Curly's Corner: A Nerd's Eye on Formula 1 – Malaysian Grand Prix
Round 14 Recap
Sorry to burst your bubble, but Singapore has already decided the 2017 F1 title. That’s a bold way to start off this shiny new column, but there it is, in writing, for all the internet to see. Lewis Hamilton has an immense lead in the 2017 Driver’s points, and short of a miracle, it’s going to be damn near impossible for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to catch. Ferrari is not a team who will throw in the towel: if Vettel goes on to win the final races of the year and steal the title back, it will be down to his and Ferrari’s pure grit and determination to not let Hamilton and Mercedes get away after what can only be described as a colossal screw-up. More likely though, Vettel’s starting line mistake at Singapore will have handed Hamilton a points lead that is impossible to make up.
Mark my words though: Singapore will be the race we look back on as the point the championship was won and lost.
In case you missed it, Singapore was the last track on the 2017 F1 calendar that truly favored Ferrari. Mercedes was so deficient that the best they could pull off in qualifying was 5th and 6th. Meanwhile, Vettel had snatched the pole and looked set to re-take the points lead by a margin that just might see him through to Abu Dhabi.
Then, it rained.
This should have set up an epic three way battle for the podium positions. Vettel, Hamilton, and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen are veritable wet-racing masters. Then, throw in the wild card of McLaren’s beleaguered Fernando Alonso starting in 8th and you have a recipe for the most exciting race of the year, bar none. Four wet-weather superstars all starting near each other on a difficult track should have made for the race of the century…that is until three of those drivers were taken out in the first corner. The fault lies squarely on Vettel: I personally find blocking, especially in braking zones, to be poor racecraft and something that should be outlawed in racing (another rant for another time). In Vettel’s case, he had no choice but to outwit Max Verstappen at the start. After Brazil 2016, the world knows Max is a force to be reckoned with in the wet, and Vettel could settle with nothing less than a win in Singapore to get maximum advantage over Hamilton. Letting Verstappen through on a track like Marina Bay would be unacceptable. Unfortunately, Vettel’s impatience was also his undoing. There’s an old saying in racing that you can never win a race on the first lap, but you can lose it. Vettel learned that the hard way. Not only did he take himself out of the race, but he took out three other drivers who could have minimised his points loss to his title rival.
At the end of the day, Ferrari’s Singapore GP was a total nightmare. How big of a nightmare? Well in order to guarantee Vettel winning the championship, he must win 5 of the last 6 races of the year. Assuming Hamilton finishes 2nd for all of those races, and the pair swap 1-2 in the 6th race, they end tying for the championship at 378 points (Vettel beats Hamilton with 9 wins to Hamilton’s 8). Now, the astute among you may be saying, “A-ha! What if Hamilton has a crash, or blows an engine? That puts Vettel right back into the hunt!” Don't bet on it. Of the 23 drivers who have started a Grand Prix this year, only one has completed every single lap. That driver is Hamilton, and to top it off, he has yet to finish outside the points this year. Hamilton is on a streak of consistency that would make a metronome blush. Not only must Ferrari put together a plan to beat Mercedes every single weekend, but they must do so on tracks that favor Mercedes’s W08. It can be argued that there are sections of Circuit of the Americas, Suzuka, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi that favor Ferrari, but the majority of each of those tracks require low drag, but high grip: the W08’s forte. Mexico is the only track left that really leans towards Ferrari’s strengths with its plethora of slow speed corners. But even then, Hamilton has been a qualifying king this year, and if he nips Vettel to pole, he is going to be quick enough to be impassible. Does Ferrari have the tools necessary to beat Mercedes 5-1? I don’t really think so. But this is F1, and anything can and will happen.
Almost forgotten in the chaos of the racing were the HUGE announcements made as the weekend started. McLaren has finally broken ties with Honda and will be powered by Renault in 2018. In order to secure that Renault contract, Scuderia Torro Rosso (STR) has agreed to take on Honda engines for 2018, thus freeing up a supply of Renault engines for McLaren to use. After years of being dragged through the mud by Red Bull Racing (RBR), Renault exacted their revenge on the Red Bull family. In order to break the contract, Renault would require Daniel Ricciardo to drive for Renault in 2018. After what I assume was a good laugh, RBR offered Carlos Sainz Jr instead. Renault accepted Sainz, but then dropped another bombshell: they would choose not to renew their engine deal with Red Bull Racing for 2019 and beyond. Will RBR be able to mend the bridge with Renault in time to secure a new engine deal? Will RBR be forced to use Honda engines (presumably as the official factory team, though the recent announcement that Aston Martin is to become the title sponsor of RBR- throws a wrench into that idea)? Will RBR simply take a sabbatical for 2019 and 20 (selling their F1 entry to another team) and return for the next set of regulations in 2021? Honestly, at this point, any option is on the table. It’s way too early to tell what the plans in Milton Keynes are, but come next year, the two big stories will be centered around Red Bull Racing. Both what engine powers the RB15 and which two drivers are piloting those cars. Both Verstappen and Ricciardo are out of contract after 2018, and both are highly sought after. Which loops us back to RBR leaving the sport: if the prospect is losing both of their star drivers and power coming from an unreliable, underpowered Honda engine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a For Sale sign outside the RBR factory.
But, that is a year away. Let’s get back to the now! Heading into the Malaysian GP, the big news is who is driving in the second STR. Daniil Kvyat has been put on blinker fluid duty so Red Bull can test their latest junior driver Pierre Gasly. Gasly is the 2016 Formula 2 champion and is currently in a near dead heat for the Japanese Super Formula championship. With Sainz headed to at least a year with Renault, Gasly becomes the next driver in line for a Red Bull sponsored F1 seat. Putting him in an STR now allows Red Bull to decide if he is ready for that full-time seat in 2018.
This sets up four possible scenarios for 2018, and in order from most to least likely:
1) Gasly performs well enough, scoring a point or two, and keeping his nose clean. He earns an STR seat for 2018 and is partnered with Kvyat.
2) Gasly makes mistakes, is slow, or is both. Red Bull decides he needs some more time in the junior ranks, and STR is forced to hire an outside driver to fill the lineup.
3) Gasly STUNS, beats Sainz in every session and finishes just behind the Ferraris/Red Bulls/ Mercedes. Honda also shows massive improvement, and STR is forced to up their game. Kvyat is fired permanently, and STR hires an outside driver to push their team into a regular podium contender (Felipe Massa maybe? Or perhaps they pay an arm and a leg to Renault for Robert Kubica to make a return- no pun intended, I swear!).
4) Gasly is not ready for F1, the fallout with Kvyat is irreparable, and STR is forced to hire in a pair of outside drivers to make the 2018 grid.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Fernando Alonso ends up in a Honda powered STR in 2018.
One last note before we dive into the race weekend. 2017 will be the final year of the Malaysian Grand Prix. F1 and the track owners could not agree on a new contract, and so for 2018 the event will be dropped. While the Russian GP will fill Malaysia’s calendar slot, losing Malaysia allows for the return of both the French and German GPs, so for F1 this will be an overall win, though it is at the expense of one of the better tracks on the schedule.