Can Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel Challenge for F1 Titles After Malaysian GP Win?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2015

Sebastian Vettel celebrates his victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel celebrates his victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix.Clive Mason/Getty Images

While Pope Francis wore traditional red robes to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week in Vatican City, another red-clad Italian institution, Scuderia Ferrari, pulled off a resurrection miracle, with the team's new driver, Sebastian Vettel, winning the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday.

With his victory, Vettel now sits just three points behind Lewis Hamilton in the Formula One Drivers' Championship. Even better, in just his second race with Ferrari, the German erased a year's worth of bad memories for both himself and for the Italian team.

But is Malaysia just a one-race reprieve from the Mercedes dominance that began in Australia last year, or is Ferrari's victory a portent of a renewed title fight?

Lewis Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg early in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg early in the Malaysian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

While it is tempting to get caught up in the storyline of Vettel returning the Scuderia to glory, it is still premature. Don't bet against Vettel winning one or more championships with Ferrari—but not this year.

At the Sepang circuit outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, Vettel drove a fantastic race and Ferrari made all the right strategy calls, but they still needed everything to fall into place to secure the win. 

Those fortuitous circumstances began on Lap 4, when Sauber's Marcus Ericsson made a clumsy overtaking manoeuvre on Nico Hulkenberg and beached his car in the gravel on the outside of Turn 1. In the ensuing safety car period, most cars, including the two from Mercedes, pitted for fresh tyres.

Vettel, meanwhile, stayed out and took the lead. It was a decision that seemed questionable at the time but proved inspired.

Marcus Ericsson brings out the safety car.
Marcus Ericsson brings out the safety car.Lars Baron/Getty Images

At the restart, Vettel pulled away in clean air while Hamilton was stuck in slower traffic. By the time the Mercedes reemerged in second place on Lap 10, Vettel was already 10 seconds clear.

Further back, after Vettel's team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, suffered an early tyre puncture that dropped him to second-last place, the safety car allowed the Finn to catch the rest of the field and ultimately finish fourth. At this point, it should be noted that Sauber would probably be happy to accept a discount on their next engine bill from Ferrari as thanks for providing that timely safety car.

When Vettel made his first pit stop, on Lap 17, he put on a second set of the quicker, medium-compound tyres, as opposed to Hamilton, who was on hard tyres at the time. If the laps after the safety car did not make the difference in the race, those laps after Vettel's stop certainly did.

The German came out of the pits in third, behind Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the other Mercedes. At the end of Lap 18, he was almost five seconds behind Rosberg and 13 seconds adrift of Hamilton. It then took Vettel fewer than three laps to catch and pass Rosberg, and he was in the process of passing Hamilton when the Brit dove into the pits for his second stop at the end of Lap 24.

Lap Time Comparison Between Vettel's and Hamilton's Pit Stops
LapLewis HamiltonNico RosbergSebastian Vettel
191m 47.028s1m 46.379s1m 44.452s
201m 46.761s1m 46.568s1m 44.896s
211m 46.854s1m 47.110s1m 45.706s
221m 46.793s1m 47.078s1m 44.725s
231m 47.498s1m 47.295s1m 44.983s

Vettel never trailed again, apart from a brief exchange when he made his final pit stop one lap before Hamilton made his.

Ferrari also benefitted from Mercedes' higher-than-expected tyre degradation. "These are not our conditions—this extremely high tarmac and ambient temperature," admitted Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff to the official F1 site after the race. He continued:

Probably we were a bit too aggressive on set-ups that pushed us into the direction of three stops—all the algorithms showed that this was the right way to go. But we got stuck in traffic and damaged the tyres following cars, and there you have it.

But that tyre degradation is not something Ferrari will be able to count on going forward. Most races will be much cooler than Malaysia.

Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene congratulates Vettel after the race.
Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene congratulates Vettel after the race.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Still, even if he needed help from the heat, the safety car, tyre degradation and traffic, Vettel still beat two healthy Mercedes cars—something no one could do in 2014. This represents a huge leap forward for Ferrari under the leadership of their new team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene.

After the Australian Grand Prix, I wrote that Ferrari's pace indicated they would be Mercedes' closest challengers this season. No one, though, expected that they would catch the Silver Arrows so soon.

Arrivabene looked nervous whenever the cameras caught him on the pit wall during the race, and the release of that nervous energy was apparent when he channeled Italy international footballer Gianluigi Buffon while singing the Italian anthem during the podium ceremony.

"Now we’ve got to be realistic, keep our feet on the ground and our concentration at a high level, because Mercedes is still a formidable contender," said Arrivabene, per the Ferrari website.

Indeed, on raw pace, Mercedes were ahead all weekend. One of the Silver Arrows topped the time sheets in each free practice session, and Hamilton took pole position in qualifying. Even in the race, when the Mercs were not struggling with tyres or traffic, both Rosberg and Hamilton clocked laps significantly quicker than anything Vettel could manage.

Perhaps Ferrari will continue to surprise everyone and provide a sustained challenge to Mercedes. More likely, though, they are still a year away from a title run.

Ferrari technical director James Allison seems to agree: "I'm fairly sure that we will have our work cut out in China to do anything like as impressive a job as we have done here," per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson.

Either way, the Malaysian Grand Prix produced a full-throated retort to those who said F1 was too boring after Mercedes' win in Melbourne. Just like some football matches end 5-0, not every grand prix can be won on the final lap.

But sometimes, when everything falls into place, F1 offers up a bit of the magic that keeps its fans coming back for more.

All timing statistics in this article are taken from the FIA's official data.

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