Well, that was a busy Grand Prix, wasn’t it? If you watched the Malaysian GP live, I’m sure you’re glad that you did. There were a lot of unexpected points to that race, including Daniel Ricciardo being overtaken by Max Verstappen – twice. The new breed being mastered by the even newer breed – or put another way, one great white hope being overtaken by an even greater white hope!
And one minor statistic which is a little to pointer to what went on: only the two drivers from five teams finished in the points, something which has only happened once (in Bahrain last year) in the last three years. The teams this time, of course, were Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams, Toro Rosso and Red Bull – one Ferrari-engined team, two Mercedes and two Renault. I’m not normally a fan of these classifications designed by Noah – two by two – because we want more variety, but it does provide a bit of a pointer.
I mentioned in my post-Australia column that I’m a fan of the ‘new’ Ferrari and I’m glad that it has come good so soon. I’m not in favour of them being paid an extra $50m before anyone gets their cash – that’s outdated and undeserved, and the occasional ‘toys out of the pram’ from Luca di Montezemolo was infuriating – but we saw what James Allison did at Lotus a couple of years ago and he’s gone back to Ferrari – he was there before – and really turned them around although not single-handedly and not without contributions from people who are no longer there. But the engine department has moved on in leaps and bounds and provided Mercedes with a wake-up call – and that’s a worry.
Has Mercedes been a bit of a sleeping giant? I’m not – definitely not – suggesting that they have been resting on their laurels but I’m sure they haven’t wanted to dominate F1 and perhaps have been quite measured in the way they’ve run their cars. But they won’t have liked being beaten. Having said that, even during testing there were a couple of instances when the handling mystified the Mercedes drivers and they got a little lost. I think the same thing happened in Malaysia with the extraordinary heat that we experienced.
After the race, we saw 64 degrees track temperature on the FIA monitors, something which we have never ever seen before. OK, that temperature wasn’t quite the case what Pirelli and some of the teams reckoned it was – they thought a bit cooler – but hey, when has Formula One agreed on everything – I might mean ‘anything’? Some teams were able to handle that extraordinary heat, some, I suggest, were not and I think that’s what made the difference with Ferrari and Mercedes.
Again, what a great step forward by Renault who acknowledged the progress made with driveability since the Australian Grand Prix and this particularly worked for Toro Rosso and not necessarily for Red Bull, who frankly looked somewhat disappointing all weekend. The boys at Toro Rosso really are impressing enormously.
I think we will look back on the Malaysian Grand Prix as a one-off because of that heat. My fears of a lack of reliability were not vindicated, I’m glad to say, but teams are already rattling through the six elements that go to make up the power unit at a fair old rate of knots, let me tell you. Remember that last year they were allowed five of each element for the whole season; this year it’s four and anyone who has already used two element has already used half of their allocation after just two races, and there’s a fair few drivers and teams in that situation. This raises the spectre of penalties later in the season – or maybe quite soon – but again, it just goes to show how aggressive it is for everyone this year. This is equally demonstrated by the fact that sessions are appreciably quicker than last year and not just because of the new construction rear tyre.
After the poor race in Melbourne, the more than lively one in Malaysia fortunately shone the spotlight away from Formula One’s other problems. There was more good news in the renewing of the Malaysian contract, if only for another three years which will take them up to a total of 20 races. This has come on the sad news that the German Grand Prix won’t be happening this year which is a travesty given that country’s long term involvement in the sport, as a host, as a competitor, as a country which is obsessed by the motor car and the manufacturers based there. Whatever is wrong with the perception of the sport in that country is surely a warning for everyone else and it’s something we all have to keep an eye on.
When we’re enjoying our ‘ostrich in pepper sauce’ in our pavement cafe in Sepang, it’s a constant source of conversation, just where this sport is going, and who is going to lead it. There are successful short term fixes to get the fans involved at individual Grands Prix and these are working well, but that’s preaching to the converted. Fan numbers are not being maintained, and that’s a problem and is it being addressed? Is there a long term strategy for Formula One? Where is it going? That’s a conversation being had in smarter dining areas than mine, as well. We await answers from those responsible and those who have the influence, but even what we are getting scarcely seems satisfactory. Hopefully something bright will emerge.
In the meantime, we head to China, a race that could and should be enormous but again, a lack of promotion means that crowd numbers in the vast edifice that is the circuit are frequently poor. It’s going to be a lot cooler there although it will be followed a week later by Bahrain where it will be warmer again. In a couple of races, the entire look of the World Championship could change quite dramatically, even at this early stage. It’s what keeps us all guessing and that’s what we all need. I’ll write you a preview before flying to Shanghai next week. Happy Easter.
By Bob Constanduros