Robert Kubica's 'final F1 fling' was a reminder of his robbed potential
Might two brief cameo appearances at back-to-back weekends be Robert Kubica's final F1 hurrah?
Mark Hughes’s take on the dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix that saw Ricciardo score an overdue victory – and Mercedes run out of luck
Daniel Ricciardo clowned, gurned and grinned, played to the crowd, drank his champagne from his boot – made everyone else up there with him do the same. And the whole place shared his delight. It had been a great race, with twists and turns, drama, classic wheel-to-wheel action that had decided the race and tense strategy battles that threatened to do the same. “Wow Daniel,” said Mark Webber of Malaysia Multi 21 fame, by poetic co-incidence the podium host, “I thought it was going to be ‘Multi 33’ there,” a reference to the see-sawing battle between Ricciardo and Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, who had to settle for second. Their turns 4-5-6-7 dice turned out to be for the win when Lewis Hamilton’s race-leading Mercedes blew its engine just moments later. “It went the other way in Monaco,” said Ricciardo about his stolen victory over Hamilton there, “so I’ll take this today. No hard feelings to Lewis, but I’ll definitely take it. It’s been an emotional two years since my last win.”
A race like that, well it brings out the emotions. In everyone, especially the participants for whom this is their world and for whom the stakes are high – but also the fans. So Hamilton’s Mercedes engine blowing as he was flat-out in the process of building up a pit stop’s worth of margin over the strategically advantaged Verstappen, thereby throwing a heavy anchor out on his voyage to a third world championship was very emotional – for Mercedes and, especially, for him. Then, with microphones thrust in front of him, adrenaline still coursing, heart at his heaviest, he said some things potentially embarrassing for his team but which he undoubtedly truly felt in that moment. It was raw, honest and his misgivings had a certain logic too. “Something doesn’t feel right. I just can’t believe that there’s eight Mercedes [engined cars] and only mine are the ones that have gone this way. Something just doesn’t feel right. It was a brand new engine. It’s just odd. There’s been like 43 engines for Mercedes [this year] and only mine have gone.”
He’s 23 points down on Rosberg with five races to go and regardless of whether those words were paranoid or ungracious, they were heartfelt. And, as we outlined here in the Hamilton/Rosberg car set-up piece a few days ago, Hamilton is endowed with plenty of competitive paranoia. Later, upon cooler reflection and after an extensive conversation with Toto Wolff, Hamilton’s position was somewhat tamer, if every bit as despondent. No the ‘someone or something’ that ‘doesn’t want me to win’ was a reference to a higher power, he said, not Mercedes.
“It’s like he’s thrown red six times in a row at the casino,” sympathised Wolff. “Every remark he made is allowed after such a frustrating moment. But there is no pattern in the failures. We have forensically looked at the others and will do with this one. But some have been a problem in the supply chain, some material, assembly, design, failures before the mileage limit.”
There was emotion too from Nico Rosberg and Verstappen about the optimistic move of Sebastian Vettel into the first turn that spun Rosberg to the back and lost Verstappen positions and crucial delay to Ricciardo. That Vettel’s Ferrari didn’t survive the incident was scant consolation to Rosberg: “I was assaulted by a four-time world champion, out of control.” Rosberg drove a hard recovery race to third, hitting Kimi Räikkönen a hard glancing blow along the way, for which he received a 10-second penalty. For his ‘crime’ Vettel was awarded a three place grid drop in Japan.
The changes to the Sepang circuit seemed innocuous enough – a re-surfacing, slight changes to the camber of the track in turns two, five, nine and 15 (a full metre higher on the inside, giving an adverse camber, done to improve drainage). But the effect was enormous. Taking out improvement of the cars, it seems the track was three to four seconds faster than before. It had also completely changed the way the tyres were working, it no longer being completely dominated by rear thermal degradation, but quite evenly balanced between that and front wear as the greater grip allowed the front end of the car to get more of a bite into the many fast flowing turns.
This boost in mechanical – as opposed to aerodynamic – grip seemed to help Red Bull and Ferrari relative to Mercedes and there was generally a smaller gap between them, leaving Mercedes relying on its usual qualifying engine map power boost to keep them at the front. They duly locked out the front row – Hamilton with a substantial margin over Rosberg this weekend – but the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo were less than two hundredths from splitting the silver cars.
