F1 Malaysia Grand Prix: Shoe-In

To finish first, first you must finish. I’m sure that Lewis Hamilton has those words ringing through his head after this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix. A sure win after his teammate’s bad luck to start the race would put him back on top of the World Drivers’ Championship. Instead, he’s now 23 points behind Rosberg after his car spit more hot fire than he does on his album.

The race almost couldn’t have started worse for Nico Rosberg. He didn’t get the best of starts and it only got worse when Sebastian Vettel dove into Turn 1. He got a little piece of Max Verstappen which sent him into Rosberg. The Silver Arrow went spinning back to 21st. It would have been 22nd but Vettel’s left-front developed about 50º of camber which meant his car was too damaged to carry on.

This resulted in a virtual safety car which didn’t help Rosberg but Verstappen was able to catch Kimi Raikkonen napping as the race restarted to move back up the field. He also capitalized on a second VSC, this time for Romain Grosjean’s stricken car, as he made the switch to a second set of softs. He was able to get right on top of the Mercedes but couldn’t do better than that given Mercedes’s raw pace.

Of course, Mercedes’s raw pace only works when the car is running. Lewis’s car wasn’t at about the two-thirds mark of the race as it spit fire coming down the pit straight and into retirement. This resulted in another VSC and a round of pit stops. Unfortunately for Verstappen, his earlier pace and fortuitous strategy was undone by this call and teammate Daniel Ricciardo was able to capitalize en route to his first win of the season.

It was shoeys all around as Ricciardo took to the top step of the podium for the first time in over two years. Verstappen finished in second but looked good quality to win if only luck had gone his way. Rosberg recovered to finish third thanks in part to an aggressive pass of Raikkonen that resulted in a time penalty but not one great enough to lose him a position.

Raikkonen brought the sole Ferrari home in 4th. Valtteri Bottas was the biggest beneficiary of the chaos as he finished 5th. Sergio Perez had a quiet day before finishing 6th. Fernando Alonso started shotgun on the field and came home in 7th. The Hulk was 8th as his name started to get play in silly season stories. Jenson Button made it McLaren double points for the first time since Monaco with a 9th. And Jolyon Palmer rounded out the points in 10th for his first career points and giving Renault consecutive points finishes which is something no one would have thought happen this season.

The silly season picture might have cleared up slightly. Despite a late series of rumours linking him to Haas, Sergio Perez confirmed his return to Force India for 2017. The link to Haas was part of a rumour that Ferrari has put Checo at the top of their Raikkonen’s replacement list.

On that note, there might be two openings at the Scuderia in 2018. Raikkonen’s retirement is expected annually. Vettel’s contract has an opt out after the 2017 season and many expect that if Ferrari doesn’t improve next year, Vettel will be on his way out. Of course, unless Hamilton retires or is fired to free up a Mercedes seat,  Vettel doesn’t have a better option than Ferrari at his disposal. Unless, I suppose, he wants to join Mark Webber in the WEC.

So that leaves Renault’s options that much fewer. They are believed to covet Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz as lead drivers for next season. Esteban Ocon was Renault’s reserve drivers until he joined Manor who now want to keep him. They still have Kevin Magnussen, Jolyon Palmer and Sergei Sirotkin currently under contract who appear to be Renault’s last choices for their 2017 seats.

Over at Williams, Lance Stroll secured the European Formula 3 championship over the weekend and earned enough superlicense points to qualify for an FIA superlicense. While he might end up getting his seat with Williams thanks to sponsorship he’s bringing to the team, it’s not like he’s a slow driver. He could probably do with some seasoning in GP2 but it’s not like Red Bull hasn’t had some success pulling drivers from Formula Renault 3.5 into F1 or skipping most of the European ladder altogether.

The provisional 2017 Formula One calendar was released ahead of this race weekend. If you liked this season, you’ll like next as the only change is China to the second race of the season with Bahrain following the next week.

Of note is that three races are listed as subject to confirmation. Those races are the Canadian, German and Brazilian Grands Prix. The German Grand Prix is provisional because this is supposed to be a Nurburgring year but the schedule lists Hockenheim who don’t have a deal in place for 2017. Canada is under pressure to upgrade its facilities, especially the pits and paddock.

Brazil’s move to the subject to confirmation list came as a surprise to race organizers. They claim to be in compliance with their contract with Bernie despite economic turmoil in the country. I can only assume that the cost of the debt from holding both the World Cup and the Olympics might impact the country’s ability to also host an F1 race.

Speaking of the Canadian GP, the City of Montreal will be handing Bernie and co. a $4 million penalty for not having a new paddock constructed. They will, however, have a $50 million infrastructure construction project to replace the existing paddock and stewards facilities by 2019. The Provincial government of Quebec and the Canadian Government will reportedly contribute $17 million to the cause.

Formula One also announced the new rules for 2017 ahead of this weekend.

The most interesting new rule is the addition of a standing start following a safety car period that starts a wet weather race. The current rule sees a race that is too wet for a standing start run behind the safety car until track conditions improve enough for green flag racing. I don’t particularly like this rule since it seems like an artificial and dangerous way to spice up racing in wet conditions by hoping people mess up the starts to mix up the running order. Why not just let them launch from the initial red lights? At least it’s better than all safety cars give way to a standing start.

The stockpiling engine parts rule, which we should call the Hamilton rule, has been changed. Now, only the “last [power unit] element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty.” Using Lewis’s Belgian GP, he could use the third MGU-H fitted to his car that weekend without additional penalty from that point on but the other two he fitted would be subject to penalty if he tried to use them in subsequent race weekends. To put it another way, you’ll be penalized for every power unit element above the limit you use but you will be subject to only one penalty per element type per weekend.

In less exciting rule changes, drivers are given a one-time exemption to the one helmet design rule. This will allow drivers to run a special helmet design for one race (likely either at Monaco or their home  race). Drivers will also be allowed to change helmet design if they change teams. Tyre selection for the first five races has already been prescribed. Pirelli will automatically give the teams two of the hardest compounds, four of the mediums and seven of the softest compound tyres.

The next round of the Formula One World Championship is next week. It’s a longer jump than the trip from Singapore to Malaysia but it’s still an Asian flyaway race as Formula One heads to the Suzuka Circuit for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton has won the last two races in Japan and needs to score a third-straight one to get back into the championship hunt. The biggest problem he faces is the likelihood that he will need to take a grid penalty for replacement power unit elements after his fiery engine failure this weekend. A podium isn’t out of the question but a win could be if he’s not at the front of the field by the end of the first few laps.

Rosberg has finished behind Hamilton in both of these last two Japanese GPs and qualified on pole in each. If Hamilton has to take a grid penalty or has a bad start, Rosberg is certain to be in position to capitalize and that’s the last thing that Lewis wants or needs right now. For the rest of us, it will certainly make the title fight much more exciting.


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