2017 Malaysian GP Review and Japanese GP Preview – By Bob Constanduros
Maybe we should have guessed that a Red Bull would win the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier in the weekend. After all, the signs were there that their rivals were in trouble. Mercedes were terrible on Friday but seemed to bounce back – at least Hamilton did – on the Saturday in qualifying. But maybe Valtteri Bottas’s form was more of a hint of things to come.
Meanwhile Ferrari were on the back foot from two weeks before! There seemed to have been the same problem with both cars from Saturday onwards and when one car has a problem, you always have to wonder if the other is going to suffer from the same thing – which is exactly what happened. Those for whom Ferrari isn’t the number one team could only wonder what Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler and Ferrari president, thought about Singapore, let alone the latest disaster. He should watch his blood pressure – advice from one who knows.
So Red Bull almost had the way clear to victory. It was a matter of which driver would do the business, and the team had gambled on different aerodynamic set-ups so that would be the deciding factor. In the end, the driver who has only had one podium to his name this year would rise to the top step a day after he stopped being a teenager. Wonderful stuff. And he still said that his greatest win was the World Kart championship a few years ago.
He’s almost an old hand at Formula One in spite of his youth, but I was struck by the new generation making inroads on Friday morning. This is traditionally when newcomers, pay drivers and anyone else who wants a go has their moment of glory in FP1. It doesn’t always go perfectly, of course. Poor Sergey Sirotkin has had a pretty miserable couple of sessions this year, as Jolyon Palmer has in the past. Inexperienced drivers tend to crash although Sean Geleal and Antonio Giovanazzi did a remarkably good job of keeping it out of the wall in the wet in Singapore.
But in FP1 in Malaysia we had the following: Russian Sergey Sirotkin having his fourth run this year in the Renault, F2 championship leader Charles Leclerc in the Haas (thanks to Ferrari), same deal for last year’s GP2 runner-up Antonio Giovinazzi at Sauber and wannbe Indonesian F1 driver Sean Geleal at Toro Rosso and you had four. But then add in last year’s GP2 champion Pierre Gasly making his official F1 debut replacing Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, Lance Stroll and Stoffel Vandoorne making their debuts at Sepang, Esteban Ocon still in his first full season of F1 and even Max Verstappen still a teenager when he arrived and you have a lot of young drivers.
Three of them – Stroll, Ocon and Verstappen – never drove in GP2/now F2 and you wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. They may not have learned some bad manners in the lesser formula, but then they also didn’t have the benefit of that extra power and how it can be used, whereas in F3 for instance, the relative lack of power is a useful training ground to treat every burst of horsepower carefully.
Now we are in Suzuka. It’s a six hour plus flight from Malaysia – perhaps surprisingly. Suzuka is one of F1’s favourite tracks and race weekends. All the drivers appreciate the fans, not just the occasional one who constantly praises each country’s fans as being the best in the world. But they also love the challenge of the circuit, designed by John Hugenholtz who mixed in every possible combination of swerve and turn to test man and machine. Additionally, there is the possibility of rain on Saturday for qualifying (and also Friday) but also much more lateral load for the same combination of Pirellis that we saw last weekend in Malaysia – medium, soft and supersoft – which probably means more stops than the one-stop strategies seen last weekend, and some quick laps as well, thanks to these new wider tyres and lower rear wings.
Battle really should be joined between Mercedes and Ferrari this weekend. The Italians have had two disastrous weekends and are equally the most successful team at Suzuka with McLaren. Victories have come via Michael Schumacher but also Sebastian Vettel who is the most successful of the current drivers with wins in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 whereas his rival Lewis Hamilton won at Fuji in 2007 but also at Suzuka in 2014 and 2015.
Suzuka isn’t one of those circuits where it’s vital to start from pole position. Thirteen times out of 28 races the winner has started from pole position, but they’ve also won from second on the grid 11 times. Kimi Raikkonen’s win in 2005 came from an amazing 17th on the grid, so everything is possible.
One should not forget that the championship has already taken significant turns over the last couple of races. Lewis Hamilton now enjoys a 34 point lead in the championship over Sebastian Vettel, who is only 25 ahead of Valtteri Bottas. The Finn is determined that his post-break problems are now behind him and have been sufficiently investigated to his satisfaction. Suzuka is the perfect circuit on which to bounce back. He needs to keep ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, while there will be a new bounce in the step of Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen after winning in Malaysia.
Remember there are only four races to go after this one in Japan and even though a lot can still change, the championship gets more and more settled by the race. Vettel is still determined he can make it but just at how Nico Rosberg looked more and more secure last year, just as Hamilton is looking more and more secure this year. Vettel needs luck to turn the championship his way but Mercedes will be more than careful to ensure it’s got nothing to do with luck.