Away from the bumpy braking zones of Singapore and onto the high speed momentum of Sepang, Hamilton always appeared to have a big margin over his team-mate, most of it coming through the high speed corners of the middle sector. He eventually took pole by a 0.4s margin, though both Mercedes drivers made errors on their second Q3 runs and failed to improve, Rosberg spinning at the last corner, Hamilton locking up into turn one.
Throughout the practices Verstappen was much more comfortably attuned to the Red Bull than was Ricciardo. Changes made to the set up since his difficulties in Singapore seemed to have given Max the front-end response he was chasing and he was flying. Ricciardo was a big chunk away through all of Friday and only a rethink overnight brought him into the ballpark. His final Q3 lap got him to within less than half-a-tenth of his team-mate which was an impressive comeback response from where he’d been. “I pushed quite a bit in the first two sectors; I think I got more out of the tyres compared to the last sector where I struggled for traction and lost a little bit of time. From where we were yesterday I’m pretty happy.”
Vettel was disappointed that the Ferrari – featuring further aerodynamic upgrades here – just didn’t quite have the one lap pace of Red Bull even though there was little to choose between the top three teams on the race simulation runs. Most of the deficit to Red Bull came in the most aerodynamically demanding middle sector and it only partly made up for that with better straightline performance in sectors one and three. Seb lined up fifth, one ahead of team-mate Räikkönen who had looked to have had an edge on Vettel right up until the final Q3 runs when he was caught out by his place in traffic on the out-lap, meaning his tyres weren’t up to temperature (even on a track of 40-deg C), causing him to run wide in the first couple of corners and subsequently abandon the lap.
Continuing the Noah’s Ark theme, the fourth row comprised the Force India team, Sergio Pérez 0.15s ahead of Nico Hülkenberg. Pérez was satisfied he’d got absolutely everything from the car on his final lap while Hülkenberg felt a loss of grip as the track cooled a couple of degrees in Q3.
Only the Force India’s Mercedes engine modes kept them ahead of Jenson Button’s McLaren-Honda, JB very pleased with the car’s performance around here, once he’d fine honed a better balance from it than he’d found on Friday. Fernando Alonso was taking a meaningless multiple number of grid penalties for the stockpiling introduction of new engines and associated components into his allocation for the season, much as Hamilton had done at Spa. This included a new, more powerful, spec of internal combustion engine which was run through Friday in preparation for its competition debut in Suzuka. Given that he’d be starting at the back regardless, there was no attempt made at setting a representative qualifying lap, thereby saving fresh tyres for the race.
Felipe Massa was a disappointed 10th for Williams. Had he repeated his Q2 time he’d have been eighth, splitting the Force Indias. The cooling of the track seemed to have affected him adversely. Team-mate Valtteri Bottas could get no response from the front end of the car and understeer bled off his momentum particularly through the flows of turns 6-7-8. In addition, he was already into the lap by the time he remembered to switch the engine into qualifying mode – and that accounted for the difference between getting into Q3 and not. It all left him back in 11th.
There was a chunky half-second gap between Bottas and the 12th and 13th fastest Haas team, Romain Grosjean marginally faster than Esteban Gutiérrez. Grosjean was perplexed why the car needed such a radical set up change to get an adequate chassis balance into Saturday and had a somewhat fraught time getting out of Q1 after delays with first a snapped wing mirror and subsequently a stuck wheel nut. Gutiérrez had been set for a time faster than Grosjean’s before running wide onto the kerbs at turn 14.
As is often the case when the corners are long enough to work decent heat into its front tyres, the Renault looked more respectable and Kevin Magnussen was actually disappointed only to make 14th. “I felt so close to Q3 that I couldn’t resist giving it everything I’d got on my final run; I locked up in turn one and lost the lap.” The team reckoned that P12 would have been possible. Jolyon Palmer in the other car was deeply disappointed with his Q1 lap that left him failing to graduate from there, only 19th overall. “I made the wrong call on set-up between my runs and the lap just didn’t come together.”
At a track with so much more full throttle running than Singapore, the Toro Rossos fell a spectacular nine places backwards – with Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz in 15th and 16th. “Our top speed deficit has proven again to be a big penalty with a very big loss on the long straights here,” commented chief race engineer Phil Charles. Kvyat could at least take solace from out-qualifying Sainz for just the second time this season.
The Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr out-qualified Palmer, the Manors of Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein plus Alonso’s McLaren but didn’t make it out of Q1. Wehrlein had suffered a problematic preparation to qualifying, having not been able to run more than a couple of laps in that morning’s practice because of electrical problems.
