triumphed in Australia after Hamilton's premature retirement. Rosberg leads the way by 18 points, but the Brit's dominance at Sepang will pose questions to his team-mate.
The intra-team battle at Force India is swinging firmly in Nico Hülkenberg's favour during the early phase of the season after the German collected a fine fifth place at the Malaysian Grand Prix. Hülkenberg built on a strong result in Australia by progressing through to Q3 in difficult conditions, where he set the seventh quickest time. He stayed out of trouble at the start, moving a place when Kimi Räikkönen slipped back with a puncture and consequently embarking on a race long tactical battle with Alonso. Hülkenberg opted for a two stop strategy and stretched his Medium tyres for longer – which briefly elevated him to the lead – but on used Hard tyres he was ultimately helpless to prevent Alonso from gaining a position. Nonetheless, he put up a fight and didn’t make it a free DRS pass for the Spaniard. Daniel Ricciardo's late demise elevated Hülkenberg to fifth and means that he already has 18 points on the board in 2014. Somewhat satisfyingly, not having sufficient financial backing has meant that a seemingly missed opportunity to drive for a 'top' team has worked out in his favour so far and his talent has shone through.
Yes, the team that finished with both cars a lap down and outside of the points really are winners this weekend. Because in Formula 1, perception is key. Not meeting high expectations will be deemed as a failure, while exceeding low expectations merits praise. Caterham endured a torrid time in Australia and free practice for Kamui Kobayashi in Malaysia was almost a non-event. Then in qualifying, Marcus Ericsson dipped a wheel on the white line and a one way ticket to the barriers (an excusable excursion considering it was his first wet experience in Formula 1, period). But in the race Kobayashi shone as he made his tyres last and battled with some of the midfield runners, before he slowed the pace for a long stint on the Hard compound during the final segment of the race. Ericsson meanwhile was no pushover as he defended aggressively against one of the Toro Rosso drivers and didn’t let Räikkönen straight through. 13th and 14th elevates Caterham above Marussia in the championship. With Renault expected to make gains across the season and with the CT05 yet to complete a proper race weekend in terms of reliable running, a point will surely come for the team in 2014.
Formula 1 knows when to kick a man when he's down and the object of misfortune this weekend was Daniel Ricciardo. After his exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix, Ricciardo put in a composed, if unspectacular, performance during qualifying to line up in fifth place, a second down on team-mate Sebastian Vettel. There was then the unusual sight on Sunday of an Australian in a Red Bull not tumbling down the order when the lights went out as Ricciardo muscled his way past Alonso and took advantage of Vettel into Turn 4 to move up to third place. He slipped behind the German but maintained a two second gap until his final pit-stop, where a sequence of horrendously unfortunate events began. His right front wheel was not affixed properly and consequently he had to be stopped and wheeled back to the pit box where the issue was resolved. But the force of lifting up the car by the jack man is thought to have contributed to his front wing becoming loose, which resulted in another stop. He pulled the car into retire soon after but the unsafe release had already triggered the FIA's automatic 10 place grid drop for the next race. Plus Red Bull was reprimanded for a team member not wearing protective head gear at the pit stop. All in all, an episode in how not to do pit-stops. But the 'honey badger' will return stronger.
In a season where team-mate Hülkenberg has already aptly displayed his ability, Sergio Pérez is firmly on the back foot after a couple of dismal races. In Australia it was an errant Esteban Gutiérrez who compromised his race but in Malaysia a technical issue left him stranded even before the race began. Pérez was initially unable to leave the pit lane on his way to the grid and once he got going, his Force India kept going into neutral as he attempted to shift down through the gears. He crawled back to the pits but the team was not able to find a solution. He was already several rows behind team-mate Hülkenberg after rear brake instability during qualifying left him with a lack of confidence, but the failure pre-race left him unable to mount a fight back. He's already 18-1 down to Hülkenberg in terms of points, so he needs a couple of strong races in the near future. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the first time Pérez has not been classified in a race since the end of 2012.
The stewards seemed to be in a harsh mood all weekend as both Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen were awarded penalty points for very minor misdemeanours. But Jules Bianchi was also slapped with two penalty points for causing a collision on the first lap of the race down into turn four. Penalising Bianchi for the minor collision with Pastor Maldonado appeared harsh initially, as the Venezuelan swept across from the outside without consideration for his rivals. But Bianchi had sustained a puncture seconds beforehand when he was clipped by Jean-Éric Vergne, meaning that Bianchi was trying to stop a hobbled car when the collision occurred. It was another example of draconian measures from the stewards, especially as both drivers retired soon after with mechanical problems not caused by the accident. Bianchi still has 10 points worth of breathing space before he is banned, but that's not the issue. Drivers need punishing if they are a consistent liability and present a danger to their peers and trackside workers but the desire to hand out sanctions to extremely minor events is getting out of control. No-one wants to see drivers being stupid out on track, but is there really a need for every little incident to warrant a penalty?