RED BULL PUTS THE BOOT IN
The result of the Malaysian Grand Prix was, according to Lewis Hamilton, determined by a “higher power”. Bad luck scuppered the world champion at the beginning of lap 41 when the power unit in the back of his W07 Hybrid lost drive and he came to a stuttering halt at Turn 1 in a blaze of fire and smoke.
Divine intervention handed victory in Sepang last Sunday to Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who finished two and a half seconds ahead of his team-mate Max Verstappen.
Nico Rosberg was third – following a recovery drive from the tail of the field – after he was knocked into a spin by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the first corner of the race. With Hamilton’s demise, Rosberg boarded his flight to Japan with a 23-point lead in the drivers’ world championship, with just five races remaining.
This was Ricciardo’s first win for two years and the first ever Red Bull onetwo in the 1.6-litre hybrid turbo era (the team’s last one-two was in Brazil, 2013).
In some ways it was justice for Ricciardo who had suffered pitstop misfortune at Monaco back in May, and on that day, Hamilton lucked in.
But while the Australian was entertaining the crowds by glugging champagne from his boot on the podium, Hamilton was amongst the TV crews publicly giving the Mercedes team a hard time.
“There’s been 43 engines from Mercedes and only mine have gone,” he said in the TV pen. “Someone has to give me some answers because it’s not acceptable…”
Hamilton was 16 laps away from taking the 50th grand prix win of his career and with a points finish for his team-mate, Mercedes were all set to seal the 2016 constructors’ title too. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The championship-winning T-shirts Mercedes brought to Malaysia remained packed in a box and joined the freight to Suzuka. The party planned for Sunday night was cancelled. As the team’s garages were dismantled late into the night, the celebrations were taking place 30,000ft in the air as Ricciardo enjoyed a whiskey or two on the way to Japan where battle resumes this weekend.
Dusk was approaching as qualifying started at 1700hrs local time on Saturday afternoon. And right from the off Lewis Hamilton set about demonstrating his superiority, not only against the rest of the field, but his team-mate too. His Mercedes did one flying lap and parked up, not needing to run again.
That wasn’t the case further down the field. Mclaren’s Jenson Button was getting bothered by traffic, he caught five cars on his first run and out of frustration, spun at Turn 14.
Then he caught the Manor of Esteban Ocon and had to pull off an overtaking move into the hairpin and blasted the French rookie on the team radio. “Ocon just didn’t move offline at all braking for Turn 9,” said Button afterwards. “He was on an out-lap so I actually had to outbrake him and lunge up the inside, which I don’t think I’ve ever had to do in qualifying before.”
Finally, he took his Mclaren through to Q2. The same couldn’t be said for his team-mate Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard ran for a few laps, but registered the slowest time overall. He had been hit with a 45-place grid penalty for power unit changes and knew that – not for the first time this year – he would be starting on the back row of the grid.
While two of the Brits made it beyond Q1, it was a different story for Jolyon Palmer. After an encouraging Friday, the Renault’s driver’s Saturday turned into a disaster. The telemetry showed he was 1.2mph down on the straights and his RS.16 had lost performance in the high speed corners. That was a contributory factor to him running wide on his first run and then a lock-up on his last lap meant he failed to progress into Q2, afterwards he described his car as “erratic” (although that misery was reversed when he secured his first point and 10th place finish in Sunday’s race).
Q2 began (also without the two Saubers and Manors) and this time Nico Rosberg was the first to register a time on the board. His lap was then smashed by Hamilton who went over half a second quicker. They were comfortably the pacesetters along with the Red Bulls, Ferraris and Force Indias. At this stage Button was in the dropzone, but made Q3 with a great final run which coincided with Valtteri Bottas locking up his Williams at the reprofiled final hairpin. That was enough to ensure JB went into the top 10 shootout, while the Finn was relegated to 11th.
Behind Bottas came the two Haas machines, Kevin Magnussen’s Renault and the two Toro Rossos (Daniil Kvyat 0.005s quicker than team-mate Carlos Sainz).
The final segment of qualifying commenced under darkening skies, but although there were rain cells on the radar in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the region around Sepang stayed dry.
Rosberg ran wide in Turn 6, then the back of his Mercedes stepped out of line at the final corner and his first run in Q3 was only good enough for fifth place, with the Ferraris and Red Bulls ahead of him.
Then an imperious Hamilton took to the track and planted a 1m 32.850s, which was again half a second faster than the rest of the field. Rosberg recovered in his final run to put himself on the front row but he was still 0.563s behind his team-mate. Behind them there was a Red Bull lockout with the two Ferrraris and a pair of Force Indias on the subsequent two rows of the grid.
The tightening bottleneck of Turn 1 often produces contact at the start and this year was no exception. The two Mercedes got off the line well, but behind them Sebastian Vettel jostled out from behind third-placed Max Verstappen and braked deep into the first right-hander. As second-placed Rosberg turned in, he suddenly felt a smack at his rear and that pitched the Mercedes into a pirouette.
