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Malaysian GP Debrief: New-look Ferrari make their mark in Sepang

Ben Stevens

Mar 22, 2014
Nearly two years since their last win in Barcelona, a combination of clever strategy and superb driving saw the Scuderia return to the top step in Malaysia

If the key to a Ferrari revival wasn’t obvious before, it is now: bring in a German.

In only his second race for the Scuderia, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel gave Tifosi the sort of performance that will have them dreaming of a return to the top in both F1 championships. For now, they’ll have to content themselves with upsetting the all-conquering Mercedes AMG Petronas on what is one of their several home turfs.

Considering the ease with which the Mercedes’ of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg set the pace just two weeks prior in Melbourne, seeing Ferrari take the win in Sepang seemed more improbable than Pastor Maldonado simply finishing the race. For all the hope that this new era of Vettel and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene brought with them, the second race of the season was supposed to be far too early for them to really take it to the Mercs.

Alas, that’s the beauty of sport. Even in instances where one team is as world-conqueringly superior over all others as Mercedes have been, there are times where, if only for an hour or two, that advantage is reduced to nothing. So in the wake of Vettel’s memorable victory, let’s have a look at two of the big talking points to come from the Malaysian Grand Prix.

2014 a Distant Memory as Vettel a Winner Again

If 2014 was an annus horribilis for both Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari, 2015 is already shaping up to be an annus mirabilis in their first year working together.

With a stated goal of two wins for the season, Ferrari are already halfway towards achieving that target with 17 races remaining. What’s more however, is that it’s evident they have a car that will keep Mercedes firmly on their toes come race day.

While all of Mercedes’ defeats last year at the hands of Daniel Ricciardo came down to their own misfortune (self-inflicted or not), their loss at the hands of his ex-teammate Vettel was simply one by a team with a car that can hold its own for race-pace, and the perfect man to pilot it.

After finishing P3 in Melbourne, it was clear Ferrari had taken the title of ‘best of the rest’, but it wasn’t until Friday practice in Sepang that we saw just what that meant, with Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen showing some serious pace on a nine-lap race simulation. All driving on the medium tyre, the Finn averaged 1:45.080 per lap over his run, compared to 1:45.070 for Hamilton (over just six laps) and 1:45.313 for Rosberg (over seven). Make no mistake, this was not a fluke.

And while by no means does Sunday’s result suggest Mercedes won’t have the upper hand at the vast majority of circuits on the rest of the F1 calendar, it seems the 2015 car allows Vettel to do what Vettel does best – make the most of clear air. The trademark of his four-year championship run at Red Bull was his ability to build a gap from the front in a race’s early stages, and simply maintain it after each round of pitstops. As such Malaysia was a return to character: he qualified P2 (which only affirms Ferrari’s serious pace) and then, because the SF15-T is relatively easy on its tyres, Vettel had the confidence in his car that he could extend each stint to keep pitting him into clear air, diminishing any pace disadvantage to the Merc, and allowing him to make any early opportunity – such as Sunday’s fourth-lap safety car – count.

Need a favour? Ask Ferrari – Does Their Win in Malaysia Boost “The Show”, Kill Mercedes Equalisation Talk?

Not without reason, the first race in Australia elicited fears in some parts that Mercedes would run away with the season in an even greater manner than last year. Certainly, Albert Park isn’t ideal for wheel-to-wheel racing, but from Friday through Sunday, the Silver Arrows’ pace was ominous. Hamilton and Rosberg seemed to have a bit left in the tank as they made their way to another 1-2 – and from Melbourne you could almost hear the international audience turning their TVs off and going back to bed.

It’s just a simple reality that even if we were to be treated to great battles elsewhere (as we were on Sunday), having a sense of inevitability at the front is going to turn off many prospective viewers. In that respect, what Ferrari has done goes far beyond simply beating Mercedes. With the immensely likable Arrivabene and a more mature, personable Vettel at the helm, Ferrari was already positioned to be a great story in the paddock this year as they fought to recover their previous glory – now, they’re the foil to Mercedes that the sport so desperately needed.

Compared to other sports, F1 doesn’t really get that many opportunities to make a renewed impression and keep interest from waning, so to have someone beat Mercedes right after they dominated the opener is a huge boost for its profile. Particularly in the short term (i.e. until the first wave of upgrades in Barcelona, possibly through to Canada) it gives casual fans a reason to keep on coming back. Even if Mercedes return to their winning ways in China, memories of Malaysia will linger.

Speaking of Mercedes, they have to be as pleased with losing a race as you possibly can be. Really the only thing anyone was talking about prior to last weekend was whether efforts should be made to allow the rest of the field to catch up, and except from the still-disastrous Red Bull, expect that talk to essentially cease. Periods of dominance have historically always been a part of F1 – it’s the price you pay for encouraging the sort of technical innovation which the sport prides itself on – but nothing lasts forever.

Is the start of something greater between Mercedes and Ferrari? Who knows? There’s a decent chance this race may eventually go down as just a blip on the German team’s inexorable march to a second successive championship double, but as long as all teams are playing by the same rules, and are financially able to develop their car, the best option would be to let such success run its course. Regardless, at its core it’s the enduring feelings and memories F1 creates that matter – we got some great ones on Sunday, thanks to a truly remarkable Malaysian Grand Prix.

Thoughts on Vettel’s return to the top-step? Are Ferrari Championship Contenders – or at least *gasp* the good guys? Will we hear any more complaining about Mercedes’ supposed advantage? Sound off in the comments below.
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Dan Allen

I am the Pastor Maldonado of RaceDepartment.
Dec 29, 2013
I hope Ferrari can make a comeback. What pissed me off last season is that it was (nearly) all Mercedes. At least with Ferrari showing they have a better car this year, it's looking less like a one horse race and a bit more like a championship. Would be good to see other teams be a bit more competetive too though (Red Bull, Williams)


Mar 17, 2013
Well written and great insight. Thanks for helping a fairly distant F1 fan enjoy it even more. It has been nice to have it live on TV in the US for the last couple of years and even have a chance to see my first in person F1 race at COTA last year. While I have followed F1 from afar during the last few decades it helps to have well written articles like yours to get a deeper appreciation for what makes the difference between drivers and teams; not just the difference between the cars. Keep up the great work! :)

Ben Stevens

Mar 22, 2014
Thanks Keith, that's incredibly kind of you to say. It's very motivating to see comments like yours, I hope I can keep giving fans like you articles worthy of your time!
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Jan 10, 2015
Thanks Keith, that's incredibly kind of you to say. It's very motivating to see comments like yours, I hope I can keep giving fans like you articles worthy of your time!
I agree with Keith. That was a very well written, unbiased piece. A very enjoyable read. I'm apt to read an article if I see your name attached to it. Good writers are becoming extinct.