The field – minus the Williams of Massa which was stuck in tickover mode on the dummy grid and pushed to the pitlane – were held a long time and there was almost a start abort as Sainz’s engine had cut out. Under instruction from the team, he restarted it using the ers-K – a handy feature of the 2015 Ferrari engine not shared by any other – and eventually the gantry lights came on. As they went out Hamilton and Rosberg took off line astern just ahead of a ducking, diving battle into the first corner as Verstappen braked late, the Red Bull twitching but Vettel braking even later down the inside, having his own moment. Had Rosberg ahead not taken up his normal line and gone instead around the outside, all would probably have been OK; Vettel would probably have run out wide and the dice with Verstappen would’ve continued down the short hill to turn two. But Rosberg instead, minding his own business, turned in at the normal place and was hit hard by the Ferrari’s left-front, spinning the Mercedes to the back of the pack, Nico restarting in a furious cloud of tyre smoke but relieved to find the car seemed to be undamaged apart from a steering offset. That was more than could be said for Vettel’s car, Seb pulling off on the exit of two with the left-front wheel bent backwards and up. It’s the fourth first lap incident in which he’s been involved this year. It’s probably pertinent that the Ferrari has the best braking of any car in the field – and the early moments therefore represent Vettel’s best chance of making up places from its less than stellar grid positions.
Further back, there was a second wave incident as Gutiérrez squeezed Magnussen against the inside kerb – and Kyvat hit the back of the Renault. This punctured the Haas’ left-rear tyre and sent the Renault and Toro Rosso to the pits for new noses (Magnussen retiring soon afterwards as a damaged brake cooling drum overheated his brakes). The virtual safety car was applied and the pack filed round in the order of Hamilton, Ricciardo, Pérez, Button, Räikkönen, the delayed Verstappen, Hülkenberg, Bottas (on the medium tyre rather than the soft of those around him) and Grosjean. The midfield had been disturbed picking its way through the carnage, allowing Ocon’s fast-starting Manor a route through to 10th ahead of Sainz and for Alonso to have somehow shimmied his way to 12th from the back row, his instincts, as ever, uncanny as he took the wide outside line past the traffic jam on the inside, then jinked through the Vettel mess. Rosberg was a solid last of those who’d not pitted.
As the VSC was released Hamilton sprinted off but with Ricciardo hanging on. Räikkönen and Verstappen instantly out-dragged Button with the Red Bull using the tow to go by the Ferrari too, Max then putting a pass on Pérez just for good measure – three passes in the space of the first few corners! Räikkönen went forcefully by Pérez through turns one-two to begin lap four.
Ricciardo had got himself within DRS range of Hamilton by this time but that was just Lewis giving the tyres an easy time when on full tanks. Thereafter he eased steadily out of the Red Bull’s reach. After quickly picking off Ocon and Sainz, Alonso attacked Grosjean who put up a sterner defence but ultimately couldn’t hold back the charging McLaren. Rosberg meantime was picking off the minnows and up with Sainz by the ninth lap when the whole complexion of the race changed thanks to a brake-by-wire failure on Grosjean’s car as he approached turn 15, the final hairpin.
With front brakes only, the Haas twitched menacingly as Romain tried to get it slowed. To avoid hitting Alonso he went straight on, and into the gravel trap. It’s the second successive race in which the car has suffered a failure of its brake-by-wire system and the team – which thought it had identified the Singapore problem – was still investigating the cause at the time of writing.
Out came the VSC again, late enough into the first pit stop window to force some strategy calls to be made. For those who’d started on the medium or the hard – notably Bottas, Nasr and Palmer – there was no choice but to stay out. But most of the field was on the soft and there was possible opportunity there. Most had gone into the race planning around a two-stop, using the soft for the first 15-20 laps and the compulsory hard in one of the subsequent two stints. But an early stop now would not only minimise time and position loss to a field slowed to VSC speeds but also get you out of phase with the cars around you, allowing you to try to make up track position on them as they made their conventional later stops. There could be a net benefit to be had there. Red Bull decided to go for it with Verstappen, to put Hamilton under pressure, while staying with Plan A for Ricciardo. It was effectively a two-pronged Red Bull pincer attack on Hamilton.
