When Ferrari watched both Mercedes head out in Q1 on option tyres, it began to believe for the first time that it might be able to win this race. That choice of rubber confirmed Mercedes to be committing to the prime, the hard compound, as its favoured race tyre. It was slower, but more durable. Ferrari knew from Friday that it could look after the faster option – the medium compound – better than anyone and could comfortably accommodate it as its favoured race tyre.
The SF-15T wasn’t quite as quick as the Mercedes, but it could hold onto its performance for longer. If it could also use a faster tyre for more of the distance, then even its peak performance deficit could be reduced.
Further developments since Melbourne had endowed the Ferrari power unit with Mercedes-comparable grunt. It was flying down the straights, consistently the fastest in the straight-dominated sectors one and three. It was surrendering around 0.6sec of lap time to the Mercedes through the downforce-demanding sweeps of the middle sector, but its aero-efficiency was allowing it to make up around 0.4sec of that on the straights.
A lot of thought has gone into the cooling package of the SF-15T and Sepang was the defining constraint in the concept stage. Even in the intense equatorial heat, its bodywork needed virtually no downforce-damaging cooling holes. But then, neither did Mercedes’.
The crucial point was that the Ferrari was closer than ever to the Merc on pace, but with better tyre usage. If that latter asset could be converted to a strategy advantage then this was a winnable race. Ferrari reckoned if Mercedes was committing to the slower hard tyre it could only be because they could not keep the medium from overheating – and if you couldn’t do that in Sepang, then you couldn’t do the faster two-stop strategy and would be forced instead onto a three. Ferrari was fully confident it could make a two-stop work.
It all seemed too good to be true for Ferrari. But that’s exactly how it panned out. This was a tyre-limited race for Mercedes, not a car-limited one. For Ferrari that was not the case. Its tyre usage allowed it to maximise its potential. In a straight fight between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, Seb prevailed, winning second time out as a Scuderia driver.
With the usual technical boundaries re-drawn by the heat and by Ferrari’s recent development, the way this fascinating battle played out was thrilling. In fantastically stark contrast to the Melbourne race, this one featured wheel-to-wheel action through the field. Some way distant of Hamilton was team-mate Nico Rosberg, ahead of the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen, his weekend badly compromised by various Sauber-related incidents.
The lightning was already forking in the distance as Q1 began, a mad dash for the track, 19 drivers (Will Stevens’ Manor wasn’t running) getting their elbows out fighting for track space. Almost lost in the mad frenzy was Mercedes’ choice of options for both drivers, a move that had strategic implications for race day. Eliminated were Roberto Merhi’s Manor, the two McLaren-Hondas (Button out-qualifying Alonso after the latter had a wild moment through turn six) and the Sauber of Felipe Nasr who locked up into turn four on his final, crucial lap. He’d been struggling to catch up on missing Friday morning practice when his car had been handled by Ferrari Academy driver Raffaele Marciello.
A line of slick-shod cars at the end of the pitlane heralded the beginning of Q2, the rain still holding off but with the first thunderclap crashing through the hot, muggy air. There was enough time for one dry lap. Hamilton ended up only eighth, having almost got caught out by being stuck behind Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber, while Räikkönen did.
The reason was the same in both instances – the engines of both the Mercedes and the Ferrari were initially reluctant to fire up, meaning they were badly placed in the queue. Ericsson was giving no quarter to Kimi, as to allow him to pass would surely have denied him the chance of making Q3. As it was, Ericsson got through and Räikkönen did not.
Also out at this stage were: Maldonado’s Lotus, the Force Indias of Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez and the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz Jr who, in his own words, “made a rookie mistake into turn 14 and locked up,” as he found the rain. In the dry he’d been flying – fourth quickest in Q1. The rest of that session played out to the tropical storm with the cars nestled safely in their garages, plugged-in to their buzzing life support systems and blinking monitors. The storm passed before the daylight ran out, enabling Q3 to eventually get underway.
The trick was going to be getting onto fresh intermediates when the track was at its driest. But unusually it was not drying particularly quickly. Most went out onto inters immediately, set a banker time, then pitted for a second set. Hamilton attacked this first run sublimely, finding the grip and committing to it where others were tentative. “Actually there was a lot of grip, considering it was so wet,” said Rosberg, “but I didn’t do a good job of finding it.” Hamilton was 1.2sec faster than his second-quickest team-mate at this point. As the Merc drivers pitted for their fresh inters there was time enough for two flying laps. The game plan was to make the second of these the attack lap, as it was judged there’d be more time to be gained from the drier track than would be lost to the older rubber.
