Grand Prix Notebook

Malaysia, Bahrain and China

Formula 1 left its muted hybrid trail through the early-season far stretches of the globe: amid the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the oil-producing region of the Gulf and the ongoing industrialisation of China. Chasing an uncertain future, it nonetheless provided at least one race so thrilling that it left those who’d been critical of the new formula looking silly.

A tropical thunderstorm punctuated the intense humid heat, releasing some of the pent-up energy in Sepang as F1 hit town, staying in hotels recently vacated by the families of those missing souls from flight MH370. A week later and we were in the desert heat of Bahrain, sitting in a shuttle bus crawling in first gear through a police X-ray scanner near the circuit’s perimeter as four uniformed mercenaries, sub-machine guns in their hands, peered through the window, their young faces a worrying mix of confusion and insolence: F1 in Bahrain 2014-style, the Fifth Fleet just a few miles distant, monitoring that the oil flows the required way. A couple of weeks forward from there and we’re in the drizzle of the Jiading province of Shanghai, automotive component factories and the tower blocks to house their workers rising out of the perma-smog that sheathes the stadium.

Because Lewis Hamilton had devised a way in Malaysia of using less fuel whilst going faster than his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, that race was a one-man demonstration – which triggered a few high-profile but ill-considered critical comments of the fuel-saving aspect of the new formula. Just a few days later, as Rosberg found a way of countering Hamilton’s Sepang advantage, a thrilling race between them unfolded in Bahrain that made those criticisms look ridiculous. What that Bahrain thriller also did – in making the final 10 laps after a late safety car a flat-out sprint to the finish with both Hamilton and Rosberg needing to use all their available performance – was to finally lay bare the full scale of the Mercedes W05’s superiority over the field. In China, as Rosberg suffered a sequence of niggling problems, we reverted back to the Hamilton dominance of Malaysia and it was clear F1 really needed both W05s working properly for the benefit of the contest.

Malaysia

Hamilton’s Sepang advantage hadn’t been so apparent in wet qualifying, when he’d only shaved pole through being later across the line than Rosberg to start his lap on an improving track. Rosberg didn’t even make the front row, Sebastian Vettel splitting the Mercs with his Red Bull, just as Daniel Ricciardo had done in Australia. As in Melbourne, the wet conditions had allowed the RB10’s downforce advantage to count for more and the power disadvantage of its Renault engine for less than in the dry.

But on a dry track, it was Mercedes all the way on Sunday, as Hamilton ran unchallenged down to the first turn and Rosberg ignored Vettel’s intimidation to squeeze through the narrowing space between Red Bull and pitwall. Getting sideways under power on the exit of Turn Three left Rosberg vulnerable to a double Red Bull attack and his busy defence ensured he was already 2sec adrift of the sister Mercedes at the end of the opening lap. Hamilton’s advantage would only increase from there, as he found an unbeatable high-momentum rhythm, taking more speed in, keeping the minimum corner speeds up, needing less reacceleration. In the last few minutes he enjoyed burning off the fuel he’d saved to set the fastest lap by an impressive margin.

Ricciardo had outflanked Vettel in the choreography of the opening few corners, showing no sign of being overawed by a quadruple champion team-mate. Vettel used DRS a few laps later to reclaim third place, but Daniel generally kept pace with him until it all went disastrously wrong at his third and final stop. As he drove off, a loose left-front wheel nut counted as an unsafe release, even though he stopped and was pushed back. Unsafe release now carries a mandatory 10-place grid penalty for the next race. Vettel stayed close to Rosberg until the second of three stops after which, as Seb reported, “It was like he found another gear.”

Fernando Alonso eventually took fourth, after making a late pass on the two-stopping Force India of Nico Hülkenberg. Alonso had driven what he reckoned was one of the best qualifying laps of his career, just to put the Ferrari fourth on the grid, and pressure levels at the Scuderia were already rising. Hülkenberg’s fifth place finish was a long way clear of Jenson Button in the identically powered McLaren. Around a more aerodynamically demanding track than Melbourne, neither McLaren nor Williams looked particularly convincing. Button and the Williams pair, with what’s believed to be a 70bhp advantage, finished one minute behind Vettel’s Red Bull. That’s an average deficit of about 1sec per lap despite a power advantage of about 0.7sec per lap. Was the new McLaren’s aero really 1.7sec down on Red Bull’s? That was the inference. Williams drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas could probably have got closer than that if only they’d been able to pass Button, and there were echoes of Hockenheim 2010 as Massa was instructed to move aside for his team-mate, who reckoned he could have passed the McLaren. In contrast to his Ferrari days, Massa this time refused to comply. But this was all just a side story to the first 1-2 for a full works ‘silver arrows’ Mercedes team since Monza 1955.

Sonic beeps, possibly from MH370, were being reported from the South Indian Ocean, a few hundred miles west of Perth, as F1 left town.

