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Flash in the pan? Or Does Vettel victory signal a Ferrari title challenge?

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Flash in the pan? Or Does Vettel victory signal a Ferrari title challenge?
Mar 30, 2015, 10:48 AM

On the face of it, Sebastian Vettel's superbly worked Malaysian Grand Prix victory brought back to life a Formula One championship most had viewed...

On the face of it, Sebastian Vettel's superbly worked Malaysian Grand Prix victory brought back to life a Formula One championship most had viewed as a two-horse race between Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Given the nature of the win - branded by Vettel himself as "fair and square" – the result has fuelled a belief in some quarters that the Prancing Horse is back to its best and this result will be repeated.

So was Vettel's win a true statement of intent or a flash in the pan at a circuit where conditions conspired to put the Scuderia in a zone where it could take on dominant Mercedes and exploit the team's heat and tyre specific weaknesses?

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The improvement Ferrari has made over the winter is undeniable and the extent of the step forward the team has made in both chassis and power unit was flagged up on race day in Melbourne, with Ferrari's long run pace clear for all to see and close to Mercedes.

However in Melbourne they didn't show the ability to run longer race stints on the tyres. In Sepang they did and this is the key to the duel this season.

In Thursday's Drivers press conference in Sepang, Nico Rosberg alluded to the threat, having signed off in Australia by hoping to see Ferrari challenge Mercedes soon "for the good of the show".

Based on the Australian Grand Prix result, the German was asked whether Mercedes had widened the gap to their rivals by double that seen last year. Rosberg was quick to point to Ferrari's race pace in Melbourne as evidence to the contrary.

"[Our] qualifying pace was very strong, yes, but more important is the race pace," he said. "Especially from Kimi we saw an extremely strong stint, so not really fair to say that I would say. I think Ferrari especially have definitely closed the gap and are closer than our nearest rival was last year."

The strength of that race pace was shown again on Friday afternoon in Sepang, where in extremely hot conditions, Ferrari looked a match for the Mercedes on long-run pace. Just as importantly, the Ferrari was also kind to its tyres, so could run longer stints, a trait that would come to the fore in the race, as Technical Director James Allison explained after the race.

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"Our tyres worked very well on Friday," he said. "This gave us the confidence to know we could go deep into the race and we didn’t have to make that early stop."

One stop fewer for Ferrari

Allison presided over Lotus in 2012 and 2013 when its trait was also to be able to do one less stint than its rivals and this brought race wins and many podiums.

Contrast that with the comments of Mercedes technical chief Paddy Lowe after the race, which revealed the champions' uncertainty over how to work tyre strategy.

"Coming into the race, there were two main choices to be made: whether to make two or three stops, and whether the prime or the option would be the better race tyre," he said. "It was clear [on Saturday] that opinion was divided on that question, as we saw the leading teams using different tyre compounds in Q1. We saved new prime tyres for the race, while others saved new options. We planned a three-stop strategy favouring the prime tyre and, although the safety car came out early, it was late enough to be used as the first of our three stops."

What Mercedes had not legislated for was Ferrari's decision – based on the team's belief that it could "go deeper into the race" on the medium tyres – to keep Vettel out when the safety car appeared following the incident in which Marcus Ericsson beached his Sauber at turn one. Ferrari knew the Safety Car meant a two stop was workable. It was impossible for Mercedes.

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When the safety car left the track on lap six Vettel had carved out a solid advantage over Hamilton and by the time the champion had cleared others who had stayed out – Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz Jnr, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg – Vettel's lead was a healthy 10 seconds. Rosberg was even more disadvantaged. After queueing up behind Hamilton in the safety car stop, he was forced to wait it out in his pit box due to traffic in the pit lane and lost track positions and valuable time he could not recover later on.

The gap established by Vettel after the Safety car of around 9/10 seconds remained the gap at the flag, so essentially the two drivers covered the race from Lap 10 to the flag at the same pace, both having two stops to make. But his second stint on mediums of 20 laps was the one to pay attention to. It was a clear signal that Ferrari can compete at races where there is a decision to be made between two strategies. When it's a race where everyone does the same strategy, then Mercedes with its still superior car pace, will win.

Hamilton made up lost ground after taking on medium tyres on lap 24  – closing in on Vettel by upwards of 1.5s per lap at one stage – but he could only get 12 laps out of them before they fell apart, in contrast to Vettel's 20-lap stint. This decided the race, as we will see in tomorrow's UBS Race Strategy Report.

When both took on hard tyres for their final stint the race for Mercedes was lost. Hamilton questioned the use of the prime for that final stint, saying "these are the wrong tyres" but with only well used mediums as an alternative and with 18 laps remaining there was little else to be done. The Mercedes pit wall insisted that the strategy model showed Hamilton would catch the leading Ferrari with five laps to go but it never happened, because the car and tyres package was not performing as expected in the heat. Vettel's pace on the prime was strong and he comfortably controlled the gap at around 10s, eventually taking the flag with 8.5s in hand.

