What a race! Triumph and redemption for Daniel Ricciardo. Heartbreak and frustration for Lewis Hamilton. Resiliency and good fortune for Nico Rosberg. Sepang was the perfect incendiary venue for an explosive race with late-season championship implications.
It was definitely a rollercoaster of a grand prix that started with a high-profile incident at Turn One when Sebastian Vettel accidentally tagged Rosberg’s rear to spin the championship leader around. Vettel’s Ferrari sustained front suspension damage, so was unable to continue while Rosberg luckily escaped trouble. It appeared to be a racing incident to me but apparently, the stewards have handed Vettel a three-place grid penalty for the following grand prix in Japan—a rather harsh, undeserved punishment, I think. It might also be worth noting that Max Verstappen may have been a third party in the incident, as he was right between Vettel and Rosberg before the contact.
Rosberg then had to slice through the field very early on, much like how his teammate did in Spa a few races ago. He easily made his way into the top five before the halfway point but his relentless pursuit to recover positions had one noticeable stain when an overtake on Kimi Raikkonen at Turn Two went a little awry. On Lap 38, Rosberg took a risky lunge down the inside of the Ferrari but made side-to-side contact, costing Raikkonen some small bits of his front wing. Surprisingly, the stewards handed a ten-second time penalty to Rosberg, which he would go on to negate anyway when he finished thirteen seconds ahead of Raikkonen in the end.
One scrap that was also hard but clean was between the two Red Bulls. Ricciardo had been running in second but teammate Verstappen was charging behind on a different tire strategy. On Lap 39, the two spectacularly dueled wheel-to-wheel through the first half of the track with the Aussie somehow maintaining his position with some sublime driving.
Two laps later, the crowd at Sepang went on an uproar as Hamilton’s Mercedes blew up in smokes and spat flames down the end of the main straight. Hamilton’s car ground to a halt at Turn One, necessitating a Virtual Safety Car deployment. The reigning champion, who seemed to have been cruising towards a win and towards the championship lead, hopped out of his car visibly dejected. Later on, things took a slightly ugly turn as he openly voiced his frustration to the media, wondering why out of all the Mercedes engines that power four teams, eight cars on the grid, it was always his power unit that encountered issues. It was a highly controversial comment indeed but Hamilton, in damage-limitation mode, later clarified that he wasn’t blaming anyone from his team. The conspiracy theories that cry sabotage sound ridiculous. Perhaps it really is more plausible that Hamilton’s driving style may be too rough on the Mercedes power unit. Now, I’m not questioning the driving of a three-time world champion but it’s a perspective worth looking in from. Indeed, why only Hamilton’s Mercedes units blow up? The default assumption is that it is all simply bad luck.
Back on the track, Ricciardo inherited the race lead and was also gifted breathing room when Red Bull decided to “stack-up” their two cars in the pits. Three years ago at Sepang, the infamous Multi-21 incident happened between then-Red Bull teammates Vettel and Mark Webber. This year, in a similar one-two situation, there was no such controversy between Ricciardo and Verstappen. The two did not battle each other as fiercely through the final stint, instead peacefully cruising to the first one-two finish by a team other than Mercedes since the start of F1’s hybrid era.
For only the second time this season, a Red Bull has usurped the top step of the podium from a Silver Arrow. In Spain last May, Verstappen became the youngest ever Formula One race winner, that is, after the two Mercedes crashed into each other on the first lap. This time around in Malaysia, it was Ricciardo who swept in for the victory after Hamilton’s engine blow-up. Arguably, Ricciardo would have won in Spain if not for a faulty pit strategy and in the following race in Monaco, he should have won if not for the pit stop gaffe that his pit crew and strategists collectively made. At least that win in Monaco that never happened was finally redeemed in Malaysia. Ricciardo dedicated this win to his late friend Jules Bianchi.
As for the rest of the points-scorers:
- Raikkonen retained fourth place after finishing thirteen-plus seconds behind Rosberg, a net three seconds due to the latter’s penalty.
- Valtteri Bottas made a one-stop strategy work to finish fifth. He started from eleventh, so he had a free choice of which tire compound to start the race with, electing to use the mediums. The Finn was able to neutralize a threat from the Force India of Sergio Perez, who finished two seconds off in sixth. Perez’s teammate Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth.
- While he was not voted Driver of the Day, Fernando Alonso turned in another supreme performance starting from the very back, reminiscent of his race in Spa last August. The Spaniard finished seventh, thanks in large part to gaining a bunch of places in the opening lap. Phenomenal.
- Only the third driver in F1 history to reach 300 grand prix starts, Jenson Button celebrated this milestone by finishing ninth, which he also started from. McLaren thus had another solid double points-scoring result.
- Rookie Jolyon Palmer has finally scored his maiden point in F1 with his tenth place finish. Like Bottas, Palmer capitalized on a one-stopper after starting from nineteenth.
Races are just getting better and better this season, aren’t they? The Malaysia Grand Prix will probably be one of the more iconic races from this season with all its incidents and drama. It’s only a short wait to find out if the next grand prix can continue the trend. It’s on to Japan this weekend.