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Thoughts from the Malaysian Grand Prix

Malaysian Grand Prix – A race that looked to be a straightforward walk around the palm trees for Lewis Hamilton turned into a nightmare with all the hard work done. Lewis Hamilton’s grasp on a third successive title weakens

He’s not out of it by any means, but Hamilton’s late race engine failure has certainly put a serious dent to ambitions of winning his fourth World Championship. Having taken a convincing pole position after a strong Friday preparation day, any question marks over his form following a low-key Singapore weekend were banished. A good start meant that particular concern was no longer, and Nico Rosberg getting tagged and spun at Turn 1 just served as icing on the cake for Hamilton. His minor points deficit to Rosberg was going to be demolished.

That was, until the power unit failed on Lap 41 as he powered down the main straight while trying to pull away sufficiently from the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo & Max Verstappen to make another pit-stop. The Bulls have come on in leaps and bounds this season, and are starting to apply the pressure to Mercedes when outright power isn’t as large a concern. With the Malaysian circuit suiting a nimble chassis and strong aerodynamic values, the RB12 was almost a match for the Merc, with Hamilton having to push as hard as he can to pull away.

Unlike in 2014 & 2015, when Mercedes seemed to always have plenty in reserve, they now appear to be having to operate much closer to the upper limit of their performance window. As a result, problems are starting to seep through. Both Hamilton & Rosberg have had problems, although Hamilton’s have proven to be more damaging. While Rosberg has had more problems with the likes of brakes and gearboxes during the races, Hamilton has taken grid penalties for engine component changes as well as this high profile engine failure. As a result, conspiracy theories are everywhere. This season’s switch of team mechanics between Nico Rosberg & Lewis Hamilton has been brought up, but the mechanics in the garage aren’t responsible for the ground-up building of the Internal Combustion Engine which failed on Hamilton’s car. While F1 can be a seedy business, internal sabotage is nigh-on impossible, especially with the very visible data trails that the cars and individual parts would have.

More likely, it’s just plain bad luck for Hamilton. It happens. Without bad luck and an unreliable Mercedes engine, Kimi Raikkonen would be a three time World Champion. Without the engine failure with three laps to go at Hungary ’08, Massa would be a Champion. Had Nigel Mansell’s tyre lasted 19 laps more at Adelaide ’86, he would have won that title. Mika Hakkinen at USA 2000, Michael Schumacher at Japan 2006, even Luca Badoer’s blow-up while running P4 for Minardi at Nurburgring ’99 – these are all moment where bad luck struck, and the drivers just had to suck it up. Hamilton abandoning his “we win and lose together” mentality when his car fails him just reflects badly on him. Especially when his reliability record is the highest of any World Champion ever.

There’s also been talk that Rosberg is ‘lucking’ into this title, and there is truth to that. Luck plays a part in every title, especially when it comes to being in the right place at the right time. And to pretend that Rosberg hasn’t been top drawer this season would be doing him a massive disservice. While Hamilton has had the better of him at several races this year, Rosberg has been just as imperious at several of his own. Had Rosberg not been tagged by Vettel at Turn 1 in Malaysia, who’s to say that Nico couldn’t have fought Lewis every step of the way on Sunday?

Inconsistent stewarding leading to inconsistent penalties

Think back to Spa, where Verstappen stuck his car up the inside of the right hand Turn 1, leading to him and the two Ferraris meeting at the apex. The car on the outside, Vettel, got spun around. Raikkonen was damaged and needed repairs, while Verstappen was able to continue.

Now switch to Malaysia, where Vettel stuck his car up the inside of the right hand Turn 1, leading to himself, Verstappen and Rosberg meeting at the apex. The car on the outside, Rosberg, got spun around. No lasting damage to Rosberg or Verstappen, while Vettel was eliminated immediately.

Malaysian
Red Bull/Getty

One of these incidents (Belgium) merited no further investigation, while the other (Malaysia) resulted in penalty points and a three place grid penalty for Vettel next weekend, compromising his Japanese chances. Why were the two incidents treated completely differently, with no particular difference in terms of how aggressive the drivers were? There were no stewards in common between Belgium & Malaysia, which makes little sense. Surely this should be an area where race director Charlie Whiting should step up and use his authority; perhaps by using a weighted vote of his final decision against that of the stewards. With Nico Rosberg getting penalties for boisterous overtakes on Kimi Raikkonen and no penalties for Max Verstappen when he moves around after the overtaking driver commits to a direction change, to use recent examples, it all seems to be a little badly thought out.

Are McLaren joining the party?

Malaysia has two really long straights. It also has high speed corners and another reasonably long power section in the first sector. Despite this, both McLarens finished in the points and were mixing it up with the Force Indias, and only a little bit behind Valtteri Bottas. The joke that was McLaren-Honda in 2015 appears to be closing in on the front, albeit still have some serious reliability issues to overcome. Unlike the vast majority of the other drivers, neither Alonso or Button are yet confident of making the end of any given session without a problem, and that’s still not good enough.

Malaysian
McLaren Media

Williams appear unable to make any progress, which may have contributed to Felipe Massa’s decision to quit as he feels them starting to slip back down the order a little. Force India, as a Mercedes customer team, are not likely to be able to rise much higher in the championship without stumbles from the larger resourced Mercedes, Ferrari & Red Bull squads. McLaren’s chassis is clearly quite a good one and, with changes for next season concentrating on the areas of mechanical and aerodynamic grip, who would now bet against McLaren-Honda sneaking podiums next season?

About Thomas Maher

Thomas Maher is one of the founders of FormulaSpy.com. He is an FIA-accredited F1 journalist, as well as working in the Irish radio industry. Hobbies include writing, music, and polishing his beloved Mitsubishi FTO. Check him out on your social network below.

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