Despite salvaging a P2 / P5 finish, the team departs the Malaysian Grand Prix with plenty of food for thought...
The Malaysian Grand Prix proved to be the toughest race of the season for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport. But, once again, an unfortunate weekend for Scuderia Ferrari meant that both Lewis Hamilton and the team were able to extend their points advantage in the quest for the Drivers' and Constructors' World Championships.
The final visit to the challenging Sepang International Circuit, on the F1 calendar since 1999, resulted in a first win of the season for Max Verstappen, who turned 20 on qualifying day, and a second victory of 2017 for Red Bull Racing.
With useful track time in Friday's first practice session lost to a typical Malaysian tropical rainstorm, the hot conditions of Friday afternoon's second session saw the Silver Arrows some 1.4s from Ferrari's single-lap pace and significantly adrift of both Ferrari and Red Bull on race pace.
After overnight data analysis and set-up changes, the W08 was just 0.4s off the one-lap pace in Saturday's final practice session and Lewis once again worked his magic in qualifying to take a fine 70th career F1 pole position. He was assisted, though, by a mechanical problem for Sebastian Vettel that eliminated his Championship rival in Q1 and spelled a back-of-the-grid start for the man who had gone out of the previous Singapore Grand Prix on the opening lap.
Lewis was also coping with an MGU-K de-rate issue, involving loss of additional power from the energy recovery system. As Toto Wolff explained, solving that was a team effort, involving engine and data engineers both at the circuit and in situ at Brixworth and Brackley. Their immediate pinpointing and problem-solving allowed the radio message telling Lewis to "hold the RS button for 10 seconds" which over-rode the problem and helped secure his all-important pole.
Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen was also a big pole threat but a great first Q3 lap from Lewis beat the Finn by 0.05s. The Red Bulls of Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo filled the second row, just half a second down. Valtteri lined up fifth, a couple of tenths behind the Red Bulls. He was trying a new aero package on his car that Lewis preferred not to run, but did not think that was the source of his difficulties.
"The main issue was struggling with the front end, which hasn't been the case many times," Valtteri explained. "Mid-corner I'm losing a lot of front end and it's tricky to get the car turned. That overheats the front left tyre and I'm also four-wheel sliding in high-speed corners. If I go quicker I just slide more and struggle more with tyre temperatures. Not a good feeling..."
With team simulations revealing that Vettel was likely to finish in the top four from the back of the grid, there was certainly no complacency going into the race, even when Räikkönen's front row Ferrari suffered a repeat of the Power Unit problems that afflicted Vettel on Saturday, and failed to take the start.
The track was still slightly damp from a pre-race shower but, when the lights blinked out, Lewis was able to get the power down from the slightly drier right-hand side of the grid and convert his pole position. Valtteri also did a sterling job, taking full advantage of Räikkönen's absence to flick left and go around the outside of both Red Bulls at Turn 1. He pulled it off with Ricciardo but spirited defence and savvy car placement from Verstappen limited car No.77 to third at the end of the opening lap.
After shadowing for the first three laps, Verstappen, using DRS, flicked out of Lewis' slipstream heading into Turn 1 for the fourth time and dived down the inside to take the lead. Lewis, against his racer's instincts but mindful of the bigger picture, elected not to close the door. He also had a de-rate at that point while Verstappen, with pace to spare, had been able to save some energy.
"I was having some de-rates which enabled Max to get closer," Lewis Confirmed. "But even if I didn't it would have just delayed the inevitable, because they were quicker in so many areas."
Valtteri, unable to run at the pace of the leading duo, was 6s behind after five laps and under intense pressure from Ricciardo. He managed to keep the second Red Bull at bay until lap 9, when the Australian made it a Red Bull 1-3. By this point, Vettel, starting from the back on the Soft compound Pirelli tyre rather than the Supersofts of the top 10 qualifiers, had worked his way into the top 10 and was 25s behind the race leader and 12s behind Valtteri.
Although struggling for pace relative to Lewis, Valtteri's race role was a significant one. As well as facilitating an 8s margin for Lewis by the time Ricciardo took third place, he played his part as pit-stop time approached in what was almost universally a one-stop race.
On lap 21 of the 56, Vettel passed Sergio Pérez's Force India to go fifth and, for three consecutive laps, was the fastest car on the track, lapping a couple of tenths faster than race leader Verstappen, despite being on the harder compound tyre. That brought him to within DRS range of Valtteri on lap 24 and within Sepang's 23s pit stop window to Lewis.
With Valtteri lapping in the mid 1m 37s, however, a second slower than Vettel had been going, the following three laps pushed Vettel just back out of the pit stop window and allowed the team to pit Lewis on lap 26.
"The front tyres were just starting to take a drop and the worst thing we could have done was get Lewis behind Vettel and have the two collide," confirmed the team's strategist.
