With the massive regulation changes for the new Formula One season, about the only thing we knew for certain coming into 2014 is that nothing was certain. After two races, a picture—albeit still blurry—is beginning to emerge.
With dominant victories in Australia and Malaysia, it is clear that Mercedes is the class of field so far.
Following Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification in Melbourne, promoting Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button into second and third place, respectively, it seemed that McLaren might be Mercedes' closest challenger.
Indeed, Mark Hughes of Motor Sport Magazine estimated Ricciardo's unfair advantage at 0.2 to 0.3s per lap—the difference between second and fourth place, behind the two McLarens.
However, Red Bull's performance at the Malaysian Grand Prix demonstrated that, at least for now, the defending world champs are nearest the Silver Arrows—if "near" is the correct term to use when the lead Mercedes has coasted to two straight finishes approximately 25 seconds clear of their nearest non-silver rivals.
More specifically, Red Bull appears to have put together the best aerodynamic package on the grid—not really a surprise, considering the pedigree of chief technical officer Adrian Newey.
The Bulls' lack of pace relative to Mercedes is largely a product of differing engine power. Their speed while cornering, though, more than makes up for the Renault power unit's shortcomings when compared to everyone else on the straightaways.
With the shadow of Ricciardo's DQ and the subsequent appeal hanging over the team, the Red Bulls hinted at their speed during the free practice sessions at Sepang. Sebastian Vettel finished third in the second session, only 0.061s behind the leader, Mercedes' Nico Rosberg.
In a wet qualifying session on Saturday, the Bulls from Milton Keynes unleashed their potential. Vettel just missed the pole, by 0.055s from Lewis Hamilton, and Ricciardo was fifth, behind the other Mercedes and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.
Data provided by the FIA demonstrates that the Red Bulls and their Renault engines were significantly underpowered on the Sepang circuit's two long straights. In fact, Ricciardo's and Vettel's fastest speeds at the speed trap during qualifying were 289.7 kph and 288.5 kph, respectively.
No other car was under 290 kph and Felipe Massa topped the chart at 305.0 kph.
The Bulls made up their time in the slower sections of the track, though. In sector two, the slowest of the three timing sectors, only the two Mercedes cars were quicker than Vettel and Ricciardo.
At the start of the race, Rosberg got by Vettel and was soon followed by Ricciardo, while Alonso could not quite keep pace.
On lap four, Vettel reasserted the natural order amongst the Red Bulls and passed his Australian teammate.
From that point, the Red Bulls were never challenged from behind, although they did not trouble the Silver Arrows, either, as Hamilton (and to a lesser extent, Rosberg) cruised around building an insurmountable lead.
In Australia, Vettel had retired after only three laps. Ricciardo, though, finished a very impressive second prior to his DQ (though Hamilton no doubt had the speed to beat him, had he not retired).
But in Malaysia, the Red Bulls put to rest any doubt that Ricciardo's performance in Melbourne was down only to increased fuel flow. Although still down on top-end speed during the race (Ricciardo, for example, barely broke 295 kph, while Massa hit nearly 325 kph), Ricciardo and Vettel were still particularly quick in the slower middle sector.
Again, only Hamilton and Rosberg were able to match or better the Red Bulls' best times in the second sector.
None of that speed helped Ricciardo when he endured a disastrous pit stop on lap 40. The left-front wheel was not attached correctly and he had to stop halfway down the pit lane. His mechanics pushed him back to the pit box and reattached the tyre, but not before the unlucky Australian lost an entire lap.
He then had to pit twice more—for an unsafe release penalty and for a broken front wing—before the team finally decided to retire the car.
Still, the pace was there as Vettel demonstrated, coming home a clear third, more than 11 seconds clear of Alonso.
After the race, Vettel acknowledged that, "we need to make big steps because [Mercedes] are quite far ahead but I’m quite happy with the steps we’re currently making," per the FIA's press conference transcript.
"In terms of power," he continued, "it’s not a big secret without giving a hammering but the guys at Viry are flat out to work on that front."
If the Renault power units do start to catch the Mercedes ones, Red Bull will once again have the total package that has helped them win four straight championships.
Looking ahead to next weekend, the Bahrain International Circuit, like Sepang, features long straights in the first and third sectors, with slower turns in the middle.
Judging by Red Bull's performance in Malaysia, the team should be looking at another strong finish—if they can avoid the reliability gremlins that stopped Vettel in Australia and the pit stop problems that took Ricciardo out of contention this weekend.
Of course, those are big "ifs" in the new F1.
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