Max Verstappen’s unexpected Malaysia GP victory was not only one of the Dutchman’s best Formula 1 drives to date, but it was a race that provided an insight into the competitive landscape for the next few seasons could shape up.
Red Bull’s performance over the last few races has illustrated that they are a team clawing their way back to where they used to be. Given the correct – and fortunate – circumstances, they can win races on most circuits, which is encouraging news for F1’s competitiveness over the coming years.
Ferrari undoubtedly had superior pace all weekend but was unable to disturb Hamilton’s rhythm on Sunday with Raikkonen as technology let them down for the second time in as many days.
The last fortnight has been a disaster for the Scuderia. In Singapore, the team suffered its worst start to a race in its history. But whilst the car had the ostensible pace to fight for victory on both occasions, its leaves Malaysia having scored only 14% of the points it could have picked up and now trail Mercedes by an almost insurmountable 123 points.
Two unrelated power-unit issues curtailed the Ferrari drivers’ Malaysian weekend and provided yet another blow to its championship hopes. In qualifying, Sebastian Vettel’s car developed a compressor issue caused by a broken manifold, ruling him out of qualifying and forced him to start down in 20th place on the grid. Then less than 24 hours later, Raikkonen suffered a turbo issue on his install lap to the grid and never managed to get going.
It seems inevitable these days that mechanical issues will directly affect the championship, and if it wasn’t for the haul of points lost in Singapore, it’s fair to say that this weekend would have felt far more significant. Even with Vettel’s incredible drive from effectively 19th to fourth (including a jump of seven places on the first lap), the damage may have already been done to his hopes of a fifth world championship.
If things couldn’t get any worse, Vettel tripped over Lance Stroll’s Williams on the cool-down lap, almost certainly warranting a new gearbox and an obligatory 5-place grid drop for the next race. Undoubtedly, Ferrari will try to get special dispensation and the FIA will be reluctant to give Vettel even more pain, but rules are rules.
Instead, Verstappen’s Red Bull took advantage of its rare superior pace and a rival in Lewis Hamilton with everything to lose to get past and dominate from the front. When asked by Motorsport.com about the crucial overtake, Verstappen recalled how he was consciously aware of Hamilton’s conservative approach given the championship battle:
“I had a good run out of the last corner and opted to go for inside,” Verstappen explained. “I knew Lewis had more to lose as he was fighting for the championship.
“I took an extra risk because of it, it was my only chance. I could see he was clipping more than I was, so I was happy to get past.”
Daniel Ricciardo may well have joined his teammate to complete a Red Bull one-two if he had been able to negotiate Valtteri Bottas in a similar fashion, but by the time the Australian got past on lap nine of 56, Hamilton was already 8 seconds clear of teammate Bottas.
The Mercedes’ substandard pace is a cause for major concern at a circuit they expected to be ahead. Even though they could celebrate Hamilton’s masterful lap on Saturday for pole, Niki Lauda said it was down to Hamilton’s driving rather than his car.
In an interview after qualifying, the Austrian world champion told SkySports: “It’s very difficult to identify what’s wrong with the car, but when Lewis puts the throttle down he does it very well, so I think it’s more the driver here than the car, to be honest.”
Lauda’s observation is supported by Bottas’ lack of pace all weekend. In Q3 the Finn was 0.682s slower than Hamilton and finished 56.021s adrift of Verstappen in the race – unprecedented for a Mercedes with no obvious fundamental issues. “Being honest, it may be the most difficult time of my career so far, in terms of how it feels every time I go in the car,” Bottas told Autosport.
With or without Hamilton flattering Mercedes’ true pace, if Ferrari had had a reliable weekend then it would have been likely that no Mercedes would have been on the podium for the first time since Monaco back in May.
In the first stint on the soft-compound tyres, Vettel often matched the leader’s pace and could have mounted a more successful charge on Ricciardo if he had extended that first stint. Instead, Vettel pitted two laps later than Ricciardo on lap 29 and went from being right behind Ricciardo to eventually finishing 14.843s adrift, most of the gap due to nursing his car home low on fuel.
Ricciardo’s charge on Hamilton ceased after the first round of pitstops. Hamilton’s stop on lap 29 wasn’t responded to by Red Bull for another three laps, and by that time Hamilton had an advantage he wouldn’t relinquish despite being over 1s per lap slower at times.
Malaysia and Singapore could be seen as the first suggestions of the Mercedes hegemony it has enjoyed for the entire hybrid era coming to an end. Ferrari has had them shook this year, with Hamilton conceding that the W08 has not been the quickest car over the course of 2017.
That omission will remain Ferrari’s only hope of salvaging this season, but next season could prove to be a very interesting prospect. If Mercedes don’t find a step compared to their rivals, it could be a three-team battle for the 2018 title, with even McLaren and Fernando Alonso coming into play with the Renault engine – something that everyone will want to see.
That must be a good sign for F1, especially if you take into account how much more appealing the championship would become to manufacturers like Aston Martin and Porsche who have already expressed interest.
So whilst the events of the past fortnight has quashed the prospect of a titanic title battle that will go down to the wire, it has flagged up that F1’s competitive landscape is in a period of transition. Ferrari can take some solace from that.