Free Practice 1 (FP1) was nearly a washout. The session got started after a 20 minute delay due to rain. With conditions so treacherous, most cars stayed safely in the garages, only venturing out for a handful of laps to gather data on rain and intermediate tires (this being Malaysia in the rainy season, there is always a high chance of rain during the GP). But the tone for the weekend was still set early: The Red Bull Racing duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo topped the timesheets, with the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen behind. The big surprise was Fernando Alonso who was actually 3rd! But with nobody pushing especially hard, these times were not at all respective of the true pace of the cars. Still, the fact that both RBRs were well clear of Ferrari and Mercedes was something the teams were keeping in the back of their minds…
FP2 was rain free, but the green track meant quickly changing conditions for all the teams and drivers to cope with. With the first session a bust, focus was on landing a good setup for race day, though few teams made it through a full stint. With the session mostly over, Romain Grosjean hit an errant drain cover, destroying his right rear tire and sending him spinning into the Turn 13 wall. The Frenchman was unhurt, but the session was abandoned while the FIA inspected the track. The grate had been welded in place and the welds had failed, allowing the cars to suck it out of position. Fortunately, nobody was hurt (though Felipe Massa said he had flashbacks of his nearly fatal 2009 incident in Hungary, as he was the driver immediately following Grosjean). On the dry track, Vettel topped the leaderboards with his teammate just behind. The two Red Bulls were third and fourth, with Alonso another surprising 5th. Hamilton was relegated to 6th, quite a surprise when the Mercedes cars were favored to be the top two heading into the weekend.
FP3 once again showed the two Fezzas at the top of the leaderboards, this time with Raikkonen at the top. But, all was not well. With Vettel heading out for a final flying lap, the team spotted an issue and told him to abort the lap and crawl back to the pits. With only a few hours before qualifying, the Ferrari mechanics began the mad dash to change Vettel’s engine. Ricciardo would finish the session third, with Hamilton down in 5th, still struggling to find a balance. Mercedes had brought a new upgrade package to Malaysia, and Hamilton decided to abandon it overnight in hopes of finding more speed for qualifying and the race However, all eyes were on the scarlet colored pits as all hands on deck worked to repair Vettel’s stricken S70H.
Somehow, Ferrari pulled off a miracle and got a brand new 062 engine fitted and fired up in time to qualify! But on his first lap on track, Vettel reported major problems, saying it felt like he had no turbo. Ferrari would be unable to repair the car before the 20 minute session expired. Vettel, the driver most in need of a perfect weekend, would start dead last. That alone would have been crushing enough for Ferrari, but to cap off an already awful afternoon, Hamilton found the pace he had been lacking and landed on the pole. Small condolence then that Raikkonen was able to land on the front row as well. The rest of the field was not very surprising, save for an impressive Q3 run by Stoffel Vandoorne that saw him qualify 7th, ahead of his double world champion teammate.
With qualifying a bust, Ferrari decided to make the most of a bad situation and completely replace every major component of Vettel’s power unit. A brand new engine, hybrid systems, and a new turbocharger were all swapped in overnight. Considering Vettel was already going to start from the back, this was an incredibly clever move as it gives him one extra set of parts for the remainder of the season. Vettel has burned through most of his MGU-H pool (each car only gets four complete power units for the season), so these extra parts will come in handy as he attempts to chase down Hamilton. During the rebuilding, Ferrari found the inlet manifold had failed. This was a complete shock, as it had run perfectly on the dyno in Maranello earlier in the week. Theoretically, this gave Vettel a 20-place grid penalty, but since he was already at the back, it did not effect him at all.
And, so this leaves us looking at Sunday. Ferrari and Vettel would have to get fiendishly clever with their strategy to move Vettel through the field. While a win was incredibly unlikely, Vettel’s pace, mixed with some smart strategy and a bit of luck, could certainly push him up through the field. Could he land a podium? More importantly, would he be able to catch and pass Hamilton? Malaysia is known for its wild weather (it is very hot and humid and since it is in the tropics during the rainy season, the potential for a wet race is always high), though not for its safety cars (only 4 in 19 years), so there are plenty of scenarios that could lead to Vettel near or at the sharp end of the grid. Meanwhile, the driver to keep an eye on was Verstappen. He has had an absolutely rotten year with lots of DNFs either due to crashes or reliability issues. Singapore was his first shot at a win, and he didn’t even see the first turn. Singapore was also the first time the Red Bulls looked like a genuine threat all year long and that form was carrying into Malaysia. Hamilton would have to keep an eye out for a desperate Max, looking to finally take his second career win.
