Just two races into the 2014 season, it looks like the rest of the Formula One field will have their work cut out for them as they try to catch the high-flying Mercedes team.
With Lewis Hamilton adding a dominant win in Malaysia on Sunday to the equally impressive performance by his teammate Nico Rosberg in the season opener two weeks ago, there’s no doubt which team got it right this year.
Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, took a 17-second victory over his teammate on Sunday, but the real story was the way the pair of Mercedes drivers toyed with the field for the entire race, extending the lead over their rivals at will.
“I was able to look after the car, the tires and the fuel and still keep a bit of pace in hand, which made my job that little bit easier,” Hamilton said after the race.
“It’s great to see Mercedes leading the championship, but we know that we have to make these early races pay.”
And pay they have. Rosberg leads the drivers’ standings with 43 points, 18 better than his teammate, who failed to score two weeks ago after retiring early in the Australian Grand Prix with a misfiring engine. Mercedes also leads the constructor’s standings with 68 points, 25 ahead of Ferrari. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
Despite the dominance in the first two races, Rosberg quickly pointed out after Malaysia that he’s worried about their rivals closing the gap to the Silver Arrows, although it’s difficult to see how the German’s prediction will transform into reality anytime soon.
Reigning four-time champion Sebastian Vettel put things a bit more bluntly: “It’s not a big secret, we know there’s still a lot to do,” the Red Bull driver said after finishing third in Malaysia, 25 seconds behind Hamilton.
“Renault (Red Bull’s engine supplier) is pushing very, very hard but at this stage we have to summarize and say that Mercedes did a better job – they’re quicker than us – so we know that there’s a lot of things we have to do better, but it’s still a bloody good result today, finishing on the podium, right behind them.”
The last time teammates dominated the first two races was when Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella shared a pair of wins out of the gate for Renault in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons where the former went on to take the title. In those years, Alonso was easily the No. 1 driver in the team, taking 14 victories over the two season compared to Fisichella’s two.
The difference is that there is no designated No. 1 at Mercedes this year . Both Hamilton and Rosberg have their strengths , and either could enjoy an advantage on a given day, depending on the conditions and the circuit.
That gives the 2014 season the potential to be a repeat of 1988, where the only mystery on race weekends was which of the McLaren drivers – four-time champion Alain Prost and the late three time champion Ayrton Senna – would win. That pair battled tooth and nail for every inch of tarmac, with Prost scoring seven wins and Senna eight. Only a double retirement by McLaren in Italy prevented a 16-race sweep.
Rosberg’s smoother, calculating driving style cool is reminiscent of Prost, who was known as “The Professor,” while Hamilton’s more all-out, aggressive approach mirrors Senna’s take-no-prisoners attitude.
Unlike, the McLaren duo 20 years ago, Hamilton and Rosberg get along well and, despite the F1 media’s attempts to play it up, there is no sign of any animosity or tension between the two – yet.
By the Numbers: With 15 victories in 16 starts, McLaren posted a 93.7 per cent success rate in 1988, which is marginally better than the win rate for Ferrari when it scored the same number of wins in 17 races in 2002 and 18 races in 2004. Of late, only Red Bull has come close, taking 13 wins in 19 races last year.
When it came to the driver's standings, both Prost and Senna scored more than twice the points of Gerhard Berger, the third place finisher .
Prost amassed more total points than Senna over the 1988 season (105-94), but the scoring system in place at the time only counted the best 11 results toward the title. In that calculation, Senna took the championship by three markers, 90-87.
Random Thoughts: There's little doubt that Felipe Massa knows how to obey team orders. The Brazilian played second fiddle to seven times world champion Michael Schumacher at Ferrari in 2006 and later to Fernando Alonso in the scarlet cars.
In fact, Massa is the reason that team orders are no longer banned in Formula One after a controversy in Hockenheim during the 2010 German Grand Prix. Massa led that race for the first 49 of 67 laps before he was told to let second-placed teammate Alonso pass for the win.
In a now famous radio message, Massa's race engineer Rob Smedley told his driver that "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understand?" and a few corners later the Brazilian slowed to let Alonso slip past.
Fast forward four years and it looks like Massa isn't willing to play ball anymore. As he chased McLaren's Jenson Button in the late stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix just ahead of William teammate Valtteri Botttas, a similar message was passed to Massa. With Bottas quicker on his fresher tires, the team obviously wanted the young Finn to take a run at dislodging Button from sixth place after Massa failed in his bid to pass the McLaren. But the veteran Brazilian refused to comply and kept his foot down to hold on to seventh place.
Even after Massa was told a second time by the team that "Valtteri has better tires, we need to let him go. Do not hold him up" he would not allow his teammate by. In the end, Massa finished seventh, 0.461 seconds ahead of his teammate in eighth.
Technically Speaking: With a car worth around $7-million and a salary of about $30-million per season, it’s ironic that Lewis Hamilton was taken down in Australia by a part that sells for less than $2. .
Mercedes’ inspection of Hamilton's engine following his retirement from the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago revealed that a pinprick hole in the rubber insulation on a spark plug caused his motor to drop a cylinder. The seal – worth about $1.49 – is now manufactured using an injection process that virtually eliminates the possibility of holes and cracks occurring.
Quote of the Week: After being knocked out of contention on Sunday following an early incident with fellow NASCAR driver Kurt Busch on pit road in Martinsville, Brad Keselowski went back out on track to exact revenge in his damaged car. The Penske driver went looking for Busch and proceeded to bump and grind with his former teammate for several laps.
After the race was done, avid tweeter Keselowski – he was fined $25,000 by NASCAR in 2012 for tweeting from his car during a red flag period in Phoenix – didn't shy away from the controversy.
When someone tweeted that he would likely not be on social media for a while after the Busch incident, Keselowski quickly quipped: "I'm here. Laughing at all the hate tweets," adding the hashtag #freeEntertainment to the end of the tweet.
The Last Word: The IndyCar season opening weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., was one to forget for Oakville's James Hinchcliffe, who scored his maiden series win on the street course last year.
A software glitch caused his Honda engine to lose power all day, which meant he lacked the speed to complete on a level field with the rest of the cars.
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