RED BULL PUTS THE BOOT IN

Motor Sport News - - Malaysian Gp Report -

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.

Qual­i­fy­ing

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.

Race

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

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