Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes & More
There were contrasting emotions on the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday.
While Sebastian Vettel was dizzy with delight having won his first race for Ferrari in just his second appearance for the team, Mercedes and their drivers, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, were left to wonder how victory slipped from their grasp.
Once the emotion of the occasion drained away, however, Vettel and Ferrari—winners again after poor 2014 seasons for driver and team—were pessimistic about launching a title challenge, with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff challenging his colleagues to up their game.
Further back, Vettel's Ferrari predecessor, Fernando Alonso, was left to focus on the positives of his McLaren-Honda debut, despite a technical problem prematurely ending his race.
Away from the track, Bernie Ecclestone unveiled his latest controversial plan to generate interest in F1, while it was confirmed that one of the most popular tracks in the sport will remain on the calendar for at least the foreseeable future.
Here's this week's roundup.
Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel Not Expecting Repeat Performance in China
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari appeared to blow the 2015 season wide open with their convincing Malaysian Grand Prix win, but both team and driver are expecting Mercedes to fight back with a vengeance in China.
Lewis Hamilton set the reigning world champions' 13th consecutive pole position on Saturday at Sepang, but for the first time since last August, Mercedes failed to convert a front-row start into victory.
In scorching conditions—tyre manufacturer Pirelli managed to cook an egg on the track—and on an unusually abrasive track surface, the Malaysian race came down to strategy.
And while Hamilton was forced to complete three pit stops en route to the chequered flag, Vettel, with the aid of an early safety car period, only required two visits to the pit lane to take an emotional maiden win for the Prancing Horse.
With the race at Sepang almost freakish in nature, however, Ferrari—despite taking their first win for almost two years—are expecting normal service to be resumed in colder conditions at the Shanghai circuit next month.
Technical director James Allison—who created the new F15-T in the mould of his race-winning Lotus cars of 2012 and '13, which were also easy on their tyres—was quoted by Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde as saying:
The track is quite rough and hot, which is hard for tyres, and we are fortunate that the car goes quite well on its tyres.
Quite what problems are being carried on the other side of the equation [Mercedes], I don't know, but 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.
Vettel echoed his colleague's thoughts, telling the same source how the team must be "realistic" and how Mercedes' "very big gap" will "not just evaporate."
Mercedes Admits Surprise over Ferrari Pace
Although Ferrari are skeptical about their chances in China, the Prancing Horse's surprise victory in Malaysia is set to stun Mercedes into action as the reigning world champions seek to re-establish their performance advantage.
The Silver Arrows won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix by over half a minute and would have been forgiven for resting on their laurels ahead of the second round at Sepang if, of course, Sebastian Vettel hadn't beaten the team in a head-to-head fight on Sunday.
Wolff told Motorsport.com's Adam Cooper how his colleagues were "pretty confident" after Australia and "didn't expect" Ferrari to close the gap so quickly, with Vettel's win set to force Mercedes into increasing "the pace of our development" in terms of the W06 chassis and power unit.
Mercedes' tyre strategy received criticism after the race, with the team's decision to pit both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg under the safety car, before later fitting the former with the slower hard tyres for the final stint, deemed unwise.
Wolff, though, defended the team's strategy and claimed Mercedes' lack of pace relative to Ferrari was his biggest concern, telling Cooper:
It is always easy to regret and say in hindsight that we could have done this better or that better. But we are taking these decisions altogether, and we haven't done any strategic mistakes in the last two years that I can recall, and thus is why it doesn't make sense to point the finger to a single event.
We need to find out why we were struggling on long run pace in these hot conditions. I think that is the main point to look at.
Although the team were soundly beaten on Sunday, this defeat may actually prove to be beneficial in the long-run if Mercedes can regain their focus and, indeed, their humility.
Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button Pleased with McLaren Pace in Malaysia
In the heat and humidity of Sepang, McLaren's tender Honda power units were always going to go bang at some point.
And so it proved: Fernando Alonso only managed 21 laps before an ERS cooling problem ended his race while Jenson Button got 41 laps under his belt before his turbo gave up the ghost.
Although the facts will show both McLarens failed to finish the race, it is undeniable that the team have made decent progress since Australia, with both cars flirting with points finishes before their engines popped.
Button told McLaren's official website:
I enjoyed it out there—we’re actually racing people. To be able to see one of the Red Bulls ahead of me—and so far into the race—was obviously a nice surprise. And we were able to mix it with the others a little bit more, too. Fighting in the pack is the most positive thing to take away from this weekend.
Making his first appearance of the season after missing the Australia race on doctors' orders, Alonso showed McLaren what they'd been missing despite his limited on-track time.
The Spaniard was out-qualified by Button on Saturday but led the charge through the field at the beginning of the race, running as high as eighth before being called to the garage, after which he told McLaren.com:
This whole weekend has been better than I expected.
The main positive to take away from today is the fact that we were able to run with other cars—Jenson and I weren’t simply fighting with each other.
Indeed, our race pace was surprisingly good; I was running with the pack, and I was even able to catch the Red Bulls before the pit-stops. That was a nice surprise.
There is clearly still some way to go before McLaren challenge the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari, but with gradual improvements—Button told Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley of a front wing breakthrough—points finishes should be on the horizon.
Bernie Ecclestone Wants All-Female Championship to Support F1
Bernie Ecclestone has revealed his desire to see an all-female championship run alongside Formula One.
Female participation in F1 has grown considerably in recent years, with Susie Wolff and Carmen Jorda holding development driver roles at Williams and Lotus, respectively, and the late Maria de Villota and IndyCar star Simona de Silvestro completing private tests for Marussia and Sauber.
Wolff became the first woman to participate in a grand prix weekend in two decades last season, when she took to the track in practice at Silverstone and Hockenheim, attracting plenty of publicity.
The Scot's true standing at Williams, however, was recently exposed, when team principal Claire Williams told BBC Sport's Andrew Benson that she would not be in contention to deputise for Valtteri Bottas in the Malaysian Grand Prix if the Finn was ruled out through injury, despite sampling the team's 2015 car in pre-season testing.
And Ecclestone, the F1 ringmaster, is eager to hand women a platform to race in F1, telling the Guardian's Paul Weaver:
For some reason, women are not coming through—and not because we don’t want them. Of course we do, because they would attract a lot of attention and publicity and probably a lot of sponsors.
We have to start somewhere so I suggested to the teams that we have a separate championship and maybe that way, we will be able to bring someone through to F1. They could race before the main event, or perhaps on the Saturday qualifying day so that they had their own interest.
It is only a thought at the moment but I think it would be super for F1 and the whole grand prix weekend.
Although having an all-female series run in tandem with GP2 and GP3, F1's official feeder championships, would undoubtedly raise awareness of women in motorsport, segregating female drivers from their male equivalents is unlikely to go down well—especially with Ecclestone openly discussing the PR merits of the scheme.
Sepang Here to Stay
Soon after Sebastian Vettel became the most successful driver in the history of the Sepang International Circuit with his fourth victory, the venue confirmed that it will remain on the Formula One calendar until at least 2018.
In a statement on the track's official website—"issued by the Prime Minister's Office," no less—Sepang announced its contract with Formula One Management "has been extended for another three years."
The document also announced that Petronas, which has been the title sponsor of the Malaysian Grand Prix since its inaugural race in 1999, will continue to support the event. Mercedes announced a "long-term extension of its title partnership agreement" with the oil company in mid-2014.
Sepang is regarded as one of the best tracks created by Hermann Tilke—responsible for circuits in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Russia and China—with its bumpy surface and tropical climate providing a unique challenge for drivers and teams.
The news that it will remain on the schedule should be welcomed.