x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Quick-fix Nick Heidfeld can cause problems for Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari

Five things we learnt from Malaysia: Lotus-Renault's veteran German showed in Malaysia he can mix it with the best at the front of the grid.

Nick Heidfeld recorded Lotus-Renault's second consecutive podium finish when he placed third at the Malaysia GP. It was the German's first time on the steps since his second-place finish at Sepang in 2009.
Nick Heidfeld recorded Lotus-Renault's second consecutive podium finish when he placed third at the Malaysia GP. It was the German's first time on the steps since his second-place finish at Sepang in 2009.

McLaren are closing fast

The object in your rear-view mirror is closer than it appears. When Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel dominated in Australia to finish 22 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton, his rival in the McLaren-Mercedes warned that his team would catch up, adding adamantly "of that I have no doubt".

Hamilton may have endured a disastrous second race in Sepang, but the pace and performance of his teammate, Jenson Button, proved team principal Martin Whitmarsh and his engineers are indeed closing the gap, and fast. Button finished 3.2 seconds behind Vettel, despite the German having the use of the acceleration-boosting Kinetic energy recovery system (Kers) this weekend, unlike in Melbourne.

With Button having won in China last year and Hamilton intent on closing the gap between himself and the top of the world championship, could this week's race at Shanghai mark the end of Vettel's four-race run of triumphs?

Heidfeld proves his worth

After Vitaly Petrov secured his first podium finish in 20 grands prix at Albert Park last month, the focus turned to his Lotus-Renault teammate Nick Heidfeld. The German was offered a race seat at the last moment following the horrendous injuries sustained by Robert Kubica in a rally accident. Heidfeld had been expected to be the team's lead driver, yet the 33-year-old had been outpaced all weekend. He needed to show his worth.

Heidfeld has never won a grand prix in 11 years of Formula One competition. Until Sunday evening, he had been without a podium since he happened to be in second place in 2009 when the Malaysia Grand Prix was postponed mid-race due to torrential rain. On Sunday, under dark clouds in Sepang, he surprised the entire starting grid by leapfrogging from sixth up to second and, while he may have slipped a little due to slower pit-stops, his manoeuvre to pass Hamilton on lap 52 was magical.

He thoroughly deserved his third-place finish and he proved Renault have the pace to cause problems to the established front-runners this season. Quick Nick proved he can be a quick fix.

Ferrari still have problems

Ferrari's arrival in the race for the championship was delayed once more as the Italian manufacturers' woes continued at Sepang. Stefano Domenicali's team again failed to produce the pace they had shown during pre-season testing.

Fernando Alonso had been touted as the most likely challenger to Vettel's crown, but, as was the case in the season's opening weekend in Australia last month, the Spaniard found himself at least one second behind the German champion in qualifying and more than 30 seconds off the pace by the chequered flag.

Alonso, a two-time world champion, suffered problems with his Drag reduction system and damaged his front wing when he clipped a rear wheel of Hamilton's McLaren while trying to pass.

But even before the 20-second penalty imposed by race stewards, Alonso had still only managed a sixth-placed finish, one position behind his teammate Felipe Massa.

Can't count on the weather

The predictable weather in Malaysia was a hot topic of conversation all weekend. The inevitable humidity was going to wreak havoc with tyre degradation, while the daily rain showers that arrive each day at 4pm - "like clockwork," said one driver - would cause mayhem, more pit stops and intricate strategical plans.

However, the country's weather - predictably - showed its unpredictability. Massa's visor appeared obscured by raindrops at one point early in the race, but on the whole, the rain never arrived, despite heavy showers just a few kilometres away.

The result was an opportunity to see the true lie of the land in the F1 paddock, but it means Pirelli's new wet weather tyres remain, save for a faux-wet test in Abu Dhabi last December, unproven.

Team Lotus No 1 in Malaysia

Forget the fact Vettel referred to Heidfeld's Lotus-Renault as "a Lotus" in the post-race press conference or that Petronas Mercedes GP had more fans in the stands at Sepang than either of the other two "home teams", there is no doubt Team Lotus, backed by Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, is the country's true national representative.

Why? Well, when Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister, went for a walk of the paddock on Sunday surrounded by his security entourage, he walked past the Renault and Mercedes garages with little more than a smile and wave, yet on reaching the Team Lotus garage, headed inside to meet the team individually and discuss their hopes for the race.

When it comes to celebrity endorsements, in Malaysia, it does not get much bigger than that.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae