Ferrari hadn’t won a race in almost two years, but Sebastian Vettel shows up and wins after just two starts. How did he do that? Charles Bradley investigates.
There was a trace of irony in Sebastian Vettel's victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, the first turbocharged Ferrari to win a Formula 1 race since 1988.
Then, of course, it was McLaren-Honda that ruled F1's roost. Today, that constructor-engine partnership trails towards the back of the pack, while Mercedes is its natural successor.
Back in '88, however, Mercedes was the struggler – its Sauber-entered Group C car didn't even make the startline at the Le Mans 24 Hours after concerns about tyre failures – yet a year later it would return to win the French sportscar classic.
It goes to show how cyclical this sport can be; how difficult it is to predict.
Last year, Ferrari was in the doldrums to the point where Fernando Alonso lost patience and walked out on the Scuderia – just at the point it appears to have turned its fortunes around and become a Mercedes beater.
The irony of that would not have been lost on Fernando, too.
How Ferrari played to its strengths
There was a feel-good factor about Vettel's victory that hasn't been present since his Toro Rosso success at Monza in 2008, and to a lesser extent his 2009 wins as he played catch-up to those pesky, double-diffusered Brawns.
It seems his subsequent world championship-dominating years have been forgiven – not that he did anything wrong, mind – and that slightly rubbish season at Red Bull might have actually helped him, public acceptance-wise.
No boos, only cheering on the podium on Sunday, as he wiped away a barren spell for the Prancing Horse with a brilliantly-executed victory.
The way the Ferrari used its tyres in the heat of Sepang was superb, as Hamilton's balance slipped away from him. His annoyance at that was all too clear over the radio; using mediums in Q1 had proved a costly strategic error.
But I have to admit, when Vettel didn't pit under the safety car I feared the worst for his chances...
Key stint to Vettel's success
The laps after the resumption of racing were storming, as he took off like a scalded cat up front.
While the cars that also didn't pit served to aid his cause, by holding up Hamilton, he still had to rock out some seriously quick laptimes to pull a gap, while not melting his medium-compound tyres on a 17-lap opening stint.
Remember, it was key to Vettel's strategy that he extended his first stint for as long as possible to allow him to two-stop.
Here's Seb's seven-lap post-safety car sequence of laptimes:
46.037; 46.216; 46.326; 46.264; 46.470; 46.210; 46.677.
Let's compare that with traffic-hampered, but fresh-tyred, Lewis Hamilton:
48.285; 47.999; 48.076; 46.846; 46.377; 46.352; 46.348.
Vettel led by 8.791 just before his first pitstop. At the chequered flag, he won by 8.569.
Giving Merc something to think about
It was no surprise that team principal Maurizio Arrivabene spent the first half of the race stood on his tip-toes on the Ferrari pitwall, but after half distance he settled back into his seat, his natural coolness returning. He was back to his truly laid-back self post-race, cooing over his instant success.
The unbelievable had become real; Mercedes was thwarted on a mixture of heat, tyre degradation and – yes, really – laptime over a full stint in these conditions.
We also got to see Vettel pass Nico Rosberg (and almost Hamilton, who peeled into the pits just as Seb tried a move) and a straight comparison between engine grunt could be made between them: in layman's terms, the Ferrari had the edge on top-end speed, while the Merc packs more torque.
They are closely matched now – and streets ahead of Renault, but that's another story.
After the race, Vettel admitted that he still feels a little "awkward" to see himself dressed in red.
Really Seb? I think you're going to get used to it just fine.