That was the backdrop to the territorial misunderstanding between Rosberg and Hamilton at turn seven. Rosberg was running ahead but sticking to the plan of conserving his tyres on the first lap, ready to attack on the second. Hamilton, however, had felt the grip and was attacking immediately. He’d just set the fastest first sector time as he caught his team-mate at an awkward place. Rosberg, clearly not expecting Hamilton to be attacking on this lap, did not move aside – but he did remain on the outside once it was apparent Hamilton was coming through. Thus delayed, Hamilton backed off for the rest of that lap in preparation for a final attack lap – though he’d taken the best from his tyres as a result and did not improve. It was this that allowed Vettel – on his final lap – to get within less than 0.1sec of Hamilton’s earlier benchmark. Ferrari thereby brought Mercedes’ nine-race long lock-out of the front row to an end, with Rosberg trailing back in third.
Everyone else was a long way off the lead trio’s pace, with Ricciardo’s Red Bull fourth 1.2sec off Rosberg. Daniel was in turn 0.4sec quicker than team-mate Kvyat who only just edged out the Toro Rosso of the impressive Verstappen, the 17-year-old composed and quick in very trying conditions. Williams, not for the first time, had difficulty in gauging the best tyre pressures for the wet conditions, leaving Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas a gripless seventh and ninth fastest, their rubber wildly overheating through the final sector. Romain Grosjean’s Lotus qualified between them but was penalised two grid places for queue jumping in the pitlane. Tenth fastest Ericsson would thus start ninth.
The tarmac was 60deg C by 3pm, race start; hot even by the tropical standards of Kuala Lumpur, making for maximum tyre stress, perhaps the highest they will see the whole season with the combination of fast, long corners and a surface hot enough to fry eggs upon. Any difference in tyre usage between cars would be exaggerated. And that was bad news for Mercedes, making it yet more certain it could not two-stop. Ferrari was able to commit to a two-stop, so easy was the car on the rubber. It was their preferred strategy and so long as the tyre deg pattern from previous running in the weekend held true, it would be the faster way to run the race.
The challenge for everyone with this combination of tyre on this track was getting both compounds to work; the hard has a much higher working temperature range than the medium. Get it to work and you tend to overheat the medium. Tune the set-up around the mediums and you tend to grain the hards. The Ferrari was by far the best at balancing this compromise.
All the top 10 had to start on the option (medium) tyre anyway but everyone else apart from the two McLarens chose to start on it too. To know if a two-stop was going to be feasible, you needed to know how long the more delicate medium could go – and the only way of knowing that was to start the race on it. If you started on the hard and committed to a two-stop strategy, the danger was you’d later find yourself on a medium unable to complete the distance and having to convert to a three-stop with skewed stint lengths. McLaren, with nothing to lose and no great expectation of finishing, did it for the sake of trying something different.
Hamilton took off into the lead, just like this was a normal Mercedes-dominated race. Immediately behind there was a re-run of last year as Rosberg got away faster than Vettel and made to pass him down the inside, with Seb then crowding him against the pitwall scarily close. Rosberg prevailed, but this time Seb hung on around the outside of the first corner, grinding ahead then cutting uncompromisingly across to the apex, forcing Rosberg to concede, Ferrari rear wheel giving the Merc a slight nudge as he did so.
Ricciardo blended in to turn one just behind Rosberg but lightly snagged his front wing as he did so, with Massa’s Williams next ahead of Kvyat’s Red Bull, the latter being pressured by Verstappen before Ericsson launched the Sauber inside of the Toro Rosso into turn four, forcing Max out wide over the rumble strips, the checked momentum allowing Hülkenberg’s Force India to pass, Hulk then going around Ericsson too through the fast five-six sequence, to go seventh.
This year’s VJM08 is not a quick car but Hulk’s racecraft made his a starring early lap cameo. Going in the other direction – from eighth on the grid to 14th at the end of the opening lap – was Bottas who was tentative into the jam of the first turn and got pushed out wide. He made contact with Maldonado, puncturing the Lotus’ rear tyre, and this further check on the Williams’ momentum put Valtteri in all the wrong places through the following sequence, losing him many places.
Verstappen was struggling with the balance of the Toro Rosso on these tyres and Grosjean’s Lotus powered past as they exited the final turn. Seventh to 10th in the space of a few corners, Verstappen’s race wasn’t getting off to the best of starts, though his day would improve.