What it did was force Mercedes into fighting on two fronts with one car. Once Verstappen pitted and rejoined, having dropped just one position (to Räikkönen), he was much less than a conventional pit-stop’s worth of time behind but on fresh (soft) tyres. With the field at VSC speeds as Verstappen had stopped, he’d lost around 11 fewer seconds to the lead than a conventional stop would have cost – meaning Hamilton did not have a pit stop’s worth of time over him. That would carry even past Hamilton’s first stop and Verstappen’s second – and was possibly a contributory cause to Hamilton’s later engine failure as he sought to pull out the gap needed to make his second stop without losing a place to Verstappen.
Ricciardo would stay out on a Hamilton-matching conventional strategy. Others to come in under the VSC were Pérez, Button, Hülkenberg, Alonso and Rosberg, all fitted with medium or hards for a long middle stint to buy and attempt to retain them track position. As they prepared to race again, lined up behind Hamilton and Ricciardo were: Räikkönen, Verstappen, Bottas (on his mediums planning to run a long time before making just one stop) and then a trio of unpitted slower cars – Sainz, Ocon and Ericsson – who’d soon be devoured out of the points positions. The pitted Pérez was ninth from Palmer (on a Bottas-like one-stop), Button, Hülkenberg, the recovering Rosberg, Alonso and the rest.
So the reshaped race got underway, the out-of-position faster cars made their way through the unpitted ones, Rosberg quickly going by Hülkenberg, Button and Pérez in the process and soon closing down on Bottas. Meanwhile Verstappen on his newer tyres was lapping around 0.5s faster than the leader Hamilton and quickly catching Räikkönen in third.
Hamilton, with a 5.6s margin over Ricciardo, pitted from the lead on the 20th lap and was fitted with a set of brand new hard tyres. Räikkönen followed him in, just as Verstappen was lining up to pass him into turn 15 and the Ferrari was also fitted with the compulsory hard tyre. Ricciardo followed for his hards a lap later – putting Verstappen into an 8s lead over Hamilton. Max came in for his on lap 27 and rejoined third, 16.5s down on Hamilton but with no further stops to make. With a pit stop costing around 23-seconds, Mercedes could either gamble that Hamilton could get this set of tyres to the end or – the strategically safer option – use the car’s performance to extend that 16.5s gap to at least 23s, then make a second stop, getting onto fresh tyres without losing a place.
If they’d decided not to stop again, the danger was he might be a sitting duck at the end to a fresh-tyred two-stopping Verstappen or Ricciardo. But if Hamilton couldn’t pull out that gap, Mercedes couldn’t risk bringing him in again and Red Bull’s trap would be set. Confident of their pace advantage, Mercedes would two-stop him, guide him into building the required gap over Verstappen (and Ricciardo, just in case Daniel didn’t stop again). In the laps between Hamilton’s stop and Verstappen’s, Lewis had given his new tyres an easy time in preparation for the sprint laps once Max had pitted out the way. He then stepped up the pace by up to a second, about 0.5s faster than anything Red Bull could do. “We didn’t give him a more aggressive engine strategy,” emphasised Toto Wolff, “but just got him to do a pace that would build the gap.”
That looked to be how it was going to play out, Hamilton pushed by Red Bull into the more aggressive strategy but having the pace to pull it off. Now Red Bull had a dilemma of its own to solve. As things stood, Ricciardo provisionally would have to make a second stop, his tyres six laps older than Verstappen’s, whereas Max, having already made a second stop, could probably run through to the end. It looked like that earlier VSC gamble was going to play into Max’s favour over Daniel. But Ricciardo has a knack with these Pirellis, can tease stint lengths from them without slowing as much as the others, fantastically well-attuned to their messages and co-ordinating his throttle and steering inputs accordingly. He was asked if he thought he could get this set to last until the end (surely his only hope now of staying ahead of the closing and fresher-tyred Verstappen). Yes, he replied, he thought he probably could.
Red Bull could have called it, insisted they remained on different strategies. But that’s what they’d done to Ricciardo in Barcelona – and it had cost him the race to Verstappen. This time Christian Horner gave them the all-clear to race. No Multi 21s (or 3-33s, as it would have been in this case)? “No, different drivers, different characters,” replied Horner. “I trusted that they would race fairly and with respect – and they did.”
