F1 analysis: Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari offer hope the 2015 season may be a contest after all
In what is perceived as a dark time for Formula One, it is funny to see who can emerge as a hero.
Two weeks ago the Mercedes-GP cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg having their own private fight at the front in Australia had raised fears of a second successive season of the German manufacturer sweeping all before them.
But hope that this season may not be the one-sided affair that most fans dread was offered on Sunday in Malaysia by a team more than used to dominating F1 themselves.
Ferrari were blamed for hurting TV ratings in the early 2000s when they won five titles in a row, winning 56 of 85 races, while Sebastian Vettel’s four championships on the trot with Red Bull Racing between 2010 and 2013 became so tedious for some spectators they booed the German.
Yet their unexpected performance in Sepang was welcomed with open arms by the F1 fraternity as it looks as though Mercedes may have some competition at last.
Last season’s top team were beaten three times but, with mechanical reliability and without their cars colliding in Belgium, a 19-race whitewash could easily have occurred.
It is important to temper the excitement a little, though, especially if we put the Malaysia result into perspective.
Mercedes, through a strategic own goal, gave Vettel and Ferrari the advantage when they chose to pit behind the safety car early in the race after Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber had gone off on Lap 3.
Hamilton had been first and Rosberg third at the time, but they dropped to third and ninth as a consequence.
Both quickly moved back up the order but Vettel, who had stayed out, maintained that advantage and his lap times held up well compared to Hamilton and Rosberg.
The warm conditions in Sepang tested tyre degradation heavily and Ferrari, who had shown promising signs of good race pace in long runs in practice on Friday, replicated that in the race.
It was telling that, with 11 laps to go, Hamilton was 11 seconds adrift of Vettel. A win was possible still, but Hamilton would have to charge and his car simply did not have the performance edge required for that.
He was taking three-10ths of a second off Vettel, rather than the second a lap needed, which left the 2014 world champion having to be content with second, ahead of Rosberg.
Hamilton, who still leads the standings by three points from Vettel was still upbeat about the result.
“I did the best I could. I think the team did the best choices they could today.”
The Englishman had been a second ahead of Vettel on Lap 3 when the Ericsson incident happened.
In a parallel universe where Ericsson does not go off, it is likely Hamilton would have won, though Vettel, given Ferrari’s similar race pace, would have kept him very honest.
As it was, Mercedes made a mistake and Ferrari and Vettel exploited it and that is encouraging for the rest of the year.
Every team makes errors, but usually Mercedes were so far down the road last year that if they did get something wrong — say a driver error, a botched pit-stop, or a strategy mix-up — they got away with it.
Not now. Vettel and Ferrari capitalised on the weekend and if they can keep it up — namely being within half a second on raw pace, having good tyre degradation and improving their own package, then they could make this season interesting.
It was Ferrari’s first win since Spain in May 2013 — 34 races ago — and they do look to be back to being a force again, not just because of Vettel, but because his teammate Kimi Raikkonen recovered from starting down in 11th after a poor qualifying session to be fourth.
That also placed the Finn comfortably ahead of the Williams and Red Bull Racing cars, who had all started ahead of him.
Despite his joy at the 40th win of his career, Vettel was realistic on where he feels Ferrari are pace wise.
“They [Mercedes] are the ones who usually set the pace,” he said. “Today we capitalised on their weakness a bit. For the next race, we will try to race as hard as we can and see where it takes us.”
The next round in China on April 11 will give a fairer idea of whether this was a one-off or if a Ferrari challenge is genuine.
But all the signs on Sunday were Hamilton’s bid to retain his crown may prove harder than expected.
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Published: March 29, 2015 04:00 AM