Bahrain

Hamilton’s domination over Rosberg in Malaysia – together with Nico’s straightforward run to victory in Australia following Hamilton’s early retirement – was being used as ammunition by those claiming the new formula had been ill-conceived. As well as the lack of noise, they said, the racing wasn’t even good – a point made by both Bernie Ecclestone and Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemelo, with the latter repeating his earlier reference to a ‘taxi-driving’ formula as he pitched up in Bahrain with associated fanfare and flashbulbs. But if he arrived like a lion, he left like a lamb, his chauffeur summoned long before the newly floodlit race had finished, Luca unwilling to stand any more of watching the Ferraris of Alonso and Räikkönen being repeatedly passed on the back straight, unable to summon the traction out of the preceding hairpin or the electrical power boost to defend adequately. For a figure to whom image is all, such loss of face suggested imminent blood-letting at Maranello.

In the short gap between the two race weekends, Rosberg’s race engineering crew had prepared a document highlighting the differences between his and Hamilton’s technique in Malaysia, essentially laying bare how Lewis had been able to have such a spectacular blend of speed and fuel usage. Coming into the Bahrain weekend Hamilton was clearly disappointed at this development, yet during the Friday practice sessions he began where he’d left off in Sepang, consistently able to maintain lower fuel consumption while lapping similarly quickly. His ease with some rear end instability into the slower corners was allowing him to need less braking and acceleration. But as the track grip improved through the weekend, so the balance shifted to understeer and his advantage over Rosberg evaporated like a desert mirage. Rosberg took pole, Hamilton locking up and flat-spotting as his final attempt proved 0.3sec slower, though still enough for the front row. Ricciardo qualified third-quickest but would take a 10-place penalty for his unsafe release in Malaysia, promoting Bottas. The Williams FW36 was well served in the low-gear acceleration zones, thanks to Mercedes horsepower. Sergio Pérez’s Force India, Räikkönen’s Ferrari, Button’s McLaren and Massa’s Williams filled the slots behind him.

Hamilton undid his grid disadvantage seconds into the race as he out-accelerated Rosberg down to turn one. There was to be no repeat of Malaysia’s serenity for Lewis, though: he would need to fight for this one as Rosberg was potentially faster – and it was this dynamic that helped make the Grand Prix a sensationally good one. The two Mercs disappeared off into a race of their own and the distant pack scrapped among themselves, Massa having initially put himself at the head of it with a sensational start. But the Williams was using up its rear tyres faster than the chasing Force India of Pérez. Twelve months earlier Force India and Pérez (then driving for McLaren) had separately starred at this track and now they’d been brought together were doing so again. The Mexican went on to pass Massa, only to be undercut at the first stops by team-mate Hülkenberg, who then got upset as Pérez muscled his way back ahead, hanging Hulk out to dry over the Turn Four kerbs. Just as Button had discovered last year, even a team-mate gets no quarter from Pérez around here and the Mexican went on to secure the final podium place.

But that was all secondary to the equally close racing of the two Mercs up front. Pre-race, it had been decided that whichever of the pair was behind as the first stops approached would be given the slower, prime tyres for the middle stint. This would give that driver a second bite at the cherry by having him on the faster option tyres for the final stint, when the leader would be on the primes. It was the team’s way of providing equality for its drivers and not simply switching the race off up to the first stops – as we’ve seen teams do in the past (McLaren, Monaco 2007, for example).

The crucial lap for the Mercedes guys was 19 – that’s when the leader would be brought in. After being beaten off the line, Rosberg had initially figured he’d be relying on the fall-back plan and so concentrated on saving fuel early in the race – in order that he could also have greater power as well as extra tyre grip in the final stint. But still Lewis didn’t pull away, his pace being limited by the loadings going through his left front as he generated more understeer than Rosberg. Teams have g-loading data and slip sensors that allow them to calculate how much of the tyres’ energy they are using up, in order to keep the driver on target for stint length.

At Bahrain Hamilton was nudging against this limitation in the first stint and being advised to control his pace – and it was this that allowed Rosberg still to be in touch as the first stops approached, despite having run conservatively. So on lap 18, he decided he’d make a bid to be in front before they pitted as this would force Lewis onto the fall-back strategy. With DRS flap open down the pit straight Rosberg shot up the inside for Turn One and braked outrageously late to take the lead briefly. Hamilton saw him coming, stayed out wide and simply turned around the back of him to retake the place. On the next lap – his final opportunity to ‘invert the strategy’ – Rosberg tried again and this time stayed ahead through the duration of the right-handed Turn One. Hamilton though was still alongside and able, with a fairly ruthless bit of chopping, to get across Rosberg’s bows as they approached Turn Three. Nico was on the radio complaining and there were some distinctly nervy people on the Mercedes pitwall. But Lewis had prevailed at this crucial point in the race. Had he not, it’s likely that Rosberg’s greater pace on the day would have allowed him to have pulled away thereafter. Hamilton pitted first, was fitted with the options and built up a big lead during the middle stint over Rosberg on his primes.

