Blundell on F1: Malaysian swansong as Vettel looks to rebuild

Mark BlundellThe Singapore GP was supposed to be a weekend which would see Sebastian Vettel resume his familiar position at the top of the leader board. Through Friday to Sunday afternoon, everything appeared to be going to plan for the Scuderia Ferrari team at a track that suited their power system. That said, it only took five seconds for the landscape of the weekend to dramatically change as Lewis Hamilton proved the beneficiary.

An uncompromising defensive lunge off the line proved to be a decisive mistake from the German as he attempted to block the advances of the onrushing Max Verstappen, unaware of his own teammates flying start. What followed was a sandwich-effect between the two Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s 19-year-old protégé as the trio were resorted to spectating roles from the very first lap of the race.

Much has been said in the fallout as to where blame should be proportioned but it is the effect that the weekend has had on the championship standings that is the real talking point. There is no doubting that when the destiny of the world title is decided at the Yas Marina Circuit in November, we may well be looking back at the first-lap events in Singapore as a defining moment. Now sitting atop of the pile with a 28-point lead, Hamilton travels to Malaysia outstripping his main competitor’s race wins seven to four and it is Vettel who heads to Sepang on the back foot and needing to deliver sooner rather than later.

A permanent fixture on the F1 calendar since 1999, the Formula One fraternity will be saying farewell to the Sepang Circuit which acted as the trailblazer for the global expansion of the sport to every far-flung corner of the world. Malaysia acted as the acid test which has since seen the likes of Azerbaijan, Russia, Abu Dhabi and Singapore itself become further destinations on the calendar.

After this weekend, though, Malaysia will join Turkey and South Korea on the list of somewhat failed experiments as the expected benefits have failed to materialise. Sepang has been funded centrally by the Malaysian government since its introduction in 1999 and the state have now backtracked as their poster event failed to gain the traction that they had hoped for.

Although attendances dwindled over the years, the track, designed by Hermann Tilke, often produces some of the most exciting and demanding races the driving roster has to experience all year. Aside from the cockpit temperatures of up to 50C, there are a number of overtaking opportunities on the straights where the guys will need to be on their toes as well as several challenging corners.

No driver has achieved more wins at Sepang than Sebastian Vettel and arguably success this weekend would be his most timely to date. This record is in direct comparison to Lewis’ who has only managed to taste the single victory back in 2014.

A new face will be on the grid this weekend as the talented Pierre Gasly makes his Formula One debut having replaced Daniil Kvyat. The Russian’s position has been under scrutiny from the moment he had been demoted to Red Bull’s junior team to allow for Max Verstappen’s promotion. Unfortunately, the Russian’s demotion was not followed by a strong reaction to prove his bosses wrong. Instead he has been consistently outperformed by his teammate Carlos Sainz and it will be a surprise if he returns to the grid again this season. 2016’s GP2 champion, Gasly’s talent is not in question and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the top table this weekend.

MB.

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