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MARCH 31, 2015

Hold your (prancing) horses!


Sebastian Vettel, Malaysian GP 2015
© Active Pictures

Don't you just love Formula One? Just when even the insiders criticise the lack of excitement in the races we're treated to a cracking Malaysian Grand Prix that had every real fan on the edge of their seat watching, in disbelief, as Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

The German's victory was a clear upset, as before the start of the weekend no one would have put one ringgit on his chances to beat the two Mercedes drivers fair and square. But Vettel drove a perfect race, Ferrari gave him a car that could go fast without using up the tyres too hard and the Scuderia's strategy and pit stops were also close to perfection.

On the other side of the barricade, Mercedes performed below its normal standards, Hamilton and Rosberg fought agains't higher tyre degradation, the team's strategy was probably not the best one and with Vettel making no mistakes all a disgruntled Lewis Hamilton could do was to follow him to the flag.

There is no doubt Ferrari has made a huge step forward since the end of last year and the reasons behind that are interesting enough to deserve another column, but even Vettel and James Allison admitted in Sepang they were not expecting a repeat of this success next week in China, given the effect track temperatures had on the outcome of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Raikkonen had trouble-free runs until the Finn hit trouble in Q2, managing to perfect the settings of their SF15-T, as demonstrated by the German's perfect race and by the Finn's recovery from the puncture that dropped him to the back of the field on lap 2. That he managed to recover to fourth place in spite of running with a damaged floor, taking away downforce and increasing tyre degradation, shows how good the SF15-T was in Sepang.

Historically James Allison penned cars are good on the tyres - remember Raikkonen's victory for Lotus two years ago in Melbourne? - and the new Ferrari seems to follow that pattern. But it was also clear in Sepang that the Mercedes W06 is still the class of the field in terms of outright pace and that's something that cannot be changed from one day to the next.

Ferrari's progress is clear but it's also pretty obvious Mercedes didn't make the most out of what they had in Sepang. Hamilton's weekend was seriously compromised by the Power Unit issue that prevented the World Champion from doing any running on Friday morning and cut his FP2 outing to just 16 laps. Of course he still set the fastest time of that session, with a great lap against a poor effort from Rosberg, but after the team analysed the data and prepared the cars for FP3, it was the German - with a lot more data to use - who regained the upper hand, beating his team mate, as Hamilton was already struggling with the balance of his car especially in the slower corners.

The fact the World Champion couldn't even do a proper long run on Friday afternoon left Mercedes short on data regarding tyre degradation and that helped explain why the Germans were convinced the harder compound Pirelli was the best race tyre for Sunday, while Ferrari spent Saturday preparing their cars to go through most of the race with the Medium compound tyres. That's why Vettel stayed on track with the faster tyre when the Safety Car came out at the start of lap 4, while both Mercedes dived into the pits and spent the next ten laps driving through traffic, losing time to the leader, who had the benefit of a clear track.

Practice is so short in Formula One and testing virtually non-existing that the smallest issue can have the effect of an avalanche and that's what happened to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in Malaysia. Yes, Nico Rosberg had no issues, but he's clearly not as much at ease as Hamilton is with the new car, and is also dealing with a tough personal problem outside the track and is no match for his team mate right now. He also lost 7.6 seconds to Hamilton in the early pit stop, and a lot more time fighting through traffic, so his efforts were even more compromised on race day, than Hamilton's.

All this makes it clear that Mercedes still has the faster car and on a normal weekend will continue to win races on a regular basis. But Ferrari is now in the position Red Bull was for most of last year and only needs the German's to hit a bit of trouble to be in a position to beat them. That's already good news for the championship but if the Scuderia manages to develop the SF15-T faster than Mercedes improves the W06 we could be in for a really thrilling season. For now, though, let's hold our horses and wait to see what kind of fight Ferrari can take to Mercedes in Shanghai.