Sebastian Vettel has claimed a shock victory in just his second race for Ferrari at today’s Malaysian Grand Prix after outplaying Mercedes with an inspired two-stop strategy in the heat of Sepang.
The four-time world champion opted not to pit under an early safety car, giving himself the chance to stop just twice and get the upper hand on the three-stopping Mercedes drivers of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton proved to be Vettel’s biggest challenger for the race win, but the high tire wear of the Mercedes Wo6 Hybrid meant that neither Hamilton nor Rosberg could challenge the Ferrari driver, finishing some 8.5 seconds behind at the checkered flag.
The start saw Hamilton make a clean getaway to remain ahead of Vettel and Rosberg, with the latter failing to make a move down the inside at turn one as he had planned on Saturday. Felipe Massa picked up a couple of positions off the line to move into fifth, whilst teammate Valtteri Bottas dropped outside of the top ten.
Both of the Sauber drivers made a good start on the first lap as Ericsson moved further up into the top ten, but the Swede soon brought his race to an early end by spinning off the track at turn one when attempting an overtaking move. With his car beached, the safety car had to be deployed.
This sparked a mad rush into the pits, with a number of teams opting to double stack their drivers to get the tire changes made. Both Hamilton and Rosberg dived in, but Vettel opted to stay out, giving himself the lead of the race upon the restart ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.
Hamilton and Rosberg quickly looked to make up the positions they had lost by stopping for prime tires, but it was Vettel who was setting the pace at the front in clean air. While Hamilton was able to easily pick off the drivers ahead to soon move up into second place, Rosberg struggled to find a way past the likes of Massa and Daniel Ricciardo, costing him time. When he did eventually move up into third behind Hamilton, the gap between the two Mercedes stood at nine seconds.
After pitting for the first time, Vettel emerged from the pits in third place and just ten seconds down on Hamilton in the lead. Putting his fresh tires to good use, the Ferrari driver eased past Rosberg for second place just a few laps into his stint before setting his sights on Hamilton in the lead. The Briton was suffering with high degradation, particularly on his rear tires, forcing him to pit just seconds after Vettel had retaken the lead of the race.
With a fresh set of tires on his car, Hamilton moved up into second place after Rosberg pitted and soon began to put the hammer down in a bid to catch Vettel towards the end of the race. Ferrari planned to stop just twice, but Vettel would be at risk of losing out to Hamilton in the final stint when the Mercedes driver fitted another set of mediums.
Further back, Ricciardo found himself battling with brake problems, leaving him at risk of falling outside of the points. Although Hulkenberg and Daniil Kvyat did manage to pass the Australian, contact between the pair saw them both lose out. The Force India driver received a ten second penalty for causing Kvyat to spin at turn two, dropping him down to P15.
McLaren’s difficult start to the season continued as Fernando Alonso was forced to retire from the race after 21 laps. However, the Spaniard remained upbeat, having fought with the Red Bulls earlier in the day. He was eventually joined by Jenson Button on the sidelines after a problem emerged on his car with 12 laps to go.
With 19 laps to go, Vettel made his final pit stop from the lead, releasing Hamilton into first place after the Briton had reduced the gap down to 14 seconds. The defending world champion led by 10 seconds, but with his car still chewing up its tires, he had to pit just one lap after Vettel, taking on another set of primes.
As a result, Hamilton found himself in third place, 14 seconds behind Vettel with just 16 laps to catch and pass the Ferrari. The pace advantage Mercedes had hoped for in the final stint was lost as the only other set of option tires the team was able to use had already been worn in qualifying on Saturday. It seemed to be a strategic error that Hamilton had to overcome.
However, the damage had already been done. Despite closing on Vettel in the final stages of the race, without the pace advantage of the medium tire, the Briton was unable to catch the German driver in the dying stages of the race as Mercedes had planned.
For Vettel, it was a perfect day. The four-time world champion crossed the line to claim his first win for Ferrari in just his second race for the team, having out-thought and outplayed both of the Mercedes drivers on Sunday, underpinning this with an impressive pace that simply proved to be too great for the Silver Arrows.
In second, Hamilton was clearly disappointed, but the heat had proved too much for Mercedes as the car destroyed its tires. The team did contemplate stopping him for a fourth time, but the Briton eventually crossed the line in second place, just 3.7 ahead of Rosberg who completed the podium.
Despite suffering an early puncture, Kimi Raikkonen managed to rally to finish a comfortable fourth for Ferrari, proving the pace of the SF15-T. He finished 14 seconds clear of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in fifth and sixth, with the former picking up his first points of the season.
Max Verstappen became the youngest driver in the history of Formula 1 to score a point by finishing an excellent seventh in Malaysia, pulling off some impressive overtaking moves on Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo, who finished eighth and tenth respectively. Daniil Kvyat won the intra-team battle at Red Bull to come home ninth.
After qualifying, Vettel said that he had hopes of winning the race on Sunday if more rain hit Sepang to help cut the gap to Mercedes. In the end, even in dry conditions, Ferrari managed to perfect its strategy to secure its first win since the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix in what was an important milestone at the start of the Vettel era at Maranello.
For Mercedes though, defeat came as a bitter pill to swallow. Throughout pre-season, its wariness of Ferrari was seen by most as the team downplaying its own pace. In truth though, it appears that both the Prancing Horse and Sebastian Vettel may be back in 2015 with a point to prove.