Vettel was out on the spot with broken left-front suspension, while Rosberg resumed the race in 21st position. This was Vettel’s fourth first-corner incident this year and the stewards decided after the race that it was worthy of a three-place grid penalty for Suzuka this weekend.
The beneficiaries of the Turn 1 shenanigans were chiefly Sergio Perez, who had eased into third behind Hamilton and Ricciardo, rookie Ocon (who had hauled his Manor up 10 places to 10th) and Alonso: 22nd to 13th on the opening lap.
After nine laps, the race was neutralised when Romain Grosjean lost control of his Haas after suffering brake failure entering the final corner. During this Virtual Safety Car period, Red Bull went for a strategy switch and pitted Verstappen (who was now third after he’d recovered from the first corner troubles) for another set of soft rubber. But the team kept Ricciardo out in second place, just a few seconds behind leader Hamilton.
Hamilton came in for his first stop on lap 20, with Ricciardo stopping one lap later and both switched to the compulsory hard tyres. Six laps later, Verstappen made his stop for the hard compound and started to close on his team-mate. The plan at this stage was for the Dutchman to run to the end of the race, and it became particularly tense on the Red Bull pitwall as the pair ran in close formation on track.
Verstappen radioed his engineers seeking assistance from his team-mate ahead, to be able to fight Lewis for the win. “I’m starting to get held up now,” he said. “If you want me to get to the end, do something,”
But the conversation the Red Bull pitwall was having was whether Ricciardo in second, could make his tyres last until the end of the race. Afterwards team boss Christian Horner revealed that Ricciardo thought that he could also make it to the end, so the pair were now fighting for track position. “That was why there was no interference from us and the message – because they were racing each other – was to show respect and give each other space and then we saw some great wheel-to-wheel racing between the two of them. That was the defining moment of our race between our drivers, but it was good, fair racing.”
Verstappen tried to drive around the outside of his team-mate at Turn 5, but Ricciardo held on to the position around the outside of the switchback at Turn 6, then it was a case of who would brake first into Turn 7. Ricciardo repelled his young team-mate and stayed ahead.
Up front, Hamilton was trying to eke out a big enough gap from the Red Bulls so that he could make a final pitstop and come out in the lead – but that plan came to a crushing end when his engine blew on the start-finish straight. Had his world title aspirations just gone up in smoke?
When he returned to the paddock, he was particularly outspoken with the disappointing end to a dominant weekend. He said “something doesn’t feel right” when talking about the number of engine failures he’d suffered this year.
“I just can’t believe that there’s eight Mercedes cars [on the grid] and only my engines have been the ones that have been going this year. It’s just odd,” then he added: “Something or someone doesn’t want me to win this year…”
The message from Mercedes was that Hamilton wouldn’t speak to the press again after the race, but after further discussions it was decided to present a unified front. Quickly Lewis was asked to expand on ‘who doesn’t want him to win this year’? He raised a finger to the air and said: “A higher power.”
Team boss Toto Wolff shared in his disappointment and could understand why he’d been so outspoken.
“This is a mechanical sport and I’m gutted in the same way. Every remark is allowed after such a frustrating moment and he’s allowed to say everything he wants,” said Wolff. “Each of us express emotion in different ways. In this case it’s a freaky situation that has no rational explanation.”
Hamilton’s stricken Mercedes forced the race into another Virtual Safety Car and then it made sense to pit both Red Bulls to ensure they had no tyre concerns in the dying laps. When questioned, Horner also added there was no ordering of them to slow and both were allowed to compete for the victory.
“I made the decision that both were free to race, but I asked them to respect the 43 points,” said the Red Bull team boss. “They were both in the same engine modes and power stakes, so there was no advantage to either of them. But Max’s tyres got a bit more of a workout in dirty air.”
On the podium, Ricciardo was clearly emotional to get his first win since Spa 2014 and rejoiced with his now infamous celebration.
“When Max pitted under the VSC at the beginning and put on the soft at that point it looked like his strategy was working out very well for him,” said the Australian. “So then I had to hold him off towards that mid-part of the race, just as Lewis had his problems. It was a good battle and as Max was on fresher tyres, I knew he would come could at some point, but obviously I was trying to do everything I could to hold him off. It was hard racing and we’re both determined to beat each other but I think we did it fair today with a lot of respect.”
So what did everyone make of drinking the champagne from the Australian’s racing boot? “I love the taste personally,” said Ricciardo. “But today I thought it was a bit fruity. Nico told me he didn’t like it very much.”
Horner: “I just hope he doesn’t have any ailments like athlete’s foot or a verruca...”
And Rosberg? “I just hope he doesn’t win another race this year…”
Ricciardo’s two-year wait for a win ended in Malaysia
Engine failure cost Hamilton victory and infuriated the Briton
Rosberg got spun round by Vettel at the first turn but recovered to third