2014 Malaysian GP report

by Mark Hughes on 31st March 2014

Excellence compounds itself in Formula 1 2014. It’s why aero grip equals good tyre temperature, which gives efficient harvesting, giving more electrical stored power, giving greater fuel savings, giving access to greater boost.

All of which is why the Mercedes W05 is currently the class of the field. Its fantastic packaging, derived from a key component innovation (explained fully in the magazine out later this week) allows a currently unbeatable combination of downforce, low drag and horsepower.

That virtuous compounding effect also goes some way to explaining the dominance of Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Malaysia, even over team-mate Nico Rosberg, the pair giving a full silver arrows team its first one-two since Monza 1955.

Out front from pole, with Rosberg initially having his hands full fending off Red Bulls, Hamilton was in an unbeatable rhythm, one where everything just flows. Taking greater momentum into the corners, carrying more speed through them, he was using significantly less fuel than anyone else – just 47.7 per cent of the allowed 100kg by halfway through the race, compared to 49.3% for Rosberg, who followed 10 seconds behind, 50% for Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and 50.8% for Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull.

Faster yet more economical, this all feeds upon itself in the new hybrid formula. The faster the car, the faster the car becomes, its advantage exaggerated. Likewise the driver.

“Although I had the edge over Nico in qualifying pace,” Hamilton recalled post-race, “during the long runs on Friday, he was running a similar pace to me and able to go a lap longer. But from that running I learned a lot where to improve. It’s one thing learning it, but another being able to apply it and it doesn’t always work. Today it worked.”

Whereas on Friday he’d been pushing hard against the fuel consumption limits to run at Rosberg’s pace, with a bit of fine tuning of technique by Sunday he was able to run faster and leaner.

“I just love this car,” he enthused. “Last year, although the car was very quick I never felt good in it. There were a lot of things, such as the brake feel, that just didn’t suit me. Considering that, I had not such bad results. But if I was as comfortable as I am now…

"I’ve had time to mould things the way I want them"

“I knew I’d be more comfortable this year. I’ve been with the team [for a bit] and they know what I like. I’ve had time to mould things the way I want them, get my pedals right, get the feeling right and it’s given me confidence. I have no braking feel issues with this car.”

Superb stability into the two hard-braking zones of the final turn and turn one, each at the end of long 200mph straights, marked out the Mercedes and Red Bull. Every other car was losing time correcting several slides and twitches from turn-in to apex as their brake-by-wire systems gave their drivers all sorts of problems when the energy harvesting torque reversal on the rear axles was released.

Red Bull vs Mercedes

Through the fast, flowing middle sector the Red Bull was every bit as quick as the Mercedes despite its estimated 80bhp deficit and into the turn nine hairpin, for example, the RB10 was in a different league to anything else, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo able to drive on a line reserved just for them, super-late turn-in and essentially making a ‘V’ of the corner, direction change completed way before the apex, enabling them to be on the power at a phase where the others – even the Merc drivers – were still trying to balance lateral load against how much throttle they could use.

“I’ve looked at overlay traces on GPS,” said Hamilton, “and they are absolutely as fast as us through the fast corners. I have no doubt at all that Renault is going to fix their engine and when they do you’re going to see some big races between us and them.”

Generally Vettel was around 0.5 seconds per lap off Hamilton’s race pace; though Hamilton’s fastest lap was 1.2s quicker, that came late in the race as Lewis enjoyed himself burning off the fuel he’d saved up to that point, a luxury not available to the Red Bull.

Qualifying

But things had been a lot closer in the wet of qualifying, with the Merc unable to use as much of its power advantage. There, Hamilton had taken pole by a scant few hundredths from Vettel who managed to split the Mercs just as Ricciardo had done in Australia.

Fernando Alonso reckoned his fourth-fastest time, just ahead of Ricciardo, represented one of the best qualifying laps he’d ever done, the Ferrari’s front geometry askew after a steering arm had to be replaced following a collision with Daniil Kyvatt’s Toro Rosso.

Behind the second Red Bull were Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari, Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India, Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren (its diffuser damaged from a Q2 trip through the gravel), Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso and the McLaren of Jenson Button whose inters gamble – hoping the track would dry enough in the last moments to give him an advantage over the wet tyres of the others – failed to come off.

Wet qualifying ensured everyone had more than enough new dry tyres for the expected three-stop strategies of race day. Even with the hard/medium pairing selected by Pirelli for this race, rear wear was enough to give high degradation rates.