Had Pastor Maldonado not completely misjudged where Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber was going to be a second or so after the Lotus exited the pits, we’d likely have seen a final stint where Rosberg on his option tyres overturned the prime-tyred Hamilton’s 13sec lead with three laps to go. Instead, Pastor succeeded in rolling Gutiérrez, triggering a safety car that wiped out Hamilton’s hard-won gap. So upon the restart he was on the slower tyres with the guy on the faster rubber right behind him – and with 10 laps still to go. It looked like game over for Lewis. Remarkably, using pure street-fighting tenacity and perfect ‘aggressive defending’ that stayed just the right side of acceptable, he held on to take a great victory. Several times Rosberg thought he’d got him either at Turns 1-2-3 or up to Turn Four, but each time Hamilton prevailed. In their flat-out scrap, they proved 2sec per lap faster than the rest.

Di Montezemelo missed seeing all this – and also Alonso’s ironic fist-pumping ‘celebration’ of finishing ninth.

China

By the time the field assembled at Shanghai, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali had resigned. A good man, but not one who ever transcended the status of company employee, he bowed to the pressure cooker at Maranello to protect those below him whose head might otherwise have been required. Such is the way of corporate politics at Maranello. In his place came Marco Mattiacci, previously CEO of Ferrari North America. Few in the team, let alone the rest of the paddock, had heard of him. But his appointment was perceived to be very much blessed by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne.

The third wet qualifying in four races again helped Red Bull, enabling Ricciardo and Vettel – in that order – to split the Mercs of pole-sitter Hamilton and fourth-quickest Rosberg. The Red Bulls had been further helped by changes to the Renault’s exhaust and software and were supreme through the aerodynamically demanding middle sector, but still 20kph slower than the Mercs at the end of the long back straight. Ironically, Ferrari’s form was much improved, but for no other reason than the track layout favoured its traits far more than did those of Bahrain, in that it was less demanding of the ERS systems and had several long, fast corners that suited the car well. Alonso qualified a solid fifth and would go on to star in the race. The sister car of Räikkönen continued to suffer an assortment of mechanical problems that limited his track time and it did appear as if the ‘A Crew’ was reserved for Alonso’s car. A crack in the chassis of Räikkönen’s F14T had been found during Bahrain testing, and it dated back to Friday practice of the Bahrain GP. Despite his fresh chassis, persistent gearshift problems compromised his China weekend.

Rosberg struggled in wet qualifying, 1.3sec slower than Hamilton – and when his telemetry went down before the race, giving no way of optimising his clutch settings for the start, he was further compromised. Bogging down, he was only seventh into the first corner. Though he’d eventually recover to second, Hamilton’s third consecutive victory was never even remotely under threat. Alonso was quite brilliant in judging how much to take from the front-left tyre that is always a big limitation at this track – just enough to hold off a late attack from Ricciardo, who had earlier lost time behind team-mate Vettel until the latter was asked via radio to move aside.

Yes, this season really is rather different.

Turn 8, Sepang
Close to the edge

"Small in the frame but getting bigger quick, the heat haze and sun-glint of a car scrabbling over the exit kerb of Sepang’s third-gear Turn Eight and in a moment Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari bursts into full definition, whispering swoosh to high-pitched blare as it passes.

Into the braking zone for the slightly uphill hairpin of Nine and he’s taking all the energy out of the car; al l that would-be excess entry speed is being spurned and fed instead direct to the battery. In this way not only is he harvesting more effectively, he is also taming the worst of the traction problem almost everyone is suffering here. The deletion of exhaust-blown diffusers is having more effect in the slow corners than fast, almost everyone visibly gripless here even before getting on the power. Fernando has to wait an age before he’s in the acceleration zone. Others less patient, like Jean-Eric Vergne, power slide out of there, all of that energy spent spinning the tyres uselessly when it could have been kept in the battery instead, ready to be unleashed later.

The Williams pair are suffering a particularly drastic lack of rear grip, though – Valtteri Bottas trying to use the entry oversteer to get him turned in quicker, but with a penalty to pay in how long the slide then lasts. He comes out of there like Roger Clark in a MkI Escort. But there’s a car that’s having little trouble here, which can take so late a turn-in it has its own bit of track specially reserved, that gets rotated so quickly and early into the turn that it’s pointed straight in a phase of the corner where others are still wrestling to get the lateral load off the tyres so they can accelerate. That car is the Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo is making a ‘V’ out of the turn where the others are creating a time-consuming ‘U’. Its traces paint a picture that should worry the rest. Maybe not today, nor even this weekend. But sometime, soon."