As Verstappen had caught up with Ricciardo, he had assumed Daniel would be stopping again and was now therefore about to delay his efforts at keeping Hamilton from building that 23s gap. They would surely ask Ricciardo to move over? “He’s beginning to cost me time now, you need to make a decision,” he advised on the radio. Only then was he informed they were racing for position. This reply did not go out over the airwaves as it would have unfairly informed Mercedes. By this time Hamilton already had his 23s gap over Verstappen. Mercedes was leaving him out there just to ensure he also covered Ricciardo. Informed he was racing his team-mate, Verstappen launched himself onto Ricciardo up to turn four on the 40th lap. “I could see him coming,” related Ricciardo, “and I went for the inside but I knew he’d probably switch back and get a good exit for five. I had a bit of wheelspin and I thought for sure then he was probably going to get me – but I had just enough drive to stay on the inside. So that meant he had the inside for six but I just hung on around the outside there. Fortunately there weren’t too many marbles there so it was possible. Then into seven we basically tried to out-brake each other and I was able to go just that bit deeper on the cleaner side.”
“Yeah, I had to back out if it at seven,” related Verstappen, “because basically I would have been risking us both not finishing.”
“You’re in the heat of battle, you’re seeing red but at the same time you’ve got to smile,” said Ricciardo.
Seeing them race at such close quarters, wheel-to-wheel through fourth, fifth and sixth gear corners, total trust in each other, was the raw essence of racing emerging from the gloss and complexities – and it turned out to be the crucial race-deciding few corners. Because a few seconds later Hamilton’s engine blew in a big way, smoke followed by flames at the end of the pit straight. He was already on the radio at the time, calling for blue flags and so his anguish was heard by the world. He pulled the Mercedes off at turn one. “No warning. Nothing. Just the bang,” he said later. A tractor would be needed to clear it. Another VSC.
So in two ways Hamilton’s demise changed the race. Because the frozen gaps resulting from the VSC allowed many – including the two Red Bulls – to have a free tyre stop without losing position. Ricciardo and Verstappen were both on softs for the final sprint to the end, Ricciardo’s a brand new set, Verstappen’s a set that had just an installation lap in Q1. What it also did was allow Pérez, Alonso and Hülkenberg in sixth, seventh and eighth free third stops – losing Button, who had just made his second stop, places to the latter two. “They got 15-seconds on me for free,” rued Jenson.
Fourth-placed Räikkönen was another who’d made a free stop – for a set of softs with which to attack Rosberg. Mercedes responded by bringing Rosberg in next lap (still under VSC and so therefore not exposed to the undercut) for his own set of softs. Just a couple of laps before Hamilton’s engine blew Rosberg had passed Räikkönen in turn two in physical fashion – actually going down a gear and accelerating into the side of the Ferrari, right-hand wheels hard against sidepod. It was tough and uncompromising. Was it beyond that? The race stewards decided it was and imposed a 10-second time penalty. Räikkönen’s task in the remaining post-VSC laps therefore became to keep that gap at less than 10-seconds but his floor had been damaged from the hit, costing 10 points of downforce the Ferrari could ill-afford. It was close though. At one point Rosberg demanded the ‘strategy 3’ engine setting and was initially declined, given what had happened to Hamilton’s engine. He was allowed it for two laps, just enough to pull out the margin required.
The final sprint and Verstappen gave chase to his team-mate, getting the initial 3.8s gap down to 2.1, 2.0s and 1.7s on successive laps. A few laps to give the tyres a breather and then, with just nine laps to go, the second wind of the attack until the gap was down to just 1.1s by the 49th lap. If he could just get to within DRS range… Instead, coming into turn 15 he locked up the hard-worked fronts slightly, then coming out, lit up the rears in wheelspin. That was all it took. The tyres had no more to give now. Ricciardo was home free. Verstappen was an accepting second, Rosberg a fighting third, Räikkönen a hacked off fourth. Bottas in fifth did a superb job to make his one-stop work, defeating Pérez. Alonso’s seventh was a fantastic result from the back of the grid in a McLaren, though both he and Hülkenberg were lucky to have stolen places from Button. Palmer did a faultless one-stopping job in the Renault to take his first championship point.
The tomfoolery on the podium, the big stupid grin – all of it very Daniel. Just as was the superbly judged race that comprised tyre nursing, full attack and raw gloves-off wheel-to-wheel dicing. He’d been nowhere on Friday, miles away from Verstappen’s pace. Impressively he’d turned it around, using a more Verstappen-like set up to obliterate the gap, so that it all then came down to the fight – and how the various curve balls played out. That too was very Ricciardo. As were his comments after all the ballyhoo had died down. “It’s been a long two years since my last win,” he said, “and a lot has happened since then. Losing Jules [Bianchi] had a big effect on me and has changed me as a person. In a positive way, I think. I would like to have been able to dedicate a win to him earlier but I’ll do it now anyway.”
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