Although this was much improved on race day, three-stopping was still strategically safer. Everyone started on the option (medium) tyre for its greater grip off the line and an initial pace advantage over the hard of around one second per lap.

The race start

The track temperature was still hovering at around 50-degrees at the 4pm race start as Hamilton got away perfectly to head the pack on the long drag down to turn one. Rosberg’s start was better than Vettel’s, allowing him to get between the Red Bull and the pit wall, with Vettel then squeezing him hard.

“I thought he was going to put me into the wall”

“I thought he was going to put me into the wall,” recounted Nico. “I had some practice with that last year,” said Seb, referring to how he’d been on the receiving end of the same treatment from Mark Webber. “That doesn’t make it right,” countered Rosberg, who just managed to prevail down to the switchback of turns 1-2-3.

But with Red Bulls swarming all over him, the Mercedes got very sideways as Nico tried to get all that torque to the wheels exiting turn three, allowing them to get a run at him as they charged up to four, Rosberg forced to get very defensive.

Ricciardo – who’d scythed past Alonso through the opening corners – now sat it out with Vettel, and prevailed for third. Alonso had been bundled back to sixth by Hulkenberg, though was able to retake the place from the Force India into turn one next time around.

Just behind them, Magnussen tried screaming around the outside of Räikkönen through turns one and two but his front wing endplate sliced through the Ferrari’s left-rear tyre, damaging the McLaren and ensuring a slow crawl back to the pits for Kimi, his race effectively ruined. Magnussen, compromised by the front wing damage, was passed by team-mate Button next time through and spent a few laps dicing with Felipe Massa’s Williams.

He would later be given a five-second stop/go penalty which, under revised rules this year can be taken during a tyre stop, lessening the severity. The McLarens generally did not have their Melbourne pace, lacking aero performance in the high-speed sections.

Through the aero-demanding middle sector they sat roughly halfway between the identically powered Williams and Force India and around one second adrift of Mercedes.

All the action was happening ever distant in Hamilton’s mirrors. He’d been over two seconds clear at the end of the opening lap, an advantage he’d doubled by the third. Rosberg’s hectic few opening corners had temporarily overheated his rears and, once he’d thwarted the Red Bull attack, he’d had to gently nurse the rubber back.

Mercedes had even considered short-fuelling here before realising that they had no need to...

It was all the advantage Lewis needed, whose afternoon was now just a beautiful routine of aced braking zones and apexes and great fuel read-outs. Sepang is nowhere near as demanding as Melbourne for fuel usage, and Mercedes had even considered short-fuelling here before realising that they had no need to, such was their pace advantage.

Vettel sliced back ahead of team-mate Ricciardo at the end of the DRS zone into turn one and was able to keep the pressure on Rosberg. With the threat of the undercut around the pit stops being particularly acute because of the fairly high tyre degradation, Nico was being urged to pull out a bigger gap over the chasing RB10, but to do so would eat into the Merc’s reserves of fuel.

Ricciardo – whose fuel flow sensor had failed even before the race started (the FIA accepted the flow info from the engine’s fuel rail this time) – kept pace with them through the opening stint and Alonso was within striking range too as the first stops approached.

Tyre stop preparation

In this new era, there is a certain loading of the guns in preparation for the flurry of tyre stops. You need to ensure your battery is fully charged, harvesting heavily for a couple of laps in order that you can do a full-attack out-lap (if you’re the one coming in first) or in-lap (if you’re the one responding to an undercut attempt).

This was happening from around the ninth lap and Ferrari brought Alonso in at the end of lap 11, challenging Red Bull to the undercut. In accepting that challenge by bringing Ricciardo in next lap, the strategic trigger effect confirmed the race as a three-stopper up front, as Vettel, Rosberg and  Hamilton came in on successive laps, all continuing on fresh option tyres.

As Ricciardo exited the pits, Alonso was bearing down fast, his new tyres having bought up the 2.7 seconds by which he’d trailed before, Danny’s in-lap having been unremarkable as Fernando set the fastest sector two time of anyone so far on his out-lap.

The Ferrari cut across the Red Bull as they scrambled through turn one, but Ricciardo had the better line into two-three and managed to scrabble back ahead. Vettel was able to stay comfortably clear of his team-mate as he rejoined, Rosberg in turn emerging still ahead of Seb.

By the time Hamilton exited from his stop, he was leading by 8.4 seconds. The pace Mercedes had in hand was suggested by the respective in-lap comparisons to the Red Bulls and Alonso. Ricciardo, Alonso and Vettel had all taken 1m 52.3s. Rosberg took 1m 51.7s, Hamilton 1m 51.2s.

