Malaysian Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Sepang Race

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2016

Malaysian Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Sepang Race

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    Daniel Ricciardo claimed his first victory of the 2016 Formula One season in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang circuit.

    The Red Bull driver started from third on the grid and took advantage of the Mercedes team's misfortune to secure his first win in more than two years.

    Joining Ricciardo on the podium were Max Verstappen, who came off second best in a decisive wheel-to-wheel battle with his team-mate, and Nico Rosberg, who recovered from an early collision with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel to finish third and extend his championship lead to 23 points following Lewis Hamilton's retirement.

    Following another day to forget for the new Haas team and a breakthrough result for Renault's Jolyon Palmer, here are the main winners and losers from Malaysia.

Winner: Daniel Ricciardo

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    It would have been nothing short of a disaster had Ricciardo failed to win a grand prix in 2016.

    From the very first morning at Albert Park in March, he had been the standout driver on the grid, operating at a higher and more mature level following a 2015 season that was, at best, character building and, at worst, a complete write-off.

    Yet opportunities to return to the top step of the podium for the first time since August 2014 kept on passing him by.

    First there was Spain, where a questionable strategy left him stranded in fourth on a day Verstappen won on his Red Bull debut. Then, a fortnight later in Monaco, another unwise strategy decision—coupled with a tyre-related blunder in the pits—saw him finish second in a race with his name all over it.

    Red Bull were quick in Hungary but not quite quick enough to beat Mercedes, and Ricciardo may well have won in Singapore had the race lasted just one more lap.

    In the aftermath of the Marina Bay event, team principal Christian Horner admitted Red Bull were unlikely to win any of the remaining six races of 2016 unless "something different" occurred, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson.

    And when that something strange did happen in Malaysia, Ricciardo—just as he was in '14—was there to capitalise.

    Hamilton's engine failure at the beginning of Lap 41 attached even greater significance to the wheel-to-wheel battle between the Red Bull drivers just two laps earlier.

    At that point, with his team-mate on fresher tyres and an alternative strategy, the noble thing to do would have been to gift the position to Verstappen and aid the teenager's pursuit of the win.

    But in scrapping to stay ahead, Ricciardo ensured he soon inherited the lead and, as such, was able to pit first when the virtual safety car appeared. 

    Finally in front with the chequered flag in sight, he was never going to lose it from there, with Ricciardo managing the gap to claim the win his driving deserved and right all those wrongs of early 2016.

Loser: Lewis Hamilton

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    After failing to win any of the three races following the summer break, losing the lead of the drivers' standings in the process, a dose of Malaysia was exactly what Hamilton required to get his championship challenge back on track.

    Despite winning just one of his previous nine appearances at the circuit, he had always excelled at Sepang, particularly in the high-speed, left-right sequence of Turns 5 and 6.

    It was no surprise, then, that it was at this piece of F1 road where Rosberg—desperate just to come close to his team-mate—made one of his more sizable errors in a scruffy qualifying session, giving Hamilton a pole margin of 0.414 seconds.

    With Rosberg a victim of one of the clumsy first-corner collisions he himself had been involved in throughout this season, the stage was set for Hamilton to take a win as simple and routine as those the No. 6 car had claimed in 2016.

    He was relatively comfortable at the front, managing the gap to the pesky Red Bulls. But there was also a sense of urgency, a feeling that it could all go wrong at any given moment.

    Hamilton's cries for blue flags over team radio while attempting to establish a pit-stop gap over Verstappen was a reflection of just how important it was for him to take full advantage of the opportunity presented to him.

    Which made it all the more heartbreaking when flames began to splutter out of his W07 with just 16 laps remaining.

    During his early-season struggles with reliability, Hamilton was incredibly protective of Mercedes, dismissing the notion that they were intentionally sabotaging his car and urging the keyboard warriors of "Team LH" to "trust" and "respect" his colleagues via his official Instagram profile.

    But here, the shield was nowhere to be seen as he poured more fuel on the fire, telling Sky Sports F1 how "something just doesn't feel right" and questioning why—of the eight Mercedes-powered drivers on the grid—only his engines keep self-destructing.

