Farewell then to the Malaysia Grand Prix and thanks for all the memories. The 19th race at Sepang was, like many of its predecessors, hugely enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining and not without a moment or two of controversy and drama.
But, sadly, money talks and the race has just got too expensive to stage, sound familiar at all? Although I did hear that it might not be a farewell forever and that there is a chance that in three years’ time or so, we could all be back to enjoy Grand Prix racing at this fabulous circuit once again.
My week in Malaysia started at the Sunway Lagoon Resort, a rather curious place with its waterpark, pyramids and statues of elephants dotted around the place. This year it was the host to the 13th ‘F1 In Schools World Finals’. 51 teams, around 340 students and an incredible standard of engineering on show. Not to mention the marketing that supports the engineering, allowing the racing to take place, as the students all have to raise their own budgets to be able to come and take part.
Hyperdrive, four guys from Melbourne, Australia, took the title in the end, after 4 days of competition, and even had the honour of receiving their trophy from Chase Carey for a second time on the actual Sepang podium.
It was my 9th year officiating at the world finals and not for the first time was I thoroughly impressed with the standard or work produced by the students. It’s no surprise that teams like Williams continue to offer a mentoring program to some of those competing in the competition. Already they have students from the first year of their Ranstad Academy working for the team, it makes sense surely to sniff out where the talent is and get there before anybody else.
It’s what Red Bull started with their young driver development program of course and this weekend we saw Pierre Gasly become the latest from their stable to make his Formula 1 racing debut. He did a solid job, despite suffering from a bad back in the race, but now the pressure is on to start scoring points for the team, something Daniil Kvyat didn’t manage for 9 races before he was told to put his feet up for a while.
By pure coincidence, and for the second time, Daniil Kyat’s demotion led to victory for Max Verstappen, not that I’m suggesting any connection should be made here. It was, however, clearly an emotional victory for both driver and his family, who had all come over to help celebrate his 20th Birthday that weekend. Forget any thoughts that he was out partying after the victory though, I can confirm that he looked a lot fresher and way more awake than I did, standing in the queue for passport control at Narita Airport first thing on Monday morning. What he did in Tokyo after that, you’ll have to look at his Instagram to find out.
Going into the race, Max had completed only 54% of the racing laps in 2017 and had lead just 9 laps, all of which came at the Hungarian GP back in July. He’d picked up seven DNFs, three of which came as a result of first lap accidents, none of which were his fault, and yes that includes Singapore, despite the odd tweet or two that I received suggesting that he should have backed out a little earlier to avoid the two Ferraris.
Either way, it was a season full of restoration for the Dutchman and despite his attempts to smile through it, it was clearly becoming something of an irritant that mechanical issues were costing him dear. Hopefully his race in Malaysia will go a long way to restoring his self-belief and his belief in the team as well, because the upgrades that Red Bull brought to Singapore are clearly working well and bringing performance improvements that will worry Ferrari and particularly Mercedes.
Where Mercedes’ pace has disappeared to in the last couple of races, I’m not sure they totally know themselves yet. But it’s a concern and, despite increasing his advantage at the top of the table, Lewis Hamilton spoke after the race about the team’s need for major improvement. Not just to secure what would be a 4th consecutive double championship season, but to carry over into 2018 as well. In Sepang it was another ‘get out of jail free’ race for Mercedes who were fearful of Ferrari and Red Bull’s pace going into the race, but in the end only had to worry about one of their competitors as the Scuderia completed a nightmare month with another shocker of a weekend.
September has seen them thrashed on their home tarmac, before heading to Singapore where they combined to throw away what was very likely going to be a one-two finish. And this weekend Seb’s problems in qualifying were compounded by a failure for Kimi Raikkonen that prevented him taking the start. Vettel’s drive from 20th to finish 4th was certainly impressive and one of the reasons for Hamilton’s view that Mercedes have plenty of work to do to stay ahead. And I’d be amazed if there isn’t a five place grid penalty coming up for Seb in Japan as a result of his collision with Lance Stroll after the race had finished on Sunday.
An unnecessary incident that caused extensive damage to the Ferrari at a point where neither car was racing and both should really have been looking where they’re going. Sepang is one of the widest circuits on the calendar, obviously it isn’t wide enough! Certainly Stroll was drifting to the right but could Seb have slowed down to avoid contact, or was he looking down at his steering wheel and didn’t notice in time? Interestingly, the Stewards shared the blame equally but did feel it important enough to remind all of the drivers that they should take more care on the slow down lap.
And just a final word on the Stewards this weekend who had plenty to look into during the race after cars had come together and various drivers had put forward the case for prosecution or defence over the team radio. But they decided not to issue any penalties on any of the incidents and that is worth applauding. Do we want draconian penalties that discourage drivers from going for a move? Or do we want a certain amount of leniency that helps lead to the entertainment we had on Sunday in Sepang? I’ll take the latter and keep my fingers crossed that we return for many more Sundays in Sepang in the future.