2014 Malaysia GP analysis: Delving into the detail and strategies at Sepang
Dissecting the facts behind Williams' controversial team order, Lewis Hamilton's crushing pace and the impact being made by Daniil Kvyat
By James Galloway and William Esler. Last Updated: 01/04/14 3:39pm
Would Bottas have overtaken Button?
It's the big question post Sepang, but one which will forever remain hypothetical given Felipe Massa refused to heed the instruction from the Williams pitwall to let his team-mate pass. From the essence of the order we do know something telling though: the team were confident that the Finn had the better shot at claiming sixth place from Jenson Button. The debate over the rights and wrongs of the instruction will rumble on all the way to Bahrain, but there's enough timesheet evidence to suggest that the basic idea - however badly executed and ill-advised it was - had some merit on paper, even if overtaking the McLaren wouldn't have proved easy.
Firstly, we need to trace the Massa/Bottas battle all the way back to the beginning of the race. Despite both drivers starting down the grid, and five places apart in 13th and 18th respectively, flying starts saw them run line astern in ninth and tenth by end of the second lap. With the first signs of friction between them emerging over the radio when Bottas ran within a second of his new-team-mate through the first stint, Massa was first to stop on lap 12. Williams opted to keep Bottas out for two laps longer and as a result the Finn lost track position to Daniil Kvyat - and touch with Massa.
So while the Brazilian begun to steadily reel in Button's McLaren - the gap between them just over three seconds on lap 15 - Bottas lost eight seconds behind the Toro Rosso. The Finn eventually passed on lap 21 and once released it took him just three laps to shave a second off Massa's advantage, with the Brazilian in turn still two seconds behind Button. Once the second round of stops were completed - Bottas again pitting two laps later - Massa closed to within DRS-activation range of the McLaren on lap 38, by which time Bottas, lapping faster in the high 1:46s, was now just over five seconds back. The status quo remained through the final round of stops but with Massa unable to overtake the McLaren, Bottas, again on tyres that were two laps fresher, had wiped out the remaining deficit by lap 51.
Bottas had caught Button by over three seconds in the preceding six laps but, once firmly in the dirty air of the sister Williams, the Finn's mid-1:45s pace faded back into the 1:46s and the intra-team row blew up over the radio and in front of an international audience.
Just how dominant was Lewis Hamilton?
"I can't remember the last time in my career I had a gap like that, particularly with a team-mate driving the same car." It's fair to say that Lewis Hamilton was thrilled - and more than a little taken aback - by the scale of his superiority over the field after he swept to his 23rd career victory at Sepang. The first thing to point out is that Hamilton's 17-second winning margin over Nico Rosberg was indeed the biggest in dry conditions he has enjoyed in his F1 career. Perhaps surprisingly, but only once previously had Hamilton triumphed by more than 14 seconds and that was in torrential rain at Silverstone in his title-winning year of 2008, when the then McLaren driver took the chequered flag by a full minute.
On Sunday, Hamilton was on average three tenths of a second quicker than Rosberg per lap, with the difference particularly pronounced at the start of the race when Hamilton opened up a four-second lead inside the first four tours. Only 14 times in the whole 56-lap race did Rosberg lap faster than the sister W05, with most of those occasions coming after the second round of pitstops when the German was starting to come under pressure from Sebastian Vettel.
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff admitted the team were a bit perplexed as to why there was such a big difference between their the two cars, pointing to several moments of severe oversteer for Rosberg on the first lap and ongoing issues the German had with his tyres until the final stint, but even Nico admitted after taking a distant second place that "Lewis was out of my reach". Their respective fastest laps - Hamilton's 1:43.066 v Rosberg's 1:43.960 - in the closing laps of the race made the Sepang difference crystal clear.
How big an impression is Daniil Kvyat making?
Daniil Kvyat's impressive start to his F1 career continued as he finished in the points once again in Malayisa, joining fellow 2014 newbie Kevin Magnussen as only the third and fourth rookie drivers since the start of 2007 to finish in the points in their first two races - Lewis Hamilton and Paul Di Resta being the others.
However, whilst Hamilton had the luxury of unlimited testing before stepping into one of the top teams in F1 and Di Resta spent a year as test driver with Force India ahead of his debut, Kvyat has been dropped in at the deep end by Red Bull. He made the huge leap from GP3 to F1, bypassing the usual step of GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 and had only 16 laps of Silverstone in the STR8 at the Young Driver Test under his belt when he was announced as a Toro Rosso driver. Indeed even at that test it was still assumed that should Daniel Ricciardo be promoted, Antonio Felix da Costa or, at a push, Carlos Sainz - both of whom tested for the senior Red Bull team - would be given the opportunity.
The Russian, though, hasn't disappointed and has taken the confidence generated by his dominant conclusion to his title-winning GP3 campaign into F1 and proved to be a close match for Jean-Eric Vergne. Gaining just one place in the Sepang race may not look like much on paper, but when the lap times are examined, Kvyat was still, even when driving in traffic, within a couple of tenths of matching the pace of Vernge who was running in clear air following his early stop.
The 19-year-old also impressed in the technical middle sector in Sepang - a section of track which requires the driver to be in complete control of the car to extract lap time - with his best time through S2 in the race quicker than both McLaren drivers, Nico Hulkenberg and Felipe Massa to name a few. Kvyat's mental strength was also tested on Saturday when he and Fernando Alonso made contact in qualifying and whilst some rookies may have shied away having been criticised by the double World Champion, the Russian had the confidence in his own ability to stand firm with the belief that he was not to blame. If he can maintain this level of performance in 2014, Red Bull could have unearthed another gem.
Would Nico Hulkenberg have done even better on a three-stopper?
In a Malaysia GP dominated by three-stop strategies, Force India bucked the trend among the front-runners in stopping Nico Hulkenberg just twice, despite the soaring race-day track temperatures. Although overtaken by Fernando Alonso's Ferrari with just three laps to go, the strategy still earned the German an impressive fifth place.
The pair's contrasting strategies eventually met in the middle some 51 laps after Hulkenberg had briefly overtaken the Ferrari for fifth at Turn One only to be immediately outdragged up the hill. With Alonso from there running the day's more conventional strategy, the long-running Hulkenberg's pair of stops came on laps 16 and 34. Given he was visiting the pits one more time than the Force India, Alonso inevitably emerged from his third and final stop behind Hulkenberg and had a 14-second gap to bridge with 13 laps to go. But as the German's hard tyres were already more than ten laps old at this stage, and Alonso was attacking on brand new mediums, there was little Hulkenberg could do to avoid the inevitable as the Ferrari pumped in eight successive laps in the mid-1:44s compared with his own mid-1:46s.
Alonso reached the back of Hulkenberg on lap 52, and although the Force India initially held the marauding Ferrari off at the final corner and then through the first turn of the next lap, the F14 T's superior grip told coming out of Turn Two and Alonso easily swept by to claim the place back. Hulkenberg eventually took the chequered flag 11 seconds behind the Spaniard, having slipped a massive four seconds off Hamilton's leading pace in the closing laps on his worn tyres, but with a mammoth 40-second buffer back to the lead McLaren of Button a copious safety net, it capped another fine race for driver and team which on the evidence of Sepang has the fourth-quickest car.