So Mercedes have managed to find out what went wrong with Lewis Hamilton’s engine in Malaysia. It was a big end bearing failure which tends to absolve anyone of blame. His Mercedes team intends to revise its running parameters with both their own engines and those of their customers Williams, Force India and Manor. All had expected to take new engines but that won’t now happen.
Lewis had had a pretty perfect weekend in Malaysia, hadn’t done anything wrong, was leading the race by miles. What else could he do? He was heading for maximum points, just what he wanted to get back on terms in his championship campaign. He had comprehensively beaten his teammate to pole position. Everything looked fine.
And then fate intervened. Or whatever. Mercedes are the only people who can tell us what happened. They have normally been very honest and open and so we must believe them, particularly as it obviously affects their customer engines as well. But one still wonders how this happened.
You see Formula One teams are incredibly careful as to the security systems they go through n making their engines. The quality control is incredible. They will have specified certain materials of detailed specification to make the engine. The first thing that happens when the material arrives in the factory is that it’s checked to be the specification ordered. Quality control continues at that same level right the way through the engine and its building. It’s incredibly impressive.
Somewhere something has gone wrong with these systems. And it’s left a very frustrated Lewis Hamilton and his fans. Some are suggesting that Mercedes have done this deliberately, which is incredibly foolish. It should be pointed out that this was Mercedes’s first technical DNF of 2016. In their four seasons as teammates, technical issues have seen Hamilton and Rosberg not classified on five occasions each, so all square, not just Lewis.
For a while, I had this nagging feeling that maybe it was something driver induced. But might it be something that Lewis had failed to do which prompted this failure – and even others? Might we find out in ten years time when a disgruntled ex-Mercedes engineer spills the beans. Lewis is irreproachable. One side of him is charming, communicative, friendly, fun. The other side is disgruntled with a Lewis-knows-best side. I have already heard that you can’t tell him anything he doesn’t know about fashion, that he doesn’t like being told what to wear by team sponsor Boss. It’s probably the same with his passion in music. And we saw a little bit of it on the grid in Malaysia. An engineer was talking to him, but Lewis plainly didn’t want to hear what he had to say and wanted to move on. Lewis clearly knew best.
Lewis didn’t help himself in the Thursday afternoon press conference. After again asserting that ‘it appears that currently the guy above doesn’t really want me to… perhaps doesn’t want me to win right now’ he went on to point out that everything he wants to say is on his Instagram, which prompted some wags to wonder if the Instagram is up there in a cloud, somewhere not far from the guy above. As Lewis clearly didn’t want to communicate what he said directly, some distinction was going to be needed between the guy upstairs and Instagram.
Until his blow-up, we had had an interesting juxtapositioning of what we’ve come to expect as the status quo. For once it was Lewis who got away cleanly with no problems and instead it was Nico Rosberg who, after contact from his compatriot Sebastian Vettel, was relegated to the back of the field and would have to put in the kind of drive that we normally see from Lewis.
Nico didn’t disappoint and indeed, showed some aggression rarely seen, particularly when overtaking the normally quite polite Kimi Raikkonen. So he got a 10s penalty for that and still managed to pull away from Kimi to stay ahead and hold onto his third place. He was almost as grumpy afterwards as Lewis would have been.
There were some other pretty fine drives in Malaysia as well. Fernando Alonso, from the back of the grid, came through to seventh, tenaciously whittling away the 16s gap to Sergio Perez on lap 42 to almost nothing at the chequered flag 14 laps later. Fernando often can’t see the point in continuing, but on this occasion he could do so and worked hard at it. This is the kind of drive that teams love and McLaren and Honda no doubt appreciated it.
And it was good to see Jolyon Palmer finally get a World Championship point. Of course he should have scored several races ago but it’s important to him and the team to get a point and I don’t think anyone was upset that he scored in Malaysia.
It was also satisfying that the race itself was so good with such a popular pair of winners. We used to get fed up with Red Bull one-twos; now it was quite a relief! And smiling Dan is always a popular podium winner, even if he does offer possibly the worst version of sparkling wine to his co-podium occupiers. But the race confirmed the organisers’ investment in the circuit and its facilities – the GP2 and GP3 competitors were particularly appreciative of the best facilities they’ve had this year – and the crowd was fractionally up on past numbers whereas nearby Singapore, 350kms away and two weeks earlier, had seen a near ten percent fall.
It might not seem far away on a map, but it’s actually 5000kms, a six hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Japan. This is still a country that loves its Formula One and as I write this the stands opposite the pits are half full (on a Thursday) and school kids have thronged the pits, a good investment for the future. A friend managed to bypass a big security queue at Narita, 410kms away, by flashing his F1 pass. And even when we arrived at the local station at 8pm on Wednesday evening fans were waiting and watching the arrivals. Apparently at Nagoya, 50kms away, a crowd of 40 fans had followed Esteban Gutierrez as he had changed trains.
Our destination, of course, is Honda-owned Suzuka and the 32nd Japanese Grand Prix, only four of which have been held elsewhere(Fuji). The drivers love it, it’s a great challenge from their point of view and they appreciate the adulation of the fans.
As a layout, it’s intriguing because it includes just about everything that you could wish for. John Hugenholtz, the designer, did a great job. It’s figure of eight, features low, medium and high speed corners, fast changes of direction, technical sections, a chicane, a hairpin and a corner with the highest continuous g-loading of the season. And it’s high downforce; what else could you wish for?
Pirelli have brought the same combination of compounds as seen at Barcelona, Silverstone and Sepang, but they don’t expect the one stop strategies attempted last weekend to be tried here. Two sets of hards have been mandated with Raikkonen, Massa, Sauber and Gutierrez going for the minimum. Red Bull, Force India, Magnussen and Kvyat have gone for four sets, all others on three.
Vettel is the only driver to have chosen one set of mediums, while Massa, Manor and Gutierrez have gone for four sets, all others on two or three. Finally Red Bull and Manor have gone for just six sets of softs, Ferrari for nine sets while all others are on seven or eight. However, an interesting weather forecast – now thankfully free of typhoons – might see a wet-and-dry race on Sunday, but that’s some way away.
Mercedes and Red Bull will obviously be the favourites, with Mercedes on course to clinch the Constructors’ championship here. We might have said that at Sepang but now they have to score 22 points more than Red Bull. A one-two is 43 points, and three-four is 27, so even if Mercedes were first and second and Red Bull third and fourth the championship still wouldn’t be clinched. Ferrari, however, no longer have a chance of winning the series.
So the stage is set for the usual challenging Japanese Grand Prix, one to savour.