“A good puzzle, it's a fair thing. It's very clear, and the problem depends just on you.” Puzzle, conundrum. These are words that were racing into the team’s mind at the end of the weekend in Malaysia.
After a difficult weekend in Melbourne, where the team was surprised by tyre behaviour in the race, the engineers used the limited amount of time between then and Malaysia to work on improving the race set-up to ensure there would be no repeat of the problems.
The team headed into Friday’s practice sessions with the reasonable confidence that the problem was, if not solved completely, at least understood – and, thanks to some new solutions in terms of set-up, under control in the high temperatures of Sepang, with its long high-speed corners.
Both drivers achieved reasonably consistent long runs in the two practice sessions, working in race conditions and focusing on tyre consistency and durability. All in all, a good basis had been achieved on Friday, and the final practice session on Saturday morning confirmed that the team was heading in the right direction.
As in Australia, Michael and Nico did a single run in Q1 and had the performance to do the same in Q2. Sadly a yellow flag following another car’s off-track excursion meant that both drivers had to lift off and this compromised their one-run plan. Michael and Nico had to use another set of option tyres and this meant that both drivers could only do one run in Q3, as opposed to the two which had been originally planned (and as most drivers did in Q3).
Nevertheless, Michael secured his best grid position since his comeback in 2010 (and his first top three position in qualifying since the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix) with the third fastest time, only 0.172s shy of Hamilton’s pole position. Sadly for Nico, a mistake in turn one cost him a few tenths and left him with a flat-spotted tyre. He qualified eighth but moved up to seventh following Kimi Raikkonen’s penalty for a gearbox change.
“The nice thing about a puzzle is, you know there is a solution”
When the cars arrived on the grid on Sunday, everyone was well aware that rain, for the first time this weekend, was going to be part of the equation. The forecasts were clear: showers were on their way, and precisely 10 minutes before the formation lap, rain arrived around the track.
Most cars switched to intermediates before the start of the race, the track being dry in some parts and completely wet in others. Our guys didn’t have the best of starts, and Michael was sent into a spin after contact with Romain Grosjean at turn four, dropping him to 16th at the end of the opening lap. The race was then stopped after nine laps owing due to the worsening conditions.
Both drivers had stopped prior to the red flag on lap five, switching to full wet tyres. After the restart, both Michael and Nico struggled to get the best from their tyres and were not able to fight for positions. As Ross described it afterwards, “there were little windows when we seemed to get the tyres working and other times where we fell out of them completely.”
This inconsistency saw Nico drop back from fourth at the restart, while Michael was able to make little headway through the midfield. While nobody in the team could be pleased with the meagre reward of a solitary point for Michael’s 10th place, this weekend gave us another piece of the puzzle. The team is now back at the factory and has time to work on the issue before the next race in China.
Away from our own challenges, though, what a season this is shaping up to be. Seven teams in the top ten in Australia, nine in Malaysia… and in second qualifying at both races, the top ten were covered by less than a second! It’s incredibly close, and little details make a big difference in this kind of competitive environment.
But we know, too, that the performance is in the car – our qualifying results have already matched our best from last year, and we know that the car is closer than ever to front-running pace. Once we find the key to consistently unlocking those tyres in the race, be sure of one thing: the Silver Arrows will be ready to really fly…