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2016 Malaysian Grand Prix recap: Surprises and missed opportunities

6 Octobre 2016 - Autoblog

2016 Malaysian Grand Prix

Mercedes-AMG Petronas pilot Lewis Hamilton drove so well in the run-up to the Malaysian Grand Prix that he said before the race, "Honestly, I don't feel anything is going to stop us."

On Sunday, the Sepang race showed what it thought of plans and predictions. Heading into the right-hand Turn 1, Sebastian Vettel practically recreated the dust-up at the Belgian Grand Prix three races ago. When Mercedes' Nico Rosberg swept across from the outside line toward the apex, Red Bull's Max Verstappen had to jink right to avoid, touching Vettel's Ferrari on the inside. Vettel speared straight on and hit Rosberg. Vettel's left front suspension broke, ending his race. Rosberg spun and got moving again, but at the back of the pack.

That appeared to put Hamilton on a clear run to the checkered flag. His car looked perfect, his pace was perfect, he easily kept Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen behind. A result that would have seen Hamilton retake control of the Driver's Championship – at Petronas' home race – got crushed on Lap 41 when Hamilton's engine blew down the main straight.

That put Ricciardo in the lead, followed closely by his teammate. Just two laps before Hamilton's exit, Ricciardo and Verstappen had battled for second place with some of the best driving we've seen all season. Ricciardo drove as if exorcising the demons of missed opportunities earlier in the year, keeping the young Dutchman behind.

The two Red Bulls took the flag fifteen laps later in that order, clocking the first one-two finish for a team other than Mercedes since 2014. It's Red Bull's first one-two since Brazil 2013, when Vettel and Mark Weber took the top steps at the last race of the V8 era.

Rosberg recovered to take third in spite of a ten-second penalty for an optimistic pass on Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen. The Finn crossed the line 12 seconds later, followed by Valtteri Bottas in the Williams and Sergio Perez in the Force India. In another Belgium repeat, Fernando Alonso drove from the back of the grid to finish seventh. Nico Hülkenberg secured eighth, Jenson Button ninth for McLaren in his 300th grand prix, and rookie Jolyon Palmer scored his first point of the season for Renault in tenth.

The issue to trump all others from now until next week's Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton's terrible luck with engines. Power unit gremlins earlier this season helped drop the Brit to 43 points behind Rosberg after the Russian Grand Prix. Hamilton took a ginormous penalty in Belgium to stock up on three fresh power units, and coming into Malaysia, the only driver to use more engine components was Honda-powered Alonso. Out of 43 Mercedes engines built this year – five each for eight teams, plus three new units for Hamilton in Belgium – only Hamilton's have blown up. The one that popped in Malaysia was one of the new units installed in Belgium, used for just two sessions before the Sepang race.

So when Hamilton met the press after his retirement and told them, "Something doesn't seem right," and, "Something or someone doesn't want me to win this year," his bosses denied the subtle accusations, but they understood Hamilton's anger. Maybe Mercedes swapping Hamilton's and Rosberg's mechanics at the beginning of the year is having more psychological effects than planned.

For the first corner brouhaha the Stewards hit Vettel with a three-place grid penalty in Japan and two points on his superlicense. Vettel said he hasn't given up on Ferrari this year, however, Red Bull is now undeniably ahead of the scuderia. Ricciardo just clamped down on third place in the Championship, and if Ferrari isn't careful Verstappen will leapfrog both Vettel and Räikkönen to take fourth.

Haas F1 earned a couple lumps of coal, too. After calling his Haas "the worst car I've ever driven" in Singapore, Romain Grosjean suffered another strange, high-speed brake failure that sent him into the barriers. Not long after that, a mechanical issue caused Esteban Gutíerrez's pit crew to mount his left front tire improperly. The wheel connection lasted eight corners, then the wheel rolled off the car at Turn 9. The FIA fined the team 5,000 euros.

Rosberg's third place gives him a 23-point lead over teammate Hamilton in the Championship with five races to go. Ordinarily that would be a huge deficit to overcome, but races have been so crazy lately that anything could happen in Japan.

Mercedes couldn't clinch the Constructor's Cup in Malaysia, the team gets another chance at Suzuka. Ferrari is only 46 points behind Red Bull; if the Italians can get their car turned on, they're close enough for a battle. Behind them, Force India gave itself two extra millimeters of cushion in the battle for fourth place – the Anglo-Indian team is now three points ahead of Williams.

The Japanese Grand Prix goes down in six days. We'll see you then.

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