Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Experience Shows in Malaysia

The 2014 Malaysian Grand Prix was not the most thrilling race ever, as Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes eased their way to a foregone conclusion. Regarding the overall season picture though, we learnt a lot about the current form guide within Formula 1 that was still clouded after Australia. It was qualifying however that produced a lot of the excitement as teams still seem unsure if they are lucky to escape Q1 or disappointed a missing out on Q3, and of course the great unknown of a monsoon shower.

Qualifying was worth the 50 minute wait. After seeing the Mercedes SLS struggle in the conditions, I thought it may be run Sunday morning instead.

Like pre-season test times, I always look at the practice times as skewed information and that the real information is hidden in the stint data as opposed to the fastest lap times. It is in the qualifying sessions that the pace of each car is certified, as no team would sacrifice grid position in order to hide true speed. Having now had 2 wet qualifying sessions in 2 races, that true relative speed is yet to be fully revealed. The wet weather itself however is a good indicator for each cars strengths and weaknesses, with the slippery conditions favouring those cars with good mechanical grip over those with more efficient aerodynamics. In both qualifying sessions so far, Williams have struggled when compared to the rest of the weekends dry running. They may actually be the second best car on the grid if they qualify high enough to challenge there, and hopefully we will get to see that in the dry Bahrain sessions.

The Williams team have been hampered by the wet qualifying sessions so far in 2014.

As pointed out by Martin Brundle in the commentary, all of the younger drivers in Formula 1 seem limitlessly brave when it comes to the gambles required so far in 2014. They were the first on to the Intermediate tyres when all else were struggling on wets, and seem to relish the wild characteristics from the new regulations. It didn't pay off on Saturday, and the wiser heads on the grid stuck the right tyres for the situation on and set the laps required. It surprised me therefore to see Jenson Button gambling with the conditions throughout and in the end he qualified a lonely 10th, 2 places and nearly 2 seconds slower than less experienced team mate Kevin Magnussen. Given that the McLaren team believed the intermediates would pay off at the end of the session, I thought that they should have started on the wets to set a banker and then do the switch. It would have helped keep the temperatures in the operating window as well, being optimised out of the blankets rather than touring around a circuit that was just too damp at that stage.

Button believes the effect of the McLaren updates were masked in Malaysia by the tracks demands.

Within the dramatic qualifying session we saw a lot of spills, including Magnussen's lucky escape from the gravel trap surrounding the final corner. The 2 major moments came either side of the break between Q1 and Q2 as the teams tried to guess the weather on a busy circuit. With everyone leaving the pitlane as soon as the lights went green in Q2, a crash was inevitable as everyone fought over track position and it took place as Daniil Kvyat tried to pass Fernando Alonso in the sector 2 hairpin. It was a clumsy mistake by the pair, but Alonso couldn't have seen him coming and Kvyat saw the wide line left for him on the inside, believing that Alonso may have been allowing the move to happen rather than taking his wide line through. It was an absolutely brilliant job by the Ferrari team to get the broken steering arm repaired and send Alonso back out with over 10 minutes of Q2 left. The Q1 session ended abruptly when Marcus Ericsson lost control of his Caterham on the exit of turn 3, previously taken flat out in the dry, and ended up clashing with the barriers and eventually stopping close to turn 4. The crash certainly looked spectacular and left his car in a mess, but the team once again did a great job to get him on the grid on Sunday.

The right hand side of Marcus Ericsson's car took the majority of the damage.

After the thrills of qualifying and the close lap times, the race looked set to be both closer and more lively than we saw. The Mercedes drivers sprung to the front ahead of the Red Bull's and seemed in complete control throughout. Sergio Perez did not make the start at all, and Jean-Eric Vergne went backwards through the field immediately thanks to engine troubles. There was however the incident between Magnussen and Kimi Raikkonen, something the young Dane will hopefully learn from after an impressive debut. A  more experienced driver would have realised Raikkonen was likely to move across and wouldn't be able to see the front wing of the McLaren. It cost Magnussen, but unfortunately it was Raikkonen who suffered more on a weekend he looked closer to the pace of Alonso. It seems he is gaining confidence in the Ferrari and will be running as high as a driver of his talent ought to be soon enough.

Raikkonen deserved more than hunting Caterhams and finishing 12th.

Daniel Ricciardo had another faultless weekend come unstuck at what should have been his final pitstop on his way to 4th. A team error however meant that he was signalled to leave without his front left tyre being full secure. The lengthy stop dropped him down and out of the points, and likely lead to the front wing failure and his retirement. The result and competitiveness Red Bull enjoyed after a decent second place finish in Australia proves the turnaround by the team since pre-season was not a one off. They look set to take the fight to Mercedes if their rate of development allows them to close the gap before the Mercedes team can make their advantage count. If that happens then I wonder whether Sebastian Vettel's verdict of the 2014 power units will change...

Whilst Mercedes are building an early lead, Red Bull are currently in damage limitation mode.

I have spoken already of the mysterious lack of wet weather pace for the Williams team, and in previous posts I have talked up the new rivalry between drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Having played the number 2 role throughout most of his years at Ferrari, he joined Williams in 2014 expecting at least equal treatment and showed in pre-season testing that he had what is needed to lead the teams potential championship charges. Both ran similar races to the other, meaning they were sharing the same piece of race track throughout. Malaysia gave us a team orders debate in 2013, and a new one has flared and similarly been beaten away by the Williams team, as Massa held his ground against his new younger team mate. Early in the race as Magnussen was nursing a damaged front wing, we heard Massa complaining over the team radio about being crashed into, which out of view I believed to have been against a hard defending McLaren. It was however Bottas trying to jump ahead and make his own attack on Magnussen, something the team will need greater control of in future.

Team mates running close together is a headache for most teams, as a single crash could remove both from the race and points contention.

Having heard the complaint in the opening stages of the race, the Williams team made it clear to Massa that Bottas was running faster than he was and should allow him through. Felipe had quickly caught up to Jenson Button, but was unable to pass him before being caught himself by Bottas. Believing that Bottas had more chance to pass the McLaren, they cruelly gave Massa the same coded message from that German Grand Prix in 2010. Team orders being allowed now, they could have given the signal in any way they liked so it seemed like an unnecessary move to use the same "Felipe, X is faster than you" phrase. I was glad to see that this time he didn't listen to the call and instead continued to press Button to the end of the race, which was hindered by partial focus on his defence of the position from Bottas. Massa said after the race that if Bottas couldn't pass him then he wouldn't have been able to pass Button either, and the team later stated it would have reversed the positions before the chequered flag had that been the case. This one could go on, even if the team have stated the row is over...

Choosing the same coded message used in the 2010 German GP was a hurtful freshening of the lost victory for Massa.

With the next race in Bahrain this weekend, there is very little time between Grand Prix for updates. The drier hotter temperatures expected in the Bahrain desert could play havoc with those Renault engines though, especially with the mileage creeping up on them. It will be intriguing to see how many last the distance, and what cooling measures the teams choose to ensure their cars reach the finish. Hopefully Lotus can make some further improvements having finally completed a race distance, and after claiming that catching the McLaren's is their focus. Will Red Bull find the couple of tenths required to challenge the Mercedes domination? Can Raikkonen challenge the pace of Alonso? Will Massa and Bottas face team order headaches again? It's a great feeling knowing that we have less than 1 week to find out answers to all of the above and more.

Will the happy faces remain between the 2 early championship favourites?