The Max factor and the Sepang success

Max Verstappen is a genuine star of the future and what was really impressive was the fact that he sat there in the lead and looked 100% comfortable.

Max Verstappen, the winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix, celebrates with his Red Bull crew at Sepang in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.   -  Getty Images

It was a typically hot and sweaty weekend for the final Malaysian Grand Prix, with a bit of rain, but not as much as we have seen on previous occasions. All in all, it’s a real shame to lose out on the race at Sepang because it’s a fantastic race track.

It’s actually the first F1 track that I ever drove at, way back in 2001. At that time, when it was just a couple of years old, it was such a path-breaking venue in terms of modern Grand Prix circuit.

The drivers love driving at Sepang, and I have great memories of racing here. It’s a real, real shame to lose it from the calendar, but such is life and F1 will keep going without it.

I thought the race itself was really a great send-off to the Grand Prix. If you would have said on Sunday (October 1) morning that you were going to bet on Max Verstappen overtaking Lewis Hamilton and beating him by 12.7 seconds in a straight fight, you know there’s no way anybody would have believed that!

When Verstappen passed Hamilton early on, we heard Hamilton on the radio talking about de-rates and we thought, ‘yeah he’ll come back at him’. But then, the gap went very quickly to two seconds and Verstappen broke the DRS zone, and from there it went up and up and up and got to six, seven, eight, nine, 10 seconds, and you’re like, ‘wow, this is really going to happen!

Red Bull win in a straight fight

Red Bull were completely in control of the race. Verstappen was managing his pace and his tyres; he was in complete control of the entire Grand Prix and it was a really impressive performance.

I might be wrong, but I think it’s the first time that Red Bull have won a race in a straight fight in the hybrid era since 2014, without other people’s misfortune, without weird weather patterns, without their main drivers having any form of reliability or incidents like what happened in Barcelona last year. That’s a massive pat on the back of Adrian Newey, Rob Marshall, Paul Monaghan and all the people in Milton Keynes involved on the chassis side and also the people from the Viry-Chatillon Renault side.

They’ve had a lot of reliability issues across the season, and with Verstappen in particular, you look at races like Baku, Canada and Spa — those are the first few that come to mind, but there have been so many races — where he’s been strong, he’s been competitive and reliability issues have cost him.

Max-imum composure

I was really pleased to see Verstappen win — and I wasn’t the only one. I managed to get outside the Red Bull pits when Verstappen crossed the line and I spoke to his dad, Jos.

Jos Verstappen is a hard man, he’s a tough nut to crack ,but you know even he was shedding a few tears. The Dutch TV guys were standing next to me and they went absolutely crazy. Somebody sent me some tweets of the various people celebrating across the Netherlands where it’s huge news.

Max Verstappen is a genuine star of the future and what was really impressive was the fact that he sat there in the lead and looked 100% comfortable. He only turned 20 on Saturday (September 30), but his attitude is, ‘Hey, I’m here leading the Grand Prix. I belong here.’ He’s not daunted by that at all, he acts like he belongs there — and he does. It was an absolutely extraordinary performance.

I believe that this year Verstappen has been the stronger of the two Red Bull drivers, but for various reasons, reliability, bad luck and incidents like that, the points tally doesn’t reflect that. And I was so glad to see him win one on merit.

Why were Mercedes so inconsistent?

For Mercedes, this was an interesting weekend. I talked to people up and down the paddock, different engineers and the people from Pirelli, and nobody is able to give a clear answer as to why the Mercedes were not competitive and certainly less consistent than we’ve seen in the past.

There have definitely been more ups and downs this season than there have been in the last few years, and when Mercedes are weak there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason as to why.

The theory I believe the most is that on a green track, for whatever reason, Mercedes are not able to get the tyres in the right window. We know that the Pirellis are very sensitive to temperature and track conditions, to the amount of rubber on track and the asphalt. The asphalt in Sepang was brand new last year, and a year on that bitumen, which holds it all together, I believe, was breaking up on the line and the actual grip was significantly lower than it was 12 months ago.

There’s a theory that the lower the surface grip, the more it hurts the Mercedes. We saw it on a Friday in Baku, for example, or on a Friday and Saturday in Budapest, where suddenly, when the track rubbers-up on a Sunday, the car comes alive. Even in Sochi until Sunday, where the track was fully rubbered-up, the Mercedes didn’t look as good as the Ferrari.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel hitches a ride with Pascal Wehrlein of Sauber after he damaged his car in a collision with Lance Stroll’s Williams during the slow-down lap.   -  AP

There is a school of thought that on lower grip surfaces, in the dry, the Mercedes are not able to get a consistent tyre temperature balance and maybe that is something that is hampering their performance.

I’m not sure if that’s an easy thing to fix either because if they had a clear answer, an understanding of how to address that, they would have done it by now, as there are some extremely clever people on that Mercedes pit-wall.

I’m interested to see what happens in Suzuka, because in terms of the layout, the circuit is pretty similar to Sepang. There are lots of medium, high-speed corners, changes of direction, a couple of braking zones — maybe fewer slower corners than we had at Sepang — but still fast, flowing sections. But the asphalt is a really grippy surface, you’ve got a lot of positive camber on the road and the surface has a lot of grip. So if the Mercedes can bounce back that would lend more credibility to the theory I just mentioned and which I heard over the weekend in Sepang.

More missed opportunities for Ferrari

Let’s talk about Ferrari because this was the weekend it all went away from them completely. In Singapore they massively hurt their World Championship chances. Hamilton was starting fifth and Sebastian Vettel was on the front row, but we’ve talked before about how he didn’t need to be that defensive off the line and effectively the accident happened and he gave away 25 points.

Reliability issues have been a big issue for Ferrari this season and not just with Vettel, who looked to be the most disappointing as he started from the back of the grid but at least recovered to fourth.

The fact that he got to within half a minute of Hamilton at the end shows what could’ve been. He would have been right in that fight.

Raikkonen qualified within half a tenth of pole position and then didn’t make the start because of engine issues, and that’s another massive disappointment for the team.

If Ferrari have to look back and think about when the World Championship was lost, these two weekends, in Singapore and Malaysia, will be the ones that come to mind. And there’s no getting away from the fact that reliability has massively cost them.