On the surface, it might be ludicrous to suggest it but Mercedes are worried, and with good reason.
Their lead driver Lewis Hamilton currently boasts an impressive championship lead of 34 points, and their advantage in the constructors’ championship is an even more sizeable 102 points with just five races remaining.
Most would suggest both championships are a done deal but the Mercedes team hierarchy were left scratching their heads in the wake of the Malaysian Grand Prix.
That Lewis Hamilton finished second was no small miracle after an incredibly tough weekend in which both Mercedes perpetually struggled for balance and speed.
The ease with which Max Verstappen scythed past the pole-sitter and then pulled well clear is baffling to understand for a team that has been dominant at a few circuits this season and incredibly fast at the vast majority.
In short, no one from Hamilton to team boss Toto Wolff to their rivals and those watching in the stands expected Mercedes to endure such a drop in pace in Malaysia.
After all, the prognosis was that this would be the first circuit at which Hamilton and title rival Sebastian Vettel would truly be racing wheel to wheel, the nuances of a maverick circuit, on paper at least, playing to the strengths of both cars.
The Mercedes engine – generally regarded as the quickest in 2017 – should have been flying down Sepang’s two long straights while Ferrari was expected to be in the ascendancy through many of the corners.
The fact that Vettel finished only 25 seconds behind Hamilton at the chequered flag having started at the back of the grid said it all about the pace discrepancy, equating to about half a minute over the course of the race.
Mercedes have been here before this year: in Russia and Monaco most notably, where it became a simple case of damage limitation.
The Mercedes thrives in those 90-degree left-right corners, ones in which both driver and car can be aggressive, but in other corners suddenly the balance goes completely awry.
As they transition out of such corners, the rear end comes imbalanced and it creates a double whammy of oversteer and understeer. The car thereby loses its flow and with it raw pace, plus it causes increased degradation on the tyres.
And Hamilton struggled on both the softs and super softs in Malaysia.
What’s the answer? Somewhat worryingly, Mercedes don’t have one. It is, as they put it, a “fundamental issue” with their car for which there is no short fix.
Team boss Wolff’s succinct summary was thus: “How can a car that is so fast on many circuits lose so much with the tyre that is overheating?”
The vagaries of the Mercedes from one race weekend to the next is what makes the last five races of the championship so thrilling, and mean Vettel is far from out of it.
The Ferrari is quick and, for the most part, reliable, plus they have the added strength of a resurgent Red Bull whose drivers could potentially park themselves between the Ferraris and the Mercedes.
It’s all speculation of course as Mercedes have had a propensity for bouncing back but there are just six days until the next race in Japan.
Suzuka should be a better fit for Mercedes, but Ferrari will be the more confident going into the race weekend.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen won the final edition of the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton finished second to extend his championship lead over Sebastian Vettel to 34 points.
Verstappen, 20, starting from second after Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari failed to make the grid, overtook pole-sitter Hamilton on lap four before clinching the second victory of his career and first this season.
Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was third ahead of Vettel, who weaved through the field to finish fourth after starting from the back of the grid following engine problems.
The results mean Hamilton enjoys a big championship lead over Vettel with five races left in the season, starting next week in Japan.
Compounding Ferrari’s woes, Vettel’s car ended the day with only three wheels following an impact with Williams’ Lance Stroll after the finish line.
“That’s impossible,” Vettel thundered over the radio. “Stroll wasn’t looking where he was going!”
DRIVER OF THE DAY
Max Verstappen put in an inspiring performance to win the final race in Sepang – his second career victory since the Spanish Grand Prix last May.
The 20-year-old has endured a frustrating campaign, retiring from seven of the 15 races due to mechanical issues.
Starting from P3, the Dutchman pulled away from Lewis Hamilton on lap 4 and never looked like being caught.
With his team mate Daniel Ricciardo finishing third, it proved to be a successful weekend for Red Bull.
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 1, 2017
Sebastian Vettel may have fallen short after starting from P20 on the grid, however his lap of of 1:34.080 on 41 proved to be the fastest of the day.
Nico Hulkenberg’s 1:34.266 on lap 52 was the second-fastest, with Lewis Hamilton’s 1:34.452 on 48 third fastest as he pushed for second place.
After an impressive weekend in practice, Kimi Raikkonen was forced to retire before the race even started.
Starting from P2, the Finn was pulled from the race as the Ferrari engineers were unable to fix a turbo issue.
Ferrari had hoped to salvage something from Kimi’s grid place as Sebatian Vettel was handed a 20-place penalty after the Italian side made several changes to his engine before the race.
ONE TO WATCH
Another fantastic performance from Stoffel Vandoorne as the Belgian finished seventh for the second consecutive race.
In his rookie Formula One season, the McLaren star looked solid in Sepang as he held off the challenges of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez to finish comfortably in the points.
After being forced to retire four times due to mechanical issues this campaign, the 25-year-old is starting to show flashes of his class as he bids to finish the season on a high.
World championship leader Lewis Hamilton will start from pole position for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix with title rival Sebastian Vettel at the back of the grid.
Hamilton had been off the pace all weekend in practice but his Mercedes team turned it around in qualifying Saturday to head Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
But Vettel’s world championship hopes suffered a huge blow when his Ferrari failed to set a time in the first qualifying session, meaning he will start last.
Vettel, 28 points behind Hamilton in the title race, lost drive on his first flying lap.
“It feels like I have no turbo,” he said over team radio.
Hamilton was clearly surprised to be on pole after a torrid weekend where he had failed to be quicker than fifth in any practice session.
“We had no idea what was going to happen today,” said Hamilton.
“I’m sorry for what happened to Sebastian but somehow we managed to turn it around and it is a real surprise to be up here with these guys.
“I’m very grateful to the team. The car felt good.”
Pole for @LewisHamilton
But Kimi pushed him VERY close
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 30, 2017
With mechanics unable to fix Vettel’s Ferrari before the end of Q1 the German will start from the back of the grid unless there are penalties for other drivers.
Vettel’s engine had been changed before qualifying after a similar gremlin in final practice Saturday only for the new unit to fail.
“Who knows what will happen tomorrow,” Vettel told AFP. “The race is tomorrow not today. We have a very quick car and we saved some tyres.
“If it happened tomorrow it would be more of a problem. Anything can happen – you saw that in Singapore two weeks ago how everything can change.”
In Singapore, Vettel had started from pole only to crash on a rain-soaked first lap as Lewis Hamilton won from fifth on the grid to extend his championship lead.