Meanwhile, an emotional Max Verstappen stood at the top of the podium for only the second time in his career, and just a day after his 20th birthday. Quite a present, eh? Unlike his win in Spain over a year ago, Max won Malaysia on pure speed and talent alone. At no time was he under threat from Hamilton. From my perspective, this was also the most mature race Verstappen has yet to run in F1. His pass on Hamilton was textbook perfect (unlike, say his botched pass of his teammate in Hungary), and when Hamilton tried to return the favor a lap later, Max held off the challenge beautifully and cleanly. He then managed the gaps and tires exactly as he needed to. He never put a wheel wrong. I’ll be honest, Max’s speed is impressive, but his racecraft has won no favors with me. His style of blocking (cutting abruptly across a following car under braking) really gets under my skin and he has a nasty tendency to run other drivers off the road when he is passing them. There is hard driving, and then there is unsafe driving and more often than not, Max falls into the latter category. However his drive in Sepang is the stuff that World Championships are made of. I look forward to seeing if this is a trend will continue, or if he goes back to his old tricks in Japan.
Random Thought of the Race
It warms my heart to know that Scuderia Ferrari, the oldest, most successful Formula 1 team ever, a team with a half billion dollar a year budget, uses regular old zip ties to secure its brake fluid reservoirs to the chassis. They have the facilities to make a super lightweight carbon fiber bracket, but nope, just zip tie the suckers on there. It’s good to know that even in this highly competitive, bleeding edge technology age of F1, there’s still room for a little shade tree engineering.
There are a few important takeaways from this race. First is that this should have been a track that reminded us how good Mercedes Benz can be. Every indication after Singapore was that this would be a damage control race for Ferrari. Yet Mercedes stumbled and stumbled badly. How much of this was due to weather (Mercedes is known to have issues overheating their tire, especially on fast tracks in hot ambient temperatures), and how much was due to Ferrari and Red Bull finding new pace is something we will have to look for in Japan.
Of course, the flipside to Mercedes’ struggles was that with the Ferraris looking great, this should have been Vettel’s chance at making up major ground on Hamilton. But the bizarre turn of events, with two failed intake manifolds in two days ruined the weekend. There is no reason to believe without their intake problems, this would have been a Ferrari 1-2 and likely a Silver Arrow-free podium. However, there is still one variable to consider in that posturing and that variable is Max Verstappen. Let’s consider for a moment what happens if it’s Vettel and not Hamilton leading at the start of Lap 4. Verstappen claims the Red Bull was faster than the Ferrari on race day. So what happens when it’s Vettel leading Verstappen on Lap 4 heading into Turn 1? My prediction is two cars go in and neither go out. That right there would have sealed the championship for Hamilton.
Also, a very odd turn of events for American fans happened on Wednesday. Formula 1 announced this would be the final year that NBCSN hosts Formula 1 in the USA. ESPN will be taking up the TV duties starting in 2018. There are some interesting reports and rumors tied to this. First of all, one of the reasons F1 and NBC could not reach a new deal was length of contract. NBCSN wanted something long term and F1 did not want that commitment. Liberty Media claims this is because they don’t want to be tied down as they try to grow their presence in the US. Combine this with Liberty’s push for more online content (more social media, free timing and scoring, the brand new e-sports league), and it’s pretty clear where this is going. Liberty Media has plans to move Formula 1 to online streaming only within the next few years. This makes a lot of sense for them. First of all, it gives them total control of video distribution. Second, it cuts out the middleman and allows them to gain all of the revenue from advertising. This will almost certainly be a paid subscription service, which adds an additional revenue stream for Formula 1. Formula 1 has been trying to move to a PPV model for 20 years, and with cable cutting becoming more the norm, F1 is trying to get ahead of the curve. How this effects you as a fan really depends on how you already consume Formula 1. Me? I’ve been streaming F1 on the NBCSN app on and off for four years now. In fact I watched the 2016 Abu Dhabi GP from the Atlanta airport on my cellphone as I waited for a flight to Japan. The future is here folks, and it’s pretty damn sweet.
There are a few unfortunate downsides to moving to ESPN as a broadcaster. For one, the people who stream F1 now will lose the wonderful NBCSN app and get stuck with the crappy ESPN app. Second, ESPN does not care about motorsports at all. In fact, they’ve been shlubbing off motorsports for years. Back in the 80s, ESPN was the home of motorsport. You could tune in to find everything from F1 to desert racing on ESPN. In 2017, the only racing on ESPN was the Indy 500, and really that is only because ABC entered into a long-term deal back in 2011. But that deal expires next year, and unless something drastic happens, 2019 may be the first time ever that the Indy 500 airs somewhere other than ABC, because again, ESPN wants nothing to do with motor racing. ESPN has been riding the wave of the NFL and NBA and has put all of their focus onto those two sports. Turn it on right now and I bet you’ll see a show dedicated to one of those two sports. However, Liberty Media’s roots are in ball sports and they have connections with ESPN. When NBCSN fell through, Liberty likely leveraged their connections with ESPN to keep F1 on American TV.
Another thing that will suck is that there’s a good chance the current NBC hosting team will not move to ESPN. David Hobbs has bounced around networks for decades (in fact he called F1 on ESPN back in the 80s with Bob Varsha), but Leigh is pretty well set with NBC. The real loss would be Will Buxton and Steve Matchett. Steve may be bit of a nerd, but the man knows his F1. Same with Will- he has some killer insights into the sport and knows how to convey it to the fans. Losing either of them on American F1 TV would suck, not only because their lack of knowledge will leave a void in American F1 coverage, but also because it opens the door for Eddie Cheever to be an F1 commentator, and that would be even worse.
As we look to Japan, Vettel and Ferrari have to dig even deeper. They’ve given up the one race they can afford to lose: the rest of the season are now must-win races. Can Vettel keep his temper under control? Will Hamilton finally falter? Will Verstappen or Ricciardo act as spoilers? While the avenues for Vettel to win his fifth world championship are closing fast, the remaining options are going to be entertaining as hell for us fans. The Japanese GP is this weekend, so watch this space for our thoughts on how the season continues to shake out!