Sebastian Vettel finds his mojo for Ferrari at Malaysian Grand Prix
When Nico Rosberg joked with Sebastian Vettel in Melbourne a fortnight ago that he hoped Ferrari could move up and join the fight with Mercedes, nobody imagined it would happen so soon.
But yesterday, in the searing heat of Sepang, the man some thought was washed up last year rediscovered his mojo. The German drove a superbly judged, strategic race which made full use of his car's superior tyre wear and put Ferrari back in the winners' enclosure for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
As Vettel savoured his first victory since Brazil 2013, Ferrari's first since Spain that year, and their first together in only his second race for the Scuderia, he was emotional.
"Last year was not a good year for me. We had a great car and I was struggling to extract the performance," he said. "This year's car is fantastic and when the gates first opened for me at Maranello it was a great day for me. I grew up watching Michael [Schumacher] and now I'm driving that red car. We had a great car, great strategy and great pace. It's been a really, really great day, one that will always remain with me."
At the start, it looked like business as usual as Lewis Hamilton retained the lead from pole position while Vettel, starting second on the grid, had to squeeze Nico Rosberg against the pit wall to keep his compatriot from overtaking at the first corner.
Hamilton, however, was already struggling with his Mercedes' balance, and when Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson spun in the first corner while fighting with Nico Hulkenberg and the safety car was deployed while the stricken Sauber was taken away, Mercedes led a mass dash into the pits to change from the medium-compound Pirelli tyres to the hards.
Crucially, Ferrari kept Vettel out on his mediums. Mercedes stacked Rosberg behind Hamilton in the pits, as the Red Bulls, Williams, Max Verstappen's Toro Rosso and the McLarens also stopped. When Hamilton rejoined, he had fallen from first to fifth and began losing time behind the other cars which had stayed out. Rosberg fared even worse, as he was delayed behind Hamilton and then while trying to get back out of the pits because of the heavy traffic flow.
At one stage, Hamilton had an angry exchange with his team over the radio when they started talking to him while he was cornering and again when they fitted another set of hard tyres for his final stint when he had wanted mediums. But the fact was he had used up all of those. He was also confused when he intercepted a team discussion on whether a fourth stop might be necessary, but later he backed down on criticism of his chosen strategy.
"First, huge congratulations to Ferrari and Sebastian," he said. "They had some good pace today. We did everything we could because we knew they came here having made a step forwards, but they were too fast for us today.
"I was definitely struggling with the balance all day and was uncomfortable in the car. It was good on the medium tyre, and that's why I wanted another set at the end because I knew the hards weren't good for me. But I think the team did the best choices today."
In the end, Hamilton was 8.5sec behind the Ferrari, with Rosberg another 3.7sec down. Poignantly, Vettel lapped both Red Bulls on his 52nd lap, but took no delight in that.
"I have spent my entire life with Red Bull; we celebrated our first win together with Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008, then we won for the first time as a team in China in 2009," he said. "But this is maybe a little bit extra. Today I probably don't understand yet how it is, but it's very emotional.
"I'm happy and proud to beat these guys [Hamilton and Rosberg]. They were phenomenally strong last year and to be the first one to beat them fair and square is an incredible achievement."
Result: 1 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 41mins 05.793secs, 2 Lewis Hamilton(Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:41:14.362, 3 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:41:18.103, 4 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:41:59.615, 5 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams 1:42:16.202, 6 Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams 1:42:19.379, 7 Max Verstappen (Ned) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:42:44.878, 8 Carlos Sainz (Spa) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap, 9 Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Red Bull at 1 Lap, 10 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull at 1 Lap, 11 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus F1 Team at 1 Lap, 12 Felipe Nasr(Bra)Sauber-Ferrari at 1 Lap, 13 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India at 1 Lap, 14 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger )Force India at 1 Lap, 15 Roberto Merhi (Spa) Manor Marussia F1 at 3 Laps Not Classified: 16 Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Lotus F1 Team 47 Laps completed, 17 Jenson Button (Gbr) McLaren 41 Laps completed, 18 Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren 21 Laps completed, 19 Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber-Ferrari 0 Laps completed, 20 Will Stevens(Gbr) Manor Marussia F1 0 Laps completed