Belgian engineer Jacky Eeckelaert, who worked for Jordan, Prost GP, Sauber, Honda and HRT (before joining Audi Sport Abt in the DTM and Formula E as technical director), offers his account of last weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix and Ferrari's triumph.
A question of balance
While surprising given Mercedes dominance in Australia, Sebastian Vettel's victory in Malaysia relied on a series of tangible facts.
For starters, Sepang is very different from Melbourne. With two longs straits and cars submitted to 60% full load the engine's power naturally plays an essential part. But the track's fast sweeps (with extensive downforce sections compared to the chicanes of Albert Park) also emphasize a chassis' efficiencies. On this type of layout a well balanced chassis is fundamental in order to minimize tyre degradation: in this respect, the Ferrari appears more stable than the Mercedes (with Hamilton acknowledging chronic understeer during the entire race).
At Sepang, a well balanced chassis is fundamental in order to minimize tyre degradation
Subsequently, tyre wear on the Silver Arrows was far worse compared to Ferrari, with Vettel enjoying a two-stop strategy while the Mercedes endured three stops. In spite of their outright speed (Vettel's fastest race lap was a second and a half slower than that of Rosberg and Hamilton), Lewis and Nico could not bridge the gap with Sebastian, mainly because they lost a lot of time in traffic in the first laps of the Safety Car and were unable to efficiently use the harder compound tyres.
One will also note that the Mercedes drivers had saved a set of new Prime hard rubber in Q1, while most other drivers had saved a set of Options, the medium compound tyres (the Ferrari drivers and Bottas went through Q1 without even using the Options). The team's strategy was actually set at this time as Lewis would have preferred to have a set of Options to end the race. Unfortunately, the team only had used rubber available when he made his third pit stop which is why they put on a new set of Prime tyres.
Just like in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix, Mercedes was defeated but this time without the help of special circumstances, like in Canada, when the cars had encountered brake problems, or in Hungary, when Hamilton refused to let Rosberg pass, or in Belgium, when the drivers got involved in a first lap incident.
That said, it's still too early to say if Ferrari can emerge as a real challenger for this year's title, especially since the excessive heat in Malaysia, with track temperatures reaching 62°C, may have been a disadvantage for Mercedes. Temperatures in China will certainly be a lot lower.