Red Bull Scores 1-2 As Hamilton’s Engine Goes Up in Flames
Ever since the Malaysian Grand Prix was first held at the Sepang International Circuit in 1999, it had always been scheduled near the very start of the Formula One annual calendar, so it was a bit odd this year to finally arrive there with just six races to go. On hindsight, I’m surprised the move hadn’t happened sooner: the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix was pushed back on the calendar to avoid monsoon season and, bar the people who wish to see F1 cars go around a track in absolutely dreary conditions (or not at all), this was a positive change for all parties concerned.
It wasn’t the only change. The circuit was completely resurfaced and two of the corners were re-profiled, which meant the cars were quicker there than they had ever been. Last year, Sebastian Vettel grabbed his first Ferrari win in Malaysia, kicking off their partnership to what had seemed a very promising start. It hasn’t looked as good this year, though.
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Qualifying was The Hamilton Show. The three-time World Champion was dominant all weekend and there was little chance of teammate Nico Rosberg matching him when it mattered. He gave it a good try though—he was only a tenth or so down on the pole position time by the end of the second sector on his hot lap, but mucked up the last corner and was lucky to start on the first row of the grid.
Max Verstappen managed to out-qualify Daniel Ricciardo for only the third time since they were paired together in the Red Bull, by just a hair. Behind them were Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen in the Ferraris; Kimi seemed to have the upper hand at first, but as usual couldn’t improve on his second Q3 run and would thus start behind his teammate.
Jenson Button put in the highlight performance in qualifying by slotting his McLaren the top 10 and breaking up the predictable order. That being said, Fernando Alonso could probably have been up there as well, but a 45-place grid penalty for changing the turbocharger and MGU-H gave him no reason to bother trying.
The race was off to an excellent start if you like drama, and an even better one if you support Hamilton. Vettel was a bit too optimistic going into the first corner and accidentally collected Rosberg, who was spun around in an impressive cloud of smoke. Vettel had to retire and Rosberg was lucky to be able to continue with the race; somehow, his car wasn’t broken and none of the cars that sped past him made contact—he avoided stalling, spun his car around again, and went on his way from dead last.
Ahead, Hamilton was flying. Ricciardo and Verstappen followed in second and third, respectively, with Räikkönen doing what he could to salvage some points from Ferrari. Though it had looked dire as early as the first corner, Rosberg’s race was looking better and better by the second. He climbed all the way back up to fifth before he truly struggled to make further progress, hampered by Raikkonen’s Ferrari. He eventually made the move, though somewhat brusquely, and subsequently received a 10-second time penalty for the minor collision that ensued.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo and Verstappen scrapped away for second place and pulled some amazing moves for the cameras. Despite the latter’s fresher tires, Ricciardo stayed in front. Little did they know that the outcome of their fight would dictate the winner of the Grand Prix.
In the late stage of the race, what had been a splendid afternoon for Hamilton turned to disaster as his engine went up into flames. Even though I’m not a Hamilton supporter, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the Mercedes driver when hearing his cry of anguish over the radio (though that quickly changed when he made some ambiguous conspiracy-type comment about “someone doesn’t want me to win” in the post-race interview).
Ultimately, Ricciardo and Verstappen were first to the finish line, in that order, to score Red Bull’s first 1-2 finish since their dominant run in 2013. Rosberg successfully created a 10-second gap to Räikkönen to preserve third place, giving him a 15-point boost over Hamilton at the end of the day.
Behind them, Valtteri Bottas continued to overshadow the retiring Felipe Massa at Williams and Force India and McLaren both hauled in good points. Jolyon Palmer was also delighted to score his first-ever championship point.
While it was nice to see Ricciardo again at the top of the podium, it was hilarious to see him down another shoey—and not just that, but serve it up to all three of the other trophy-winners there with him, including Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner.
Rosberg now has a 23-point lead in the championship with five races to go, starting with the Japanese Grand Prix next weekend. It’s a good position to be in, but almost meaningless: as we saw today, points can easily swing either way. Still, Rosberg has historically been strong at the remaining circuits on the calendar and I’m hoping for a great fight to the finish.
It’s not been looking good for Ferrari, however. They were hoping to challenge Mercedes this season and not only were they far from doing so, they’re now clearly third in the constructor’s championship behind Red Bull, even on tracks where you would expect them to have a power advantage.
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Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.