This was a vital win for Lewis Hamilton. Had team-mate Nico Rosberg won the second race of the season as well as the first, the German driver’s points advantage could have been crucial in a season that looks like being the property of Mercedes. At this stage, at least.
While the main story of a hot and humid Malaysia was summed up by a very happy Hamilton after dominating every lap from pole position and Mercedes scoring their first one-two finish since 1955, the subtext was the catch-up operation going on behind the silver cars.
Sebastian Vettel may have finished seven seconds behind Rosberg (and 24 behind Hamilton), but his post-race comment summarised the massive strides made by Red Bull following disastrous pre-season tests.
‘Considering where we were [during the tests], I’m really happy to finish one of the most critical races of the year in terms of stress and temperature,’ said the reigning World Champion. ‘We’ve still lot a long way to go, plenty to do to make the car better, but we’re making real progress. In fact, I’d say we’re making the best progress of any team at the moment, which is maybe easy to say considering how far back we were a month ago.’
The catch-up process also applied to Ferrari as Fernando Alonso (who qualified a brilliant fourth with a car hastily repaired and not quite right after damaging his steering during Qualifying 2) came home fourth, 11 seconds behind Vettel.
It might have been a better result all round for Ferrari had Kimi Raikkonen not suffered a punctured rear tyre following an incident with Kevin Magnussen on the opening lap. By the time Raikkonen had limped to the pits for a replacement, the majority of the field had overtaken the red car.
Magnussen, continuing to impress with his maturity, put his hand up and said he had made a misjudgement. His penalty was struggling with a damaged front wing until the first (of three) pit stops and finishing ninth, three places behind Jenson Button. Compared to the podium finish in Australia, this was disappointing, the faster corners at Sepang showing up a shortcoming with the McLaren. But at least they had both cars in the points.
Red Bull were restricted to one when Daniel Ricciardo suffered appalling luck. Having made an excellent start and laid a marker on Vettel to take third place from his team-mate on the first lap, the Australian’s left-front tyre was not secured properly at his second stop (he will suffer a 10-place grid penalty in Bahrain next week as a result), then the nose wing broke (possibly due to jack damage during the chaotic stop). There was further trouble with the fuel flow sensor but, significantly in the light of Ricciardo’s exclusion in Australia, Red Bull chose to work from the information provided by the FIA. But none of that detracted from Red Bull’s development progress.
Rain during qualifying had highlighted a lack of downforce on the Williams but, as expected, the Martini-sponsored cars were quick enough in the race to score points once more. The downside for Williams was having Felipe Massa disregard orders to let Valtteri Bottas through to challenge Button in the closing stages.
The anticipated front-runners aside, the most impressive race pace came from Force India as Nico Hulkenberg, alone among the leaders in running a two-stop strategy, finished fifth, 11 seconds behind Alonso and more than half a minute ahead of Button. Hulkenberg continues to he touted as a great talent and he could be joined by Daniil Kvyat as the 19-year-old brought his Toro Rosso home in 10th place to score points for the first two races of his F1 career.
For Hamilton, win number 23 brought his career points tally to 1127. But it’s the total at the end of the year that matter most to the Englishman right now. The result in Malaysia has done a lot for his peace of mind.
‘I’m very happy,’ said Hamilton. ‘You can never ignore Red Bull. They’re always breathing down your neck. Having not scored anything in Australia, I’ve got some big points on the board. That means a lot right now.’