Mayhem in Sepang – the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix

As the dust settles on this one, it would appear that Nico Rosberg now has a stranglehold on the world championship. At the start of the race, things seemed very different.

For once, Lewis Hamilton got a good start, staying ahead of Rosberg into turn 1. Rosberg was the victim of an ill-advised lunge down the inside of turn 1 by Sebastian Vettel on Max Verstappen, which had the knock-on effect of putting Rosberg into a spin and facing the wrong way. Both Rosberg and Verstappen were fortunate not to face damage to their cars – Vettel however, was out, his front-left suspension bent out of shape.

Rosberg would start to charge up the field, whilst Hamilton would gradually eke out a gap on the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo behind him. Another key mover up the field was Fernando Alonso, demonstrating his considerable talents as he scythed his way up the pack. The McLaren ran quite well here, with Alonso taking a penalty that put him to the back of the grid, but he would end up in a very credible seventh, whilst his teammate Jensen Button took ninth on this 300th start. In fact, Alonso is my driver of the day today.

Verstappen would also move back up the field after his incident at the start, but he didn’t fall nearly as far back as Rosberg, and he was soon back into the top four, behind the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen. The leading pack would trundle around, and they were able to conserve their tyres a little during a virtual safety car, brought on by rear-brake failure for Romain Grosjean in his Haas, skidding off the track at the final hairpin. It wasn’t the only problem for Haas, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

Red Bull decided to mix things up, as they have done in previous races, by splitting their strategy. Ricciardo was left out on a longer first stint on the soft tyres, whilst Verstappen was brought in and given hard boots during the VSC. Raikkonen also stayed out. The advantage of pitting under VSC conditions meant Verstappen didn’t lose much time and was potentially in a position to take the lead of the race by the time the top three stopped. By the end of lap 23 the top three had stopped, and Verstappen led, though with the likelihood of having to stop again. For Hamilton, Ricciardo and Raikkonen, the hard compound tyre was in theory capable of getting them to the end of the race.

Elsewhere, Rosberg was catching Raikkonen, edging closer and closer. He started to put the Ferrari man under pressure, and on lap 39 went around the outside of turn 1 and swung through the bendy sequence of corners to end up on the inside of turn 3, where he more or less barged his way past with a bump. It looked like it would be a solid case of damage limitation from Rosberg, but with Hamilton comfortable out in front, the title lead was set to go back to the Englishman.

The two Red Bulls were getting punchy. Verstappen had been on the radio, requesting that he be allowed by Ricciardo, but Ricciardo wasn’t inclined to yield, and the two get very feisty on lap 40, racing hard and wheel-to-wheel through turns 5 and 6, with Ricciardo holding off Verstappen in a display that would have left the Red Bull garage queasy. As it happened, Ricciardo’s strong defensive driving would prove decisive.

On lap 41, the title battle took a dramatic lurch in Rosberg’s favour. Hamilton had been on course for a much-needed and well-deserved win, when without warning his engine belched flame and his race came to a halt. Hamilton was understandably dismayed – and for Red Bull, they had the very real prospect of a one-two finish, something that would further turn the screw on Ferrari in the battle for second in the constructor’s championship. In the midst of the drama, the Haas of Esteban Gutierrez also retired, with the front-left tyre coming loose and bouncing away from the car. Another VSC period was required to sort things out, with the Red Bulls double-stacking and taking on soft tyres to see out the race.

Once the racing resumed, Ricciardo did enough to see off Verstappen, keeping out of DRS range. It was his first win for two years, and a much-needed and well-earned win, after the problems of Spain and Monaco. It was touching that Ricciardo would dedicate his win to the late Jules Bianchi, a nice gesture.

The real winner though, was Rosberg, who now holds a 23-point lead in the title race with five races to go.

 

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