The team might then have been expected to pit Valtteri on the next lap, while still in front of Vettel. But, in fact, only the Ferrari came in on lap 27, with Valtteri pitting next time around.
"We knew there was a very strong risk that Vettel could undercut us on that lap but what we wanted to do was force Vettel to either go really long, or stop. We didn't think we'd have defended Vettel with Valtteri even if we stopped first. Vettel, on brand new SuperSofts, would probably have just driven past. This way, at least, forced Vettel to stop on that lap, which creates the best situation for Lewis at the end of the race because Sebastian's SuperSofts were going to be that bit older."
Had the team brought Valtteri in earlier to push that tactic even further, it was unlikely to have succeeded because Vettel, with his Softs showing little signs of degradation, would simply have stayed out, run a very long stint and then been even more threatening on fresher SuperSofts at the end. All in a day's work for the analysts and number-crunchers, but all within the ultimate rapid-response environment!
As it was, Vettel looked threatening enough. Having undercut his way past Valtteri, he set lap record after lap record as he closed down the gap to third-placed Ricciardo. He was 26s behind Lewis with 26 laps to go and started to reduce the margin by more than the required second per lap. The team knew, however, that the further the Ferrari went into its SuperSoft stint, the greater the relative tyre degradation would become.
Vettel reached DRS range of Ricciardo's Red Bull with 11 laps to go, while Lewis was a further 8s in front. Vettel's SuperSofts still appeared to have strong pace (lap 45 was a 1m34.386s versus his 1m34.080s record lap on lap 41) but four laps behind the Red Bull in the mid 1:35s meant that was as far as the Ferrari would climb.
Vettel backed off significantly in the closing stages, to the extent that it looked as if Ferrari had short-fuelled him to help get through the field in the early stages in anticipation of rain, a Safety Car, or both. Vettel adopted 'lift and coast' fuel-saving to a significant degree in the closing stages.
While Lewis and the team did not have the pace of Ferrari or Red Bull at Sepang, they were in control in that final stint. Lewis was given target times to drive to, evidenced by a trio of laps in the mid 1:34s from laps 47-49, the team having calculated that even if Vettel had passed Ricciardo immediately and hadn't backed off, he would not have come closer than 2s to Lewis.
After Singapore, Sepang was another strong piece of damage limitation that put Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport 118 points ahead of Scuderia Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship and Lewis 34 points clear of Vettel in the Drivers' Championship with five rounds remaining. But, such is the competitiveness of Formula One in 2017 that, rather than smiles of satisfaction, there were furrowed brows in the team enclave on Sunday evening.
The facts were that Verstappen's Red Bull had beaten Lewis by 12.7s and Vettel's Ferrari, from the back of the grid, had beaten Valtteri, who started fifth, by almost 20s. It doesn't take Einstein to work out that, with a seven-point delta between first and second place and five races remaining, if Lewis finished second to Vettel in the remaining races, he would lose the Championship by a single point. Lewis, a born winner, doesn't smile about second place in any event. But there were deeper concerning issues arising from Malaysia.
"This weekend was a real hit for us, things happening throughout," he said. "It's not acceptable for this great team. My thought process is I'm really happy with my performance and how I've executed the race. I feel really happy with it although I'm naturally questioning whether I should have closed the door [on Verstappen]. But, overall, I think the long game approach I took is the right one.
"There was no need to really battle with Verstappen, who was much quicker, and risk not finishing. I'm also happy with the analysis we've done. The team is really pumped up to pull together and see what we can rectify with the current package we have and also what we're going to do for next year."
Valtteri was candid after another weekend of sobering struggle.
"Being honest, it may be the most difficult time of my career so far - in terms of how it feels every time you go into the car just wanting to perform. I want to be at a good level and I haven't been for some time for various reasons. So, many question marks for me and for team. I want to turn it around quickly."
The hope is that Malaysia is something of an outlier, with some of the slow corner, high temperature characteristics that have made W08 a tricky - Toto calls it 'capricious' - car at places such as Monaco, Budapest and Singapore. Lewis is Lewis and somehow manages to drive around difficult car characteristics to build bulk and core tyre temperature without overheating the rears and arrive at something approaching a competitive, if not race-winning solution. But the engineering team was quick to acknowledge that it was the car and not Valtteri at fault in Sepang.
"I think Valtteri will overcome this tough period," Toto pronounced on Sunday evening. "Somebody clever said: 'Smooth seas don't make tough sailors...'. And if he can dig himself out of his current underperformance, he is going to come out much stronger. Nobody is doubting Valtteri."
Heading to Suzuka in a week's time, different corners and lower ambient temperature should help the team's cause but, beyond that, the team eyes Mexico with a slight nervousness. Nobody is taking anything remotely for granted. The fat lady hasn't even warmed up!