"The advantage [staying out] gave to Ferrari on their two-stop strategy, and the time we lost in traffic in the first laps after the Safety Car, left us with a gap to Sebastian that proved too much of a challenge for us to recover – especially considering that we did not have an underlying pace advantage to Ferrari, who were very competitive this weekend," said Lowe.

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So was the win a function of conditions that allowed Ferrari to work a strategic advantage on the day or a signal that this is the shape of things to come over the coming races?

For Kimi Raikkonen it's a bit of both.

"I think it might be the conditions," he said after recovering from a first-lap puncture to take an excellent fourth place. "It was very hot and that's good for us, but I think even in Melbourne if we could have got behind them [Mercedes] at the beginning I don't think they would have pulled away a lot.

"We know that we are not exactly as fast as them over one lap, but we are working on that. But comparing where we finished last year and where we are this year it's a big step.

"It’s hard to say where we’re going to be exactly at the next circuit because every circuit is different but it’s a good base."

Hamilton, meanwhile, admitted to uncharacteristic deficiencies with his Mercedes that hampered his ability to challenge in the race.

"I was struggling with the balance today and never really felt comfortable with the car," he said. “There was so much understeer that tyre management was really hard. When I went to the option it was much better, so I thought we’d use it again at the end and was surprised we went with the prime. But I made the best I could with it and ultimately I’m sure the team made the call for the right reasons.

“They [Ferrari] were as fast if not faster than us today and once I had that gap to make up it was just a step too far. I’m now looking forward to the next race and fighting to get back to the front again.”

Toto Wolff admitted, however, that he feels Ferrari are now a major threat.

"We've got a massive battle out there. It is a wake-up call for us," he told the BBC. "We've not made any mistakes for 20 races or more. Many things in hindsight we could have optimised. It doesn't matter now, it's a wake-up call for us. Well done to Ferrari. We saw on Friday they were very fast in the long runs."

The Conspiracy theory

The result does Mercedes no real harm; they still lead both Drivers' and Constructors' championships and it has taken the heat off calls to "level the playing field" by taking away some of Mercedes' technical advantages. There are many who feel that Mercedes has performance in its pocket, especially on the Power unit side and that they are "managing" the situation.

Technical chief Paddy Lowe has strong memories of being at McLaren in 1998 when they were too strong at the start of the season and got pegged back by snap regulations. Red Bull suffered from that with various bans on Exhaust blown diffusers. Last year Mercedes started strongly and the FRIC suspension was banned…

However those who thing Mercedes deliberately lost yesterday fail to consider the commercial dynamic; the Malaysian GP was title sponsored by Petronas, also the team's title sponsor and the PR and marketing value of victory would have been huge to them.

Those who know what to look for could see Ferrari being close on race pace in the conditions and thus able to challenge, but the circumstances around the Safety Car, particularly the number of cars who stayed out and held back Hamilton after his early stop, swung it Ferrari's way.

As for race winner Vettel, he too alluded to the conditions as being a major factor and suggested the form book might return to type in two weeks' time in Shanghai.

"[Mercedes] probably struggled a little bit more with the heat today than they expected," he said. "Equally, I think we didn’t struggle with the heat as much as we probably expected, so both things put together made us very competitive today and able to beat them fair and square.

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"For the next race, I think again, a completely different type of track China is a unique track is many ways, supposed to be a lot cooler. I think Mercedes were struggling with the hot conditions at this stage of the season, so we expect them to be very very strong, and they are the ones that usually set the pace. Today we could capitalise on their weakness a little bit and for the next race, we just try to race as hard as we can and see where it takes us."

The question, then, remains an open one. Will Ferrari's challenge be blunted somewhat in the cooler climes usually seen in China and at the European races or has the progress made with the SF15.-T finally given the team a car flexible enough to deal with whatever a race weekend throws at it? On Sunday Vettel alluded to the latter being the case.

"We had a very good feeling since the first test," he said. "We were happy with how the car feels and we were able to build onto that. I’m very happy with how the car feels, with the balance. It allows me to play and to work which I think is always crucial as a driver."

However Ferrari has a very good platform to build from, they have an aggressive development plan on the chassis and Power unit side and they have 10 tokens to use on the engine, which means that they can make significant gains. It's important to note that the agreement around the fifth power unit for each driver is that this will NOT be subject to tokens, it is primarily to ensure that cars go out on track rather than save the engine in practice sessions.

Are Ferrari capable of challenging for the title? Is this the first sign of a new era for Ferrari? We'd love to get your thoughts below. 
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