Race Analysis: Mercedes dominate, but the pack closes

Race Analysis: Mercedes dominate, but the pack closes

The Malaysian Grand Prix was a test of stamina for all aspects of the race: tyres, drivers, engines, pit crews, fuel consumption. The fact that Mercedes were once again dominant proves just how valuable a smooth pre-season was. However, Red Bull’s rapid resurgence also proves that no one can be complacent. Mercedes may have the upper hand now, but two podium finishes (with one taken away) from the reigning champions is a testament to how quickly fortunes can turn in this new era of Formula One.

Unlike in Australia, the Pirelli tyres were much more of a talking point, both in the dry and the wet. Many drivers were critical of Pirelli’s new version of the wet tire, saying it had much less grip and control than its 2013 predecessor. However, this lack of confidence can mostly be attributed to the increased torque and lack of downforce characteristic of the 2014 cars.

In the race, as was predicted in the practice sessions, tire degradation was a major factor. The heat, humidity and abrasive nature of the copyright octanetrack all conspired against the life of the tires, limiting most to a three-stop strategy. While this was the preferred choice originally, getting it to work was a much harder task than previously anticipated.

Pirelli predicted a three-stop strategy to pan out as such: start on the medium tire and change to the medium again on lap 15, second stop for more mediums on lap 29 and a final stint on the hard from lap 43. Their prediction proved pretty accurate, for the victor, Lewis Hamilton, stopped on laps 15, 33 and 51, for the same tire compounds predicted by the Italian tire manufacturer. Hamilton’s ability to extend his stints further than anticipated was what helped him along to such a dominant win. The Silver Arrows’ outright performance advantage was smaller in Malaysia than in Australia, so sealing the win would depend more on tire performance more than it did two weeks ago.

At the start, Lewis Hamilton made sure to develop an advantage over teammate Nico Rosberg and the pursuing Red Bulls. This gap proved crucial as Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo were able to stay with the Mercedes cars for longer than they were able to in Australia, just more evidence of a rapid resurgence from the men and women in Milton Keynes.

With the heat playing such a crucial role in tire life and, as a result, the race itself, some drivers started to come into the pits around lap 10-12, rather than 15 as Pirelli predicted. This set the tone for the rest of the race: one of conservation rather than aggression. This turned out to be a fascinating way for the race to pan out, though, because the extremes of Malaysia have given us an insight into how other races could play out in the future.

We know now that Mercedes are good on their tires, something they will have worked hard on over the winter, while the likes of Red Bull are less confident. These two developments have been helped by Pirelli’e conservative approach and a torrid preseason, respectively, but nonetheless give an interesting indication as to how to how races in similar climates could pan out.

With Mercedes dominating on a three-stop strategy, it would seem obvious that that was a winning strategy, and it was. But Nico Hulkenberg in the Force India showed, with an abundance of class, just how well an alternative strategy can work out.

The German’s two-stop strategy was always going to be difficult, and when he only stopped one lap after Hamilton for his two stops it seemed like he would be on the same strategy as the Briton. But when the hard tires went on the Force India on lap 34, we knew he Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Malaysian Grand Prix - Practice Day - Sepang, Malaysiawould be two-stopping. It was ambitious, no doubt, but Nico’s ability to stay close to Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari was crucial in the strategy’s success.

Just as with any alternate strategy involving one less stop, the closing laps of the race are always going to be intense, for those on a normal strategy are on newer tires and often in faster cars. So when Alonso emerged from his third stop on lap 42, it was only a matter of time before Nico’s tires went off and the Spaniard caught up to him. At this point, the German was running a fantastic fourth, courtesy of Daniel Ricciardo’s tire blunder during his third stop that left him more than a lap down.

Nico handled this pressure immensely well, pushing in very specific places to ensure he stayed ahead of the Ferrari for as long as possible. But the inevitable eventually happened and with just a few laps left in the race, Fernando was through and safe in fourth place.

Further down the field, the battle between McLaren and Williams was race-long and intense. Mclaren’s performance in the humidity and the high speed corners wasn’t a match for Williams, and it showed. However, Jenson Button did a good job of keeping both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas behind when they were much faster. Had the two Williams’ qualified higher, then they would probably have been in the Alonso/Hulkenberg scrap. However, their pace in the wet qualifying session meant they were stuck in the midfield and with it all to do in the race.

One interesting thing to note is fuel consumption. It wasn’t discussed as much this race as it was in Australia, but it is nevertheless a vital part of race strategy, especially considering Red Bull’s situation with the FIA after ignoring their instructions regarding the rate of fuel flow to the power unit.

The world feed was incredibly helpful with informing the viewing audience of where everyone was in terms of fuel use by showing all the drivers’ percentage use of their fuel at various point so of the race. It was abundantly clear by a quarter’s distance that Williams is very fuel efficient. They had already used two percent less than the rest of the field by lap 15 and only increased that advantage throughout the race. On a track with such long stretches at full throttle this advantage bodes well for the rest of the season, especially considering how fast the two drivers made their way up the grid from their disappointing starting positions.

F12014GP02MAL_HZ8784Mercedes is still clearly ahead of the field at this point of the season. But if Red Bull’s surge in competitiveness is any indication of things to come this year (and it is), then Mercedes has their work cut out for them to stay ahead. Red Bull is thought to have the more aerodynamically sound and efficient car in the field, so it is only a matter of Renault getting fully on top of their engines until Red Bull is fighting for victories.

Whether its a goof thing or not that the next race is a week away remains to be seen, for while it limits the progress Mercedes can make on its own car, it also limits what the other teams can do as well. That means the advantage the Silver Arrows hold over the rest of the field is likely to remain in Bahrain. It will be interesting to finally have a dry qualifying session and see just how close the 2014 cars can get to the impressive times they set on the Bahrain International Circuit in pre-season testing. Red Bull surely will improve on their own performance there.

Images courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1 Team, Octane Photographic and Force India F1 Team.