    If Hamilton is to relinquish his grip on the world championship in 2016, don't expect too much dignity in defeat.

Winner: Nico Rosberg

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    Ahead of the race, this felt like a very good day for Rosberg to take the hit and settle for second.

    He was unable to match Hamilton's pace throughout the Malaysian GP weekend, and whenever he tried to, he only found himself being lured into the trap of asking too much from his machinery and making mistakes.

    Given Mercedes' inconsistency off the line, the start resembled Rosberg's only chance of snatching the lead, but his approach at the first corner—where he hung his car somewhere around the outside of Hamilton's and turned in too sharply—left him vulnerable to a tap from behind.

    That tap came from Vettel, who spun the No. 6 car and appeared to leave Rosberg facing the beginning of the end of his title challenge.

    With the peasants of the midfield reluctant to waste time and grip defending from a car as mighty as a Mercedes W07, Rosberg's recovery from the rear of the field was remarkably quick and simple, with the German elevating himself to fifth as early as Lap 21.

    It was at that point, though, when progress became much harder to come by.

    After the second round of pit stops, Rosberg still faced the prospect of losing the lead of the drivers' standings to Hamilton, making it essential for him to find a way past Kimi Raikkonen for fourth.

    Yet rather than steadily pressurising the Ferrari driver into an error or passing him with DRS assistance, Rosberg—already in now-or-never mode despite there being 18 laps left—barged into Raikkonen's car on the inside of Turn 2, running the risk of ruining his recovery with a 10-second time penalty.

    Of course, with the inherent pace advantage of the W07 and a clear track ahead of him, Rosberg was able to establish a gap large enough to render the penalty irrelevant and found himself elevated to third place when Hamilton retired.

    Having somehow extended his points advantage to 23, Rosberg is now the favourite for the 2016 title.

    But if Hamilton is to take anything positive from this grand prix, it is that it won't take much for Rosberg—having capped an unconvincing weekend with two quite serious errors in the race—to panic.

Loser: Sebastian Vettel

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    It was in Malaysia last year where Vettel confirmed his status as Ferrari's new hope.

    His victory from second on the grid injected new belief into a team recovering from a first winless season in two decades, allowing the Prancing Horse to rediscover its gallop after years spent staggering and stumbling.

    With Ferrari still without a victory in 2016, the chances of a repeat of that day were always remote, although—having introduced an aerodynamic upgrade package at Sepang—they were set to be the best of the rest behind Mercedes.

    But, not for the first time this season, Ferrari failed to meet their own expectations.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley, Vettel was disappointed to finish fifth in qualifying, explaining the team were eyeing third place on the grid.

    That placed a huge emphasis on the start, with Vettel passing Ricciardo within a matter of metres and hunting Verstappen on the run toward the first corner.

    Perhaps it is due to the teenager's harsh defensive tactics, but it almost seemed as though, in order to beat Verstappen into Turn 1, Vettel felt he needed to pull off a brave, late-braking pass.

    On cold tyres and brakes, however, that caused him more harm than good, with the four-time world champion driving straight into Rosberg's rear-right tyre and knocking his own front-left wheel skewwhiff, leaving him with no option but to retire for the fourth time this year.

    At a place full of so many good memories for both driver and team, Malaysia encapsulated just how frustrating 2016 has been for Vettel and Ferrari.

Winner: Max Verstappen

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    Few would have blamed Verstappen for feeling a little disgruntled at the end of the Malaysian GP.

    He had outclassed the best driver in F1 for much of the weekend, and on an alternative strategy, he was the Red Bull driver best placed to take the fight to Hamilton for the win.

    At the close of the 56-lap race, however, the win was Ricciardo's, and Verstappen was left to settle for second.

    Ricciardo's utter refusal to concede second place to Verstappen, who happily switched positions with him in July's German GP, on Lap 39 let Lewis off the hook.

    And when Hamilton retired two laps later, Verstappen was forced to stack behind his team-mate in the pits, forced to fight a losing battle against Ricciardo.

    Three-and-a-half years since the infamous Multi-21 saga, this episode had the potential to become the first real flashpoint between Ricciardo and Verstappen ahead of what could prove to be a head-to-head battle for the world championship in 2017.