With the V6 turbo pack’s muted growl muffled further in the tropical late afternoon muggy heat, Hulkenberg led, before pitting at the end of lap 16. Hulk had done a great job hanging onto the tail of the lead group in a car definitely not as fast. Now Force India was throwing down the gauntlet to Ferrari, trying to beat Alonso by two-stopping.

He rejoined well behind the Ferrari but was soon lapping as quick or quicker, and with one stop less to make, the Force India’s aero shortfall to the Ferrari compensated for by a Mercedes engine with what is currently estimated to be a 40bhp advantage. With such a big gap behind to Button’s McLaren, it was a zero risk ‘gamble’ for Force India.

Hulk was carrying all the team’s hopes as the sister car of Sergio Pérez had failed to start, unable to select gears on its way to the grid. Similarly, Toro Rosso had its hopes pinned on Daniil Kyvat after Vergne’s engine had been triggered into limp mode by the high temperatures as it sat on the grid and was soon out.

The Williams battle

Button had been forming the blockage to a Williams challenge. Although the FW36 definitely wasn’t as quick as in Australia, a downforce shortfall hurting it more here, it still looked like it had the measure of McLaren – if only it could get past.

Earlier in the race as Massa had hassled Magnussen but without actually putting a move on it, Valtteri Bottas – who had started the sister Williams 18th, penalised for impeding Ricciardo during qualifying – had been irritated when told not to attack his team-mate.

“I’ve got much more pace than him”

“Well tell him to pass, then,” he demanded. “I’ve got much more pace than him.” With Magnussen out of the way because of his early stop to change the nose, Button then became Massa’s barrier. Bottas attempted to break the stalemate by running a couple of laps longer than Massa to the first stops, reckoning the shorter subsequent stints on fresher tyres might allow him to leapfrog them both later.

That plan floundered on coming out behind Kyvat and having to spend five laps finding a way past.  He then quickly closed down the nine-second deficit to the Button/Massa train, to be right back where he was: forbidden to attack his team-mate, to his immense frustration. He was certain he’d be able to pass Button, if only Massa would get out the way.

Through the second stint Hamilton more or less maintained a 10-second margin over Rosberg. Any time Nico upped the pace, Lewis would respond with a lap yet faster – and still he was using less fuel.

“He was just better today”

“He was just better today,” was the honest assessment of Rosberg, whose focus was more on keeping Vettel behind than closing the gap to Hamilton. Again, Tony Ross would come on the radio suggesting he try to open out the gap over the Red Bull to five seconds – and again he wasn’t quite able to do so, as Seb stayed relentlessly on it. Ricciardo had fallen to around six seconds adrift of Vettel on the eve of the second stops.

Alonso was again the first to break ranks, coming in at the end of the 27th lap. Ferrari fitted him with a set of primes in response to Hulkenberg’s two-stop. This way it would ensure Fernando would be on fresh options late in the race when he’d need to overtake the Force India.

Red Bull responded to the Alonso stop by bringing in Ricciardo and they, like Ferrari, went with primes – for the same Hulkenberg-inspired reason.

Clear of the Hulkenberg threat, Vettel and the Mercs stayed out longer and made the more conventional choice of options for their third of four stints. In this way their advantage over the Hulkenberg-combating Ricciardo and Alonso was increased.

This time Vettel had been able to get very close to Rosberg as Nico had rejoined and, in chasing the Mercedes down on his fresh tyres, set the fastest lap of the race so far. Seb kept the pressure on, Nico remained calm, just marshalled his resources to stay just out of reach.

It helped that even with the benefit of DRS, Seb couldn’t get close enough to put a move on the Merc and its extra 80bhp. Occasional drops of rain were beginning to fall on parts of the track. But it never developed, the cloud never burst and Seb’s only real hope was gone.

“It was like he found another gear”

After carefully looking after his fresh tyres Rosberg simply upped the pace and left Vettel unable to respond. “It was like he found another gear,” related Seb. Hamilton in turn responded to Rosberg’s new pace, with his gap now out to 11-12 seconds.

Ricciardo's problems

Coming up to the third and final stops Ricciardo and Alonso needed to be around 27 seconds clear of Hulkenberg if they were not to be passed by the Force India as they sat in the pits. They were unable to get the gap out to more than about 14 seconds. But that was soon to be the least of Ricciardo’s concerns.

