In the hot seat

Countersteer attends F1 race day at Sepang in search of some answers

Renault boss, Abiteboul, arrives at the “office”

Only 15 starters in Melbourne. Another yawn-fest from the dominant Mercedes team. Unhappy Red Bull and engine-supplier Renault want to reassess their participation in F1. This could be Sepang’s last F1 race.

The headlines that emanated after the opening F1 race in Melbourne weren’t exactly glowing. You can’t fault neutral observers either for harbouring the impression that Formula 1 is in a mini turmoil. As my transport – a red Renault Clio RS200 – made swift progress to Sepang on race day, some questions needed answers.

Will Renault buy Toro Rosso? What will happen to Red Bull?
Red Bull is playing catch up once again

Following a dismal showing at Melbourne, the spat between the Red Bull team and engine-supplier Renault Sport F1 went public. A Friday pre-race press conference involving team principals raised further questions, but at least the exchanges were cordial.

Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost revealed that he’d welcome manufacturer ownership of his team, while Christian Horner talked up the success Red Bull have had with Renault power, with four championships on the trot from 2010 to 2013, and to focus on improving the cars in the races ahead.

For the record, Renault spokespersons wouldn’t confirm rumours of any move to acquire Toro Rosso, though Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul was brutally honest about his under-performing engines when the questions was posed to him.

How much for your team? The bosses of Toro Rosso and Renault talk shop before start of race

He conceded that Renault was behind in development at Melbourne, but through “working day and night without sleep”, they have made a step up particularly in the calibration of the very complex hybrid engines which in turn improved the drivability of all the Renault-powered cars at Sepang.

Fourth, fifth and sixth on the starting grid was testament, though the Renault powered cars eventually only managed seventh to tenth places, at least all four cars were in the points and finished a punishing race with no reliability issues attributed to the engines.

Is Formula 1 in turmoil?
Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and Force India’s Robert Fernley having a chat about costs perhaps?

Caterham is history, and while the Marussia team did start and completed the race at Sepang, cost is once again casting a dark shadow over the paddock, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner even suggesting a ban of wind tunnels.

It is however looking quite rosy in terms drivers’ talent and potential, none more so with the Red Bull-backed teams, and in particular, the youthful Toro Rosso line up of 20-year old Carlos Sainz Jr. with 17-year old Max Verstappen, the youngest ever F1 driver in history, and after his excellent seventh place finish at Sepang, the youngest ever F1 points scorer.

Max Verstappen (left) is the youngest ever F1 driver and points scorer at 17 years old, watched over by his dad, Jors (in light blue)

It’s not an overstatement to say this Dutch teenager looks set to eclipse the achievements of his dad, Jos, an ex-Formula 1 racer who counted Michael Schumacher as a team mate during the days of Benetton in the 90s.

Rally legend Carlos Sainz and son sharing a bite before the race. Alonso has competition for best Spanish driver on the grid this year

With a name so closely associated with the folklore of rally racing, you’d wonder why Carlos Sainz Jr isn’t dicing with the likes of Sebastien Ogier and Jani-Matti Latvala in WRC. Running into his illustrious father (two-time world rally champion and Dakar winner) El Matador himself at the team’s hospitality home helped clear the air. Sainz Sr explained that Jr started with go-karts at five and went on to get his single-seater license at 15, whereas in rallying, you need to turn 18 first. Formula 1’s gain, WRC’s lost.

It’s uncanny how composed and controlled both these young Toro Rosso drivers where in what was only their second race, they certainly showed the likes of “Crashdo” Maldonado and Perez (who both have Mercedes engines powering their rides) how to race competitively yet bring home much needed points for the team, the youthful duo even finishing in front of the more fancied Red Bull sister team. Remember, you read about these future F1 stars here at Countersteer!

Sepang beyond 2015?

Doubts whether Sepang will host F1 after 2015 were put to bed when a post race announcement confirmed that Malaysia will continue to be the hottest F1 race in the calendar till 2018. For the record, the ambient temperature during the race was hovering at 40-degree Celsius, with track temperature at 60! The key question then is whether we can do a better job promoting it in the next three years. That’s a hot potato right there!

We have a reprieve, but half filled grandstands like this won’t endear to Bernie Ecclestone. What can Malaysia do next?

 Snapshots from Sepang F1 2015
No longer red: a relaxed Alonso before the race. He raced gamely but had to retire his McLaren Honda
A confident-looking Rosberg before the race. He would get soundly beaten by Vettel in the Ferrari and finish a distant third. He certainly got more competition than he had hoped for
Heads bowed: Marcus Ericsson takes an early bath after out-braking himself into Turn 1 on lap 3
Martin Brundle: the voice of F1 soaking up the 40-degree Celcius heat at Sepang
Mercedes-AMG GT: Arguably the prettiest safety car in the modern F1 era
F1 fans sighed a collective relief as Ferrari rediscovered the winning feeling once again. We say bring on the next race!
Competition on and off the track: our ride for the day, a Renault Clio RS 200, is pitted against Mercedes and Ferrari (OK, it’s an Alfa but same parent) in the car park too!

 (All images by Countersteer)