    But rather than sticking out his bottom lip and complaining that it should have been him on the top step of the podium, Verstappen couldn't have been happier for the man on the other side of the garage.

    Upon climbing out of the cockpit, Verstappen embraced Ricciardo in parc ferme, was talkative and relaxed in the cool-down room and sipped champagne from the Australian's sweaty shoe during the podium celebrations.

    In a year his attitude toward his fellow competitors has been frequently criticised, this was evidence of Verstappen's rapid growth in maturity and proof that, behind all the dodgy manoeuvres and whining over team radio, he is a team player.

    "That's racing," he later told Sky Sports' television coverage. "Sometimes you have a bit of luck, sometimes not...I think it was a perfect race for the team. Daniel and I, we have a lot of respect for each other, so we definitely enjoyed it out there."

Loser: Haas

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    When they arrived on the grid at the beginning of 2016, registering top-six finishes in their first two races, F1 instantly fell in love with Haas.

    Sure, the constant references about living the "American dream" were a little cringeworthy, but the sight of a brand-new team—with an unusual approach to going racing—appearing at race tracks and being instantly competitive was a feel-good story for a sport in a constant state of depression.

    With each passing race, however, Romain Grosjean's award-winning performances in Australia and Bahrain have looked increasingly fluky.

    Haas, after all, have scored points in just two races since Sakhir and have been unable to resolve seemingly fundamental issues with the VF-16 car, to the point where—whisper it—they are beginning to look as amateur and comical as the three failed new teams of 2010.

    After a range of technical issues prevented him from starting a race for the first time in his career in Singapore, Grosjean provided the team with a little relief by qualifying 12th on Saturday.

    Yet it took just eight laps for those familiar braking gremlins to reappear on the No. 8 car, with the Frenchman being spat into the gravel trap at the final corner while running 10th.

    By that point, Esteban Gutierrez was running down the order after his latest first-corner collision, which—as he told the team's official website—left him struggling with a damaged floor.

    Still, the Mexican made it as far as Lap 42 until, on the exit of the medium-speed right-hander of Turn 8, his front-left wheel fell off, the incident forcing Haas to pay a fine of €5,000, per Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde.

    The true appeal of Haas at the beginning of this year was their ability to make themselves look like a team who had been competing in F1 for decades.

    But now? Now they look like newcomers in the rawest sense of the word.

Winner: Jolyon Palmer

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    Make no mistake, Palmer needed this and he needed it now.

    Kevin Magnussen's second points finish of 2016 in Singapore had made him the overwhelming favourite to be retained by Renault—provided the team can find nobody better to partner Esteban Ocon—for next season.

    With Sepang one of just two circuits in the final six races where he had some prior racing experience, a maiden points finish was—as noted ahead of the weekend—a matter of urgency for Palmer.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, Palmer was "feeling good" after enjoying his "best Friday" of the season in Malaysia, where he ended the opening day of practice in 12th.

    Another productive session on Saturday morning increased his expectations, but the British driver was brought back down to earth with a considerable bump in qualifying, when a "rubbish lap" gave him a "rubbish position" on the grid, as he told Sky Sports' television coverage.

    Having wasted yet another opportunity, Palmer needed to try something different in the race and was the only driver to start on the hard-compound tyre, making his one and only pit stop on Lap 31.

    The need to spend the remaining 25 laps on softs left him under pressure for Carlos Sainz Jr., but unlike Hungary—where an unforced spin saw him throw away a point—Palmer held on to secure the most important 10th place of his racing career.

    With Autosport (h/t Eurosport) reporting Renault's contractual options on Magnussen and Palmer expired at midnight on Friday at Sepang, there is no guarantee that either driver will be kept for 2017.

    But if the team are unable to sign Sainz, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez or Nico Hulkenberg—or, for that matter, any other name on their shortlist—Palmer's first point has given Renault a reason to knock on his door instead of Magnussen's.

    Timing and tyre data, as well as team radio quotes, sourced from the official F1 website, the FOM television feed and Pirelli's official race report.

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