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GP Week : Issue 217
15 GPWEEK.com // 15 GPWEEK.com // F1 >>> MALAYSIA PARTNERS: The enormity of Ferrari's acheivement in Malaysia should not be underestimated. From a team which struggled through 2014 and has undergone significant internal changes over the last twelve months, there are few who would have predicted sebastian Vettel would stand atop a Grand Prix podium in just his second race for the scuderia. There would be fewer still who would have thought he'd do it by out-racing the mighty Mercedes team. Ferrari's trump card was its willingness to trust itself. Early in the race it was posed with a dilema when Marcus Ericsson spun his Sauber into the gravel; to pit or not to pit. Light on its feet, Ferrari was expected to take a two-stop strategy while most others would be forced into making three. There was little between the strategy on paper, two or perhaps three seconds, making car pace the deciding factor. Advantage Mercedes. Both Hamilton and Rosberg stopped under the Safety Car for Ericsson, exchanging their medium tyres for a set of hards, the favoured race tyre. It was a decisive move, and one which ultimately cost Mercedes the race. By using the Safety Car to shed what they beileved to be the inferior race rubber early they instead hamstrung themselves with their ability to attack on track. They needed another handful of laps before they stopped to remain competitive, while, as things transpired, the medium compounds remained the tyre to have despite the oppressive heat. It would only become clear later in the race when Hamilton made his last stop and the team fitted a set of hard tyres, all but ending his pursuit of Vettel. By staying on track until lap 21, Vettel maximised his opening stint. The light-footed Ferrari made good use of its tyres allowing the Italian team to employ a two stop strategy, but Vettel remained quick even on the hard compound tyres which he ran during the final stint. The victory though was not solely the result of smart strategy. The Ferrari was fast, very nearly as fast as the Mercedes. Vettel out front was a prime example but better still came from Kimi Raikkonen who charged from last place to fourth at the finish with a damaged car. Many had expected Williams to provide Mercedes its biggest threat but a clumsy weekend limited its potential. Mistakes in qualifying meant at the start it was caught in the midfield melee from which neither driver ever really recoverred. Aside from an internal squabble in the closing stages the white cars were largely invisible at the front of the race, where they should by rights have been. There is no doubt Williams has been demoted to third best behind Ferrari and Mercedes, at least in the heat of Malaysia. Ironically what helped Ferrari in Malaysia, its ability to maintain its tyres, could well hinder it in cooler races like China where gaining and maintaining tyre temperature is far more difficult. That may play back into Williams' hands but, at least for now, their expectations shouldn't extend too far beyond the third row of the grid. At McLaren things looked like they may be on the up, though a double retirement leaves questions unanswered. Both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were closer to the pace in Malaysia than the team was in Australia, much to Button's amazement mid-race, but failing to finish suggests one step forward and two steps back. Their increased pace suggested things had been turned up in the engine department, though with neither reaching the finish it seems difficult to brand that decision anything but foolhardy. Yet still both Button, who has typically towed the party line, and Alonso, who often doesn't, claim the car is good and publicly remain enthused by the project. When Button gets excited about something as fundamental catching cars it's difficult to understand how. There will be plenty of head scratching at Red Bull too following an embarassing performance which saw the senior team beaten by its development squad. Red Bull had a tough afternoon, easier than Australia perhaps but both cars lacked pace. Daniel Ricciardo's day wasn't helped with damage to his front wing and a brake problem, while Daniil Kvyat's ability to finish only metres ahead of the Australian despite the ailments fails to paint a bright picture for the Russian. Especially when one considers the rising talent that is Max Verstappen, who recorded a far better result in a car which should be inferior to that of the Red Bull (see separate story). The Malaysian Grand Prix therefore reaffirmed many of the things we'd garnered from Melbourne, though perhaps with the somewhat stunning realisation that Mercedes doesn't have the edge everyone thought. Ferrari is most certainly its strongest opposition while Williams occupies an unrivalled third place. It's the battle for fourth which is truly fascinating with both Red Bull and Toro Rosso involved in that debate. In time Red Bull will pull ahead but for now it's being left rather red faced.