Sainz, by contrast, had made a great opening lap from 15th and was now right behind a team-mate who’d stated nine places ahead of him. Carlos was fending off Räikkönen’s Ferrari which had, not for the first time, come out badly from the chaotic rush through the first couple of turns. He made a brave pass on Nasr around the outside of turn seven but as he fended off the Sauber through the turn 14 hairpin its front wing endplate sliced through the Ferrari’s left-rear tyre, which punctured, consigning Kimi to a long drive back to the pits for a replacement.
When the carcass blew it took out much of the Ferrari’s bodywork around the cut-out on the floor. “This is a very aerodynamically sensitive area,” explained Ferrari technical director James Allison, “and it lost him a lot of performance subsequently as it meant his tyre deg wasn’t as good as Sebastian’s.” Nasr too would be in the pits for a replacement wing.
Taking advantage of the Räikkönen/Nasr incident were Bottas, Alonso’s McLaren, Pérez’s Force India, Button’s McLaren and the sole Manor of Merhi, the sister car of Will Stevens unable to take the start because of a fuel system problem.
The first indication that this wasn’t just a normal Mercedes race came as Vettel’s Ferrari clung tight onto the back of Hamilton as they completed the opening lap. They were edging away from Rosberg, further confirmation that the SF-15T was giving Mercedes its first real competition for over a year.
Going into the third lap, with DRS now enabled, Ericsson was trying to make a pass on Hülkenberg into the first turn but arrived there way too fast, the Sauber spinning out and beaching itself in the gravel trap. As a tractor was sent out to retrieve it, so the safety car was scrambled. This was a crucial juncture of the race for it immediately split the field into those trying for a two-stop, who stayed out, and those settling for a three, who came in. The Mercs peeled in and switched to the hard tyre, Vettel stayed out – as did Hülkenberg, Grosjean, Sainz and Pérez who assumed the top five positions.
Hamilton, under instruction from the team, had backed off to 10sec slower even than the safety car delta time in order that he could then pull away from Rosberg and thereby create the buffer so as minimize the delay for the stacked second car. But things went badly for Rosberg regardless, as the heavy pitlane traffic delayed his release.
“Because the pitlane was so wide, we thought I could be released just alongside the others but they judged it to be too risky [for an unsafe release penalty]. There was a Red Bull [Kvyat] stacking behind the other Red Bull and that meant that I couldn’t go.” Ricciardo and Massa both exited before Rosberg could get away.
The safety car came at the end of the sixth lap and Vettel sprinted clear. Having the slower cars of Hülkenberg, Grosjean, Sainz and Pérez as buffers between him and Hamilton played perfectly into his hands. It took Hamilton four laps to fight his way past the minnows – by which time the Ferrari was almost 10sec clear.
Hülkenberg held off a great train of cars and in that pack there was lots of jostling, passing and re-passing at the end of each of the two long straights. In amongst it all Rosberg retook the place he’d lost to Massa in the pits. But getting through the rest of the snake was taking some time. Both Red Bulls were suffering with overheating brakes, great clouds of carbon dust ejected from the wheels every time Ricciardo and Kvyat stood on their left pedals. “The temperatures just got out of control in the traffic,” explained Christian Horner afterwards of the phenomenon of carbon oxydisation, “and our race became just about getting the brakes to last the distance, losing us any pace.”
Sainz – trying to wrest fourth place from Grosjean – locked up into the turn 14 hairpin at the end of the 11th lap, allowing Ricciardo to get a run on the Toro Rosso down the pit straight and into turn one. But it was all too much for Daniel’s brakes, the Red Bull sliding out of shape and only just staying on track – allowing Rosberg to pounce.
At the end of the lap Grosjean found he no longer had the tyre grip to fend off Rosberg into the turn 14 hairpin, the second Mercedes now up to fourth, and finally picking off Hülkenberg going into turn one to begin lap 14. That delay in the pits had snowballed into major time loss through the traffic for Rosberg and although he was now back up to third, he was 9sec behind Hamilton. Lewis meanwhile was chipping away into Vettel’s lead but the Ferrari was still a long way up the road.
The two-stoppers began coming in around this time: Pérez on lap 14, Hülkenberg and Grosjean a lap later. They and Sainz would sink to the anonymity of the midfield for now. Vettel stayed out front until the 17th lap, had another set of mediums fitted and got out a few seconds behind Rosberg. He was immediately lapping around 2.5sec faster than Hamilton in the lead, indicating just how quickly the tyres were degrading on the Mercs – and these were the hards.