More bad news for Ferrari. As the teams were making final preparations on the grid, Kimi Raikkonen’s car was pushed back into the garage. The same broken intake manifold issue that put Vettel out of qualifying struck Kimi as he was setting up for the grid. The Ferrari mechanics worked diligently to replace the manifold, but to no avail: Ferrari’s plan of managing Hamilton’s points haul was dead on arrival. At the start, Verstappen put on an attack for Hamilton, but Hamilton held the position. Bottas made a great start and slipped into third, nearly nabbing second from Verstappen. At the back of the field, Vettel was on rails, making his way from dead last to 12th by the end of Lap 1! As the field began Lap 4, Verstappen got a great run on Hamilton heading down the main straight and used the DRS to get a tow off the Mercedes and dive into the lead heading into Turn 1! Using the stellar balance of the Red Bull RB13, Verstappen was able to hold his advantage through the first complex and soon began to pull away. Hamilton attempted a charge the following lap, but Verstappen was able to easily fend off the three-time champion and begin to pull away, edging out of DRS range. With Verstappen too far ahead to challenge, Hamilton settled into gap and tire management mode, keeping the Red Bull in sight, but not forcing the issue in order to maximize his chances of doing the race in one stop. Behind the front pair, Ricciardo battled Bottas for third, the pair putting on a driving clinic through the first half of Lap 9. Ricciardo took the position after a number of corners of back and forth battle. With the Mercedes dropping back, Bottas began to match his teammate’s strategy: keep their respective Red Bull cars in sight and ensure their super soft tires would last to the first pit window.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls were continuing to push. With the first Mercedes dispatched, Ricciardo began to close down on Hamilton, looking to try and overtake the W08 either on track, or during the pit stops. And really, for Mercedes this is ok. With one Ferrari out before the start, their only job was to take as many points as possible. This meant a safe, steady race: don’t fight too hard for a position because a DNF, or even a puncture, would open the door for Vettel to turn the tables again. Speaking of Vettel, between his superior pace and early pit stops by some of the mid-field, Vettel was able to make his way up to 5th by the 20th of 56 laps, placing him behind the Red Bull/Mercedes foursome. Now keep in mind two things. Because he started at the rear with a full field of traffic in front of him, Ferrari started Vettel on the soft compound tires (i.e. the hardest tire compound of the weekend), so his slicing through the field was done on the less preferred tire. This would also give him an advantage towards the end of the race, as he would finish on the super soft tire, with a speed advantage. However he would only be able to pull this off IF he could get enough distance on those harder tires. Hamilton pitted on Lap 27: Vettel only pitted a lap later. Wait, what? Well Lap 28 is the halfway point and the other front runners had shown they could make it that far in the race with the super soft tire. This meant Vettel could pit and make it to the end of the race on the softer tires, making maximum use of their pace advantage. In fact, with half the fuel load burned, he would be able to push the tires even harder, with more speed and less degradation. The bigger issue was Bottas. Mercedes chose to use the second Mercedes to try and hold back Vettel, delaying him enough to keep Hamilton in the clear. Bringing in Vettel when they did would give Ferrari the chance to undercut Bottas with clean air and fresh, fast tires. It worked, with Vettel able to get around Bottas when the Finn pitted, but the earlier than planned stop meant Ferrari would not be able to push as hard for as long on the super softs.
At the front of the field, with all of the cars cycled through their pit stops, Verstappen once again held the lead, with a comfortable 8-second gap over Hamilton. All he had to do now was maintain that gap and bring the car home. It was quite literally his race to lose. Behind him, things were much more interesting. Ricciardo was starting to reel in Hamilton, and Vettel was moving closer to Ricciardo. As per usual in F1 though, closing in on another car is one thing, passing is an entirely different can of worms. But with 10 to go, Smiley was losing pace and Vettel was smelling blood in the water. But the pass never came, Vettel made an attempt, Ricciardo defended, and with 5 to go, that was that. Vettel’s tires were also going off and he was unable to keep pace with Ricciardo.
The finishing order was not what most people would have predicted at the start of the weekend. Verstappen, Hamilton, Ricciardo, Vettel, and Bottas as the top 5. And while a 4th for Vettel, considering the circumstances, is a momentous result, one can’t help but wonder what could have been. After all, Ferrari had the quickest car by far. The two Ferraris easily topped the two dry practice sessions, but two back-to-back inlet manifold failures was a disaster. And then to cap off the show, an incredibly unique situation arose during the in-lap after the race. The Ferrari of Vettel made contact with the Williams of Stroll. The impact tore the left rear of the Ferrari off, while Stroll suffered seemingly no damage. While the trackside cameras were not on those cars, the on-board cameras were still rolling. From Stroll’s point of view, it seemed like Vettel cut down Stroll. From Vettel’s view, it seemed like Stroll ran wide. But behind the two was Grosjean, and he gives us the best view of the incident yet. From the Grosjean camera, it becomes plain that Stroll ran wide into Vettel. But why? Well my theory is that Stroll saw Grosjean and not Vettel, and ran a bit wide to make room for the Haas. Vettel, coming fast up behind the Williams, was just unsighted. That still begs the question: why on Earth was Vettel running so close to the side of Stroll to begin with? It’s a cool down lap and we know Sepang can fit 4 F1 cars comfortably. So why be right next to a car if you don’t need to? It’s an odd situation to say the least, but given the circumstances, I think the FIA’s decision to do nothing was correct. Another lapse of judgement by a 4-time world champion, or a rookie mistake? You be the judge.