By Lee McKenzie
I bet you never thought you’d look forward to seeing the pointing, celebratory finger of Sebastian Vettel after four years of consecutive world titles. But who wasn’t delighted to see the Mercedes deadlock broken? No matter if you’re a Red Bull or Mercedes fan, domination’s not as much fun to watch as an all-out battle.
The winter brings anticipation and excitement about the forthcoming season, but in Australia we were left wanting and needing more from the sport. In Malaysia, Formula 1 delivered.
The Thursday of a Grand Prix is the day where every driver does their main interviews for the weekend ahead. It’s really the only chance to spend any meaningful time – and by that I mean 10 minutes max – with the drivers to get the content that makes up the features for both TV and written media. If you know the drivers then of course you can chat to them and catch up anytime but in terms of content for broadcast, Thursday’s the day.
The FIA press conference happens every Thursday for drivers and on Friday for team bosses and can vary from dirge to dynamite. Thursday in Malaysia was certainly more explosive thanks to the return of Fernando Alonso. It was the first we’d heard from the double world champion since his pre-season testing crash. McLaren had said there was no car fault and that the car could have been blown off track by a gust of wind. Within minutes of being back, Alonso had dismissed the theories of his team, putting them in an awkward situation.
Alonso, who surprised many by returning to McLaren after a very public divorce after just one year in 2007, cited a steering issue, adding that “not even a hurricane could move these cars”. He also said he had not been unconscious but was sedated to be moved to hospital, another contradictory statement. Maybe the truth is out there; what’s not obvious is which version it is and maybe we’ll simply never know. What we do know is that Alonso is back and looking racy on track, even with that struggling McLaren.
During the race he put in one of his trademark starts, making up three places by turn two. He had been running as high as eighth, his lap times were strong and he had points on his mind before he was forced to retire with an ailing car. I spoke to him while the race was still going on and he was happy, positive and loved being back on track. That joy must have been quashed as he watched a resurgent Ferrari take its first victory since he won the Spanish Grand Prix back in 2013.
There is nothing to say that, had Alonso been in Vettel’s car, the Spaniard would have won the race, but Ferrari this year are in a different league to last season. I would love Fernando to have a car worthy of his talents, but I fear that this could’ve been one of the most mistimed moves in F1.
On the Thursday I also had a nice interview with Sebastian Vettel. It was definitely the most relaxed that I had seen him for a long time. He admitted that often last season he was not happy with his own performance and that was very difficult for him to accept. There were nerves about the move, having never switched away from the Red Bull stable before, but just like Lewis from McLaren to Mercedes, he took the risk and it looks to be working both off and on track.
The four-time World Champion described getting that podium for Ferrari on his debut as “a relief”. No wonder he was so emotional after the victory on Sunday. Yes, it was the perfect start for the Ferrari/Vettel relationship but personally for him it proved he was more than a Red Bull wonder kid – don’t forget it had been over a year since he last won a Grand Prix. That’s a long time for someone who was making headlines for total domination of the sport.
The other star performer was Max Verstappen. After that stormy session on Saturday which saw Q3 delayed for a deluge of rain, the 17-year-old went out and put his Toro Rosso into sixth. I asked him how he could understand a circuit that he’d never driven at, in conditions that he had never driven a Formula 1 car in. In his mature but relaxed way he simply answered: “Homework. I studied a lot of the racing lines in the wet that we saw in previous years.”
He’s young enough to be at school so homework doesn’t faze him, but being an F1 driver is now his job and being the best at his job is his aim. It might be his youth but there is no fanfare with him, just method. He turns up with his father Jos, does the job and goes home to study and prepare for the next one.
Toro Rosso is Red Bull’s junior team, running on half the budget, so to see the car pass Ricciardo, a great overtaker himself, was very impressive. What the Faenza factory has produced is without doubt a strong car, but Verstappen is the real deal.
Thank goodness we had a decent race and that we have been given a glimpse of a challenge to Mercedes. Next up is China, a totally different proposition. Temperatures are much lower so it will be interesting to see if the Ferrari is able to carry on that challenge at the cooler races. Nico Rosberg said after Australia that he wanted Ferrari to improve and challenge Mercedes; I’m sure he didn’t think it would happen so quickly.