Further back Räikkönen was making good progress. He’d been almost a lap behind when he’d pitted with his puncture but the safety car had wiped most of that, allowing him to steadily pick off the lower order runners. These included the two McLarens. Alonso had immediately passed Button, they’d each pitted at the safety car, with Alonso later rising as high as eighth as the two-stoppers pitted. At one point Button radioed in that he “seemed to be catching other cars” with an air of surprise – only to be told it was because of the slow pace of the snake behind Hülkenberg’s old-tyred Force India. Fernando got as far as lap 21 before he had to be retired because of an overheating ers unit. Jenson went another 20 laps further than that before his turbo finally failed.
The mix of strategies and varying rates of tyre degradation between cars made for lots of passing and re-passing. Tyre-smoking moves at the hairpin of 14 and retaliations into turn one were the order of the day as the race served up a great spectacle.
On the 21st lap Vettel lined up Rosberg’s Mercedes as they raced down the long back straight, activated his DRS and sliced inside as they hit the brakes for the hairpin. Hamilton was a further 7sec up the road, but on old tyres, lapping significantly slower than the Ferrari. On the 24th lap Vettel dived under Hamilton at the same place he’d done Rosberg, only for Lewis to then peel off into the pitlane to be fitted him with his only new set of medium tyres. He rejoined third with a tough task ahead of him. In the next 15 laps or so he needed to make up the 24sec by which he now trailed Vettel – as they would each be making one more stop, at about the same time.
For a time, as Hamilton reveled in the much better balance of the car on this tyre, it looked like he may be able to get somewhere close to achieving that. But it wasn’t long before the rear grip began to surrender again. “On the option tyre the car felt better,” said Lewis. “On the hard it had a lot of understeer in the low speed, which inevitably then snaps into oversteer everywhere so I couldn’t really look after them. I was doing all I could with my controls but there wasn’t really an answer. I was able to be a bit more consistent on the option.” But its softer compound meant it didn’t last as long… just underlining the tyre dilemma here, and how much better the Ferrari was resolving it. On peak pace the Mercedes remained faster. But not by enough to offset the Ferrari’s greater consistency.
Rosberg stopped two laps after Hamilton and was fitted with a set of primes. Comparing his pace in this stint to that of Hamilton on the options, his peak pace was only a couple of tenths slower and rear grip didn’t drop off until the 12th lap, whereas Hamilton’s softs surrendered after 10 laps – and much more suddenly. Whereas Rosberg’s primes lost 0.6sec for their last couple of laps, Hamilton’s lost 1sec for their last three. This illustrates that, much as Hamilton may have preferred the options, there really wasn’t a tyre strategy answer for Mercedes to combat Ferrari. Mercedes did not lose because of strategy errors, but only because of inferior tyre degradation in the extreme heat through the long, fast turns.
Everyone else was a long way behind the lead trio. Massa on his conventional three-stop strategy was not quite on course to stay ahead of Räikkönen’s two-stop. The performance gap between Mercedes and Williams was at its usual level – but Ferrari was clearly ahead, as illustrated by a delayed Räikkönen with a significantly damaged car being able to beat a fully healthy Massa. Bottas was making up time from his first lap delay, fighting past the brake-troubled Red Bulls and the feisty Toro Rosso pair, who had eased themselves clear of Hülkenberg’s slow Force India.
Sainz on his two-stop versus Verstappen on his three would prove to be a closely-matched contest that wouldn’t be resolved until the race’s late stages. But they were pulling away from the cars of the parent team. Ricciardo’s front wing damage was slowing him and he was instructed to allow Kvyat past. As they came upon Hülkenberg on lap 26, Kvyat went side-by-side with the Force India through turn one and, believing he’d made the move stick, went for the apex of the next part of the S-bend – only to find Hülkenberg had put his car there.
1 Mercedes 76
2 Ferrari 52
3 Williams 30
4 Sauber 14
5 Toro Rosso 12
6 Red Bull 11
7 Force India 7
The Red Bull reared into the air and lost a few places but was otherwise undamaged. Hülkenberg would be penalized 10sec for the incident at his next stop. Kvyat clawed his way back ahead of Pérez at turn one three laps later, with Grosjean in his wake but not quite making it past. After successfully passing Hülkenberg at the second time of asking, Kyvat finally took up his free pass of team-mate Ricciardo.
