Sebastian Vettel took his first Ferrari victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix and the first for the team in 35 races after beating Mercedes in a battle of tyre degradation and strategy in the heat of Sepang.
Just two weeks after Mercedes dominated the Australian Grand Prix, Vettel made use of two-stop strategy to beat both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in a straight fight. The heat and a well-timed safety car played their part, but it should take nothing away from the drive from Vettel or the new-found performance of the Ferrari.
Kimi Raikkonen underlined Ferrari’s impressive pace by taking fourth despite a puncture on the first lap and fighting back through the field. Williams, meanwhile, struggled in the heat as Valtteri Bottas marked his return from a back injury with a fifth place after passing team-mate Felipe Massa on the penultimate lap. Renault-powered cars rounded out the top ten, although it was Toro Rossos ahead of Red Bulls as Sepang succeeded in throwing up yet another surprise in form.
Hamilton led Vettel away from the start as expected but the race was blown wide open by Marucus Ericsson, who spun on lap four. The resulting safety car opened up strategy options and effectively split the field into two separate races, which would eventually converge in the final stint.
Option one was to pit under the safety car, a strategy adopted by Hamilton and Rosberg, who had to stack in the Mercedes pit box as they came in at the same time. It put them on a three stop strategy, but also delivered them into the middle of the pack for the safety car restart. Vettel and Ferrari went a different way, opting to stay out and make the most of clear air at the front of the field before adopting a two-stop strategy.
Key to Vettel’s approach was being able to look after the tyres, but the Ferrari was capable of the task and Vettel built his lead when racing resumed. By the time Hamilton had emerged from the traffic into second on the road, his hard compound tyres were a little worse for wear and the gap to Vettel was 9.9s. Rosberg was in an even worse position behind as he had to pass both Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo, who were on similar strategies but had got the jump on him in the pits stops under the safety car.
Vettel made his first stop on lap 17 and took on another set of medium compound tyres, which had worked so well for him in the first stint. The stop put him behind the two Mercedes, but he was able to use the pace advantage of his fresher and softer tyres to rein in both Mercedes and pass them on track. As Vettel got past Hamilton into the final corner on lap 24, the Mercedes dived into the pits, although by now it was clear there was a race on as both Mercedes were effectively a pit stop down on the Ferrari and behind it on track.
Now it was Hamilton’s turn to go at a quicker pace than the Ferrari, but to stand a chance of winning he would have to maintain it over the course of the stint and the Mercedes’ hunger for tyres was not willing to allow that. Vettel continued to log consistent times and on lap 37 pitted for the second and final time. He exited the pits behind Hamilton and just ahead of Rosberg, but crucially still had a pit stop in hand over both Mercedes.
Hamilton’s only hope was to be quick on his final set of tyres and haul in the Ferrari. It was a surprise, therefore, that at his final stop he took on the slower hard compound rather than the mediums. On his outlap he radioed to say “Wrong tyre, man”, but the decision dated back to Q1 in qualifying when Mercedes opted to send both cars out on mediums in the first session in order to save hard tyres for the race, presumably in the belief the mediums would degrade too quickly in the heat and the hard would be the tyre of choice. But as Vettel proved, that was not the case on Sunday and so Hamilton had to try to haul in a 15-second deficit to Vettel using the same tyres.
In the end it proved too big a deficit and Hamilton finished the race 8.5s behind Vettel. It remains to be seen whether it was a one-off in the heat of Malaysia or a true reflection of Ferrari’s improvement over the winter.
As an aside, 2014 Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso observed the victory from the pit wall after his first race with McLaren-Honda ended with a technical issue on lap 21. Team-mate Jenson Button retired 20 laps later from 14th position, emphasising the task ahead of the team before it joins the fun at the front.