The final Malaysia Grand Prix didn’t fail to serve up the healthy dose of drama which we’ve come to expect from the Sepang International Circuit over its nineteen year history.
The drama started on Friday with Romain Grosjean’s exploits with a loose drain cover. The Frenchman was lucky to escape without injury from the incident which prematurely ended Friday’s Practice. It was a pretty nondescript weekend for Grosjean from there. He complained though. A lot.
Where to start with the rest of the race weekend? Let’s go with our race winner, Max Verstappen, who finally stood on the top step of the podium for the second time in his career. It was a peerless performance from the Dutchman today. Few had expected Red Bull to beat Mercedes on pure pace this weekend – the first time that has been done in a long time. After a season of hardships – the Chinese Grand Prix in April was the last time Max stood on the podium – the win was certainly well earned.
Mercedes had a bit of a strange weekend. They were well off the pace on Friday, but Lewis managed to pull it back on Sunday as he took his 70th pole position – though only by a small margin. Lewis was powerless to stop Verstappen pulling away during the Grand Prix. As for Valtteri Bottas, his weekend was mediocre at best. He qualified in fifth and, despite a good start which saw him challenge for as high up as second, he faded in the race and finished in the same position he started from. Was Malaysia an anomaly for the Mercedes team? Or is there a genuine cause for concern in the closing stages of the 2017 championship?
It’s just as well that on a weekend where Mercedes seemed to struggle, their championship rivals did too. After a great display in qualifying, Kimi Raikkonen failed to even see the start of the race due to mechanical issues on his car. Meanwhile, it was reversed fortunes on Vettel’s side of the garage. While a turbo issue saw him sit out qualifying on Saturday, Sebastian put on a fantastic display to fight back to fourth on Sunday, minimising the damage in his title bid. Today’s race could be looked back on as a turning point of sorts for Vettel, should he go on to take the title.
The day wasn’t without a mishap for the four-time World Champion though. A bizarre incident on the lap after the chequered flag saw Lance Stroll clatter into the side of Vettel’s Ferrari. While the Williams looked unscathed in the impact, the Ferrari’s rear suspension was broken and the left rear wheel was re positioned somewhere behind the rear wing. Vettel is likely to incur a five place grid penalty for a change of gearbox as a result of the collision.
Sebastian was disappointed with Fernando Alonso during the race. The Spaniard appeared to block the Ferrari slightly when Vettel was lapping the McLaren, causing Sebastian to exclaim on team radio that he ‘thought you [ALO] were better than that’. Fernando himself was full of fun on the radio once again and driving standards were the cause of his outbursts this week. ‘Hulkenberg is right’, Alonso said of Magnussen. This follows Hulkenberg’s comments that Magnussen is the most unsporting driver on the grid. Magnussen’s reputation in the sport, especially among his fellow drivers, has nosedived this season.
Honourable mentions in Malaysia have to go to Pierre Gasly, Sergio Perez and Stoffel Vandoorne. Gasly made his F1 debut this weekend after being parachuted in as a replacement for Daniil Kvyat. It was impressive to see Gasly setting a faster lap than Carlos Sainz in Q1 and then going on to qualify just 0.15 seconds slower than his team-mate. His debut race appearance was solid too as he shadowed his team-mate, despite suffering back pain and having no drink for the entire Grand Prix. The Frenchman’s progress will be interesting to watch throughout the 2018 season.
Perez was struggling with a virus all weekend and put in a strong showing to finish sixth regardless. Vandoorne punched well above the weight of the McLaren-Honda car this weekend. After beating his team-mate in Qualifying, the Belgian managed to cling on to points on Sunday – a task that the team thought would be near impossible. It has certainly seemed that Stoffel has been proving why he is so highly rated since the summer break.
And so that brings to a close Formula One’s two decades in Malaysia. The sport may well be back in Sepang in years to come if paddock rumour is to be believed. We don’t have long to wait for the next race as the championship heads to Suzuka, Japan, next weekend. Though the gap is at 34 points between Hamilton and Vettel with five races to go, the feeling is that it’s still all to play for. Ferrari were much stronger here in terms of pace than many expected them to be. Suzuka is likely to suit the Scuderia. Hopefully they’ll have a trouble free weekend and this title will be taken to the wire.