On the 40th of the race’s 56 laps, there was a problem attaching his front-left. The mechanic wasn’t sure it was fully secured and so went to apply another burst of the air gun but inadvertently switched the latch as he did so – thereby undoing the nut.

The car came off the jacks and accelerated away but even as the mechanic was waving his arms, Danny could feel there was a problem and stopped short of the white exit line. The Red Bull guys ran down there and pushed him back. By the time this was all sorted he’d lost a lap.

Furthermore, his front wing – possibly damaged as the car was pushed – became detached over the turn 14 kerbs and its endplate damaged the tyre. He was back in three laps later for a new nose and to cap his day off he was given a drive-through penalty for the original unsafe release. This now also carries a 10-place grid penalty for the next race. The car was retired.

Alonso stopped and got out on his fresh option tyres 14 seconds behind fourth-placed Hulkenberg but was lapping much faster. As the other front runners began peeling in and rejoining on their primes, the charging Alonso was frequently the fastest man on track.

The combination of low fuel and new options flattered his fastest lap, just a couple of tenths off Rosberg and ahead of Vettel. In reality the Ferrari averaged around 1 second off the ultimate pace, the Red Bull around 0.5 seconds off. “But we have already improved a lot since Australia,” Alonso said. “We were a similar distance away at the end but in Australia we had a safety car.”

With 10 laps to go Alonso was catching the old-tyred Hulkenberg at over 2 seconds per lap. By the 52nd lap he was with him and trying to DRS his way past down the pit straight. Hulk resisted, they wrestled through the switchback of turns one-three, but ultimately Alonso came out ahead, as he was always going to.

Nonetheless it had been another great performance from Hulkenberg, who finished over half a minute ahead of Button. Jenson spent most of his race watching two Williams’ in his mirrors, but only occasionally had to get properly defensive to hold off Massa.

With four laps to go Felipe must have been dismayed to hear echoes of Hockenheim 2010 over the radio as the team told him to move aside for Bottas. This time, he elected not to comply. In this way, Button was let off the hook for sixth. The delayed Magnussen took a lapped ninth, with Kyvat again scoring a point in 10th.

With three laps to go Hamilton had let rip to set the race’s fastest lap by the margin of almost 0.9s as he enjoyed burning up all the Malaysian Petronas fuel he’d saved. Acutely aware there’s a Red Bull challenge coming, making hay while the tropical sun shone had felt just great.

Malaysian Grand Prix results

1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1h40m 25.974s
2. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes +17.313s
3. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault +24.534s
4. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari +35.992s
5. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India-Mercedes +47.199s
6. Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes +1m23.691s
7. Felipe Massa, Williams-Mercedes +1m25.076s
8. Valtteri Bottas, Williams-Mercedes +1m25.537s
9. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
10. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso-Renault +1 lap
11. Romain Grosjean, Lotus-Renault +1 lap
12. Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari +1 lap
13. Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham-Renault +1 lap
14. Marcus Ericsson, Caterham-Renault +2 laps
15. Max Chilton, Marussia-Ferrari +2 laps

Retirements:

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull-Renault 49 laps
Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber-Ferrari 35 laps
Adrian Sutil, Sauber-Ferrari 32 laps
Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso-Renault 18 laps
Jules Bianchi, Marussia-Ferrari 8 laps
Pastor Maldonado, Lotus-Renault 7 laps
Sergio Pérez, Force India-Mercedes 0 laps

Drivers' Championship:

1. Nico Rosberg 43
2. Lewis Hamilton 25
3. Fernando Alonso 24
4. Jenson Button 23
5. Kevin Magnussen 20
6. Nico Hulkenberg 18
7. Sebastian Vettel 15
8. Valtteri Bottas 14
9. Kimi Räikkönen 6
10. Felipe Massa 6
11. Jean-Eric Vergne 4
12. Daniil Kvyat 3
13. Sergio Pérez 1

Constructors' Championship:

1. Mercedes 68
2. McLaren-Mercedes 43
3. Ferrari 30
4. Williams-Mercedes 20
5. Force India-Mercedes 19
6. Red Bull-Renault 15
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 7
8. Sauber-Ferrari 0
9. Lotus-Renault 0
10. Caterham-Renault 0
11. Marussia-Ferrari 0

The next race (all times BST/GMT)

More from Mark Hughes
Red Bull's fuel flow appeal
Success should come to Valtteri Bottas
Australian Grand Prix report

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