Grosjean should have been in the mix in the big gap between the Williams and Toro Rossos but he’d fallen foul of Pérez on lap 30. The most audacious overtaker on the grid on fresh tyres met the most obstructive defender on old rubber and the inevitable happened, Romain trying for a spectacular move around the outside of the sweeping downhill left hander, turn 12. He’d made it past, but Pérez wouldn’t recognize it, point-blank refusing to give the Lotus room. They touched and Grosjean spun wildly across the run-off area. Pérez thus became the second Force India driver to be given a 10sec penalty, to be taken at his pitstop.
Hamilton’s progress in reducing that gap to Vettel was beginning to flounder 10 laps into his stint. He’d got the 24s down to 10s within those laps, but now the grip was fading – while Vettel, on tyres seven laps older, was still going strong. The gap was now stabilized. Vettel came in for his second and final stop on lap 37, the Ferrari fitted with primes for the first time and getting out just ahead of Rosberg who showed no inclination to fight out the corner. Hamilton was in for his third and final stop a lap later and also fitted with primes. “These are the wrong tyres, man,” complained Hamilton over the radio upon realizing he’d not been fitted with another set of options. It was explained to him that there were no fresh options left. Besides, asking a used set to do the remaining 18 laps when his new ones had struggled to do 14 was just too risky.
Rosberg, having been on primes during this middle phase, was able to go to lap 41 before making his final stop and with just 15 laps to go and no threat from behind, was fitted with his fresh options. Combined with his now low fuel load, it allowed him to set the race’s fastest lap, but Hamilton remained out of reach.
A long way behind Rosberg, Räikkönen had staked a secure claim to fourth place while Massa was left trying to fend off a late attack from his team-mate. Valtteri had been delayed at his middle stop as the left-rear tyre was still in its blanket, but Massa suffered a greater delay at his final stop when the rear jack initially failed to disengage. Bottas went into that last stint 5sec behind his team-mate and began to chase him down. With three laps to go he arrived on Massa’s tail and there were no team orders.
They imitated Vettel/Webber 2013 as they rounded turn one side-by-side, even lightly touching. Felipe kept ahead – just. But Bottas was all over him as they flashed up the hill through the kink of three, darting about in his mirrors as they reached the braking zone of four. Massa got onto the exit kerbing and his resultant loss of traction gave Bottas the momentum as they charged towards the fast S-sweeps of 5-6. With not a moment’s hesitation Bottas went for the outside – and Massa was forced to concede fifth place.
The Toro Rosso in-team fight for seventh had been similarly close. After Sainz’s two-stop and Verstappen’s three had played out, Max was behind but on fresher tyres and chasing him down. On the approach to turn four Verstappen came from a long way back, braked super-late, seemed almost caught by surprise at how early Sainz had braked and jinked instantly for the inside. Allowing the Toro Rosso to slide into the apex, he controlled it all beautifully and the place was his. He is now the youngest-ever F1 points scorer. The lapped Red Bulls rounded out the top 10.
A few laps from the end, with Hamilton’s challenge contained, Vettel was beginning to recognize he was probably going to win this race. “I can’t describe the emotion of it. I was shitting myself the last couple of laps because here and there the thought was coming to my head, I was looking at the top of the chassis and thinking, “this is a red, you’re about to win [in a Ferrari] and then I thought, ‘OK, stop thinking that, otherwise you’ll miss the next apex or something’.”
But he didn’t miss any apexes, just kept on dancing the car through, comfortable in its balance in the way he rarely was in last year’s Red Bull. And on his second ever drive for the Scuderia, he triumphed. Mercedes had been soundly beaten, Hamilton 8.5sec behind at the end, Rosberg a further 4sec away. There were circumstances that played to Ferrari and against Mercedes, principally the extreme heat, but let no-one take it away from them: in these conditions, on this day, it was a better all-round car than the Mercedes, crucially kinder to its tyres and with an engine that now looks at least as strong.
It was a predictably emotional moment for the whole team, its first victory since Spain 2013. Technical director James Allison was a picture of elated joy. “It feels good to win in anything,” he beamed, “but there is something absolutely fantastic about winning with this team. Every team works hard but at Ferrari they work especially hard and also have the history and tradition of the team bearing down on their shoulders.
“Everywhere you go in the factory there is evidence of their massive success in the past and anyone who works there in a period when it is not successful is sort of cowed by that fact. They have that and then they have the weight of expectation of an entire nation on them and those pressures are something that they soak up. And then when those pressures are released by a day like this, boy does it feel good!”