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The 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix: The race which changed the modern era

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When you think of moments in Formula 1 history that have had a lasting impact upon the sport, you might think of Niki Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring, or perhaps the tragedy of Imola in 1994, maybe the thrilling conclusion to the 2008 season in Brazil – but it’s unlikely that the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix springs to mind.

Yet Sepang played host to one of the most significant races in recent history and can be marked as a juncture in the modern era – effecting the careers of several drivers.

The weekend started off in rather predictable fashion for the turbo-hybrid era, with Mercedes topping all three practice sessions and securing a front-row lockout during qualifying – Lewis Hamilton ahead of his teammate Nico Rosberg.

Things got even better for the Brit on Sunday. Sebastian Vettel – who started from fifth – collided with Rosberg at turn one, sending the Mercedes spinning to the back of the pack and breaking his Ferrari’s suspension, leading to retirement.

By lap 40, Hamilton was in dreamland. He managed to create a gap back to the chasing Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo in excess of 20 seconds, while his championship rival Rosberg ran in fourth.

If the race finished like this, the former McLaren driver would have retaken the championship lead from Rosberg, creating a vital five-point buffer in the process.

But if Hamilton was dreaming, he was about to get a very rude awakening.

Screams of “oh no” reverberated over the radio as the now seven-time world champion sped down the pit-straight, his head in his hands, fire spewing out the back of his car, his engine had blown – his worst nightmare had come true.

Hamilton stood dejected at trackside as at first the two Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen went by, then came his adversary Rosberg.

The silver lining for Hamilton was that the race ended in this order – Red Bull securing their first one-two of the turbo-hybrid era.

The drivers’ standings made for bleak viewing however. What could have been the championship lead now saw him trailing by 23-points. With just five events to go, the gap to Rosberg looked insurmountable – and so it proved.

Despite being punted by Vettel on lap one, Rosberg recovered to finish on the podium

A week later, things got even worse for Hamilton at Suzuka. Rosberg dominated in Japan, taking pole and the subsequent race victory, the Mercedes cars being split by Verstappen. The sand that was a was slipping through Hamilton’s fingers, he was now 33 points off the lead with just 100 to play for.

After this, the Stevenage-born driver was excellent – fuelled by the disappointment after the summer break, which saw Rosberg win four-out-of-five races.

Hamilton won the remaining four grands prix of the season, unfortunately for him, Rosberg came second in them all – meaning the German won his first world championship by just five points.

Rosberg was crowned victor and shockingly retired just days after the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

If Hamilton’s engine hadn’t blown in Malaysia, he would have won the title by a more comfortable 20-point margin.

Of course, the results of the final quartet of races in 2016 may have ended differently if the events at Sepang had played out differently, but for arguments sake, let’s assume they don’t.

Hamilton secures his fourth world championship and his third in a row. Rosberg would have failed to in beating his teammate for the fourth consecutive year.

“I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right,” said Rosberg after his departure from F1. He had achieved his lifelong dream, he had beaten his long-time rival, he had emulated his father.

But if he had failed to do this, it’s very reasonable to believe that the former Williams driver would have continued with Mercedes in 2017, setting up another year-long intrateam battle.

Enter Valtteri Bottas. He was chosen to be Rosberg’s replacement at the team, moving from Williams for the start of the 2017 season.

The Finn has remained with Mercedes ever since, helping them reach a record-breaking seven consecutive constructors’ titles.

For Bottas, the world aligned almost perfectly. Rosberg’s retirement led to a vacancy at the fastest team on the grid, and he was the man bestowed with the golden ticket.

There’s little argument that Bottas didn’t deserve that seat. He had convincingly bested his veteran teammate Felipe Massa in their three years together at Williams, always showing strongly in the drivers’ standings. The Williams was also a Mercedes-powered car, which will have certainly aided his employability.

FIA post-race press conference - Russia
Bottas won his first-ever grand prix with Mercedes at the 2017 Russian Grand Prix

Yet with no Rosberg retirement, there is no Bottas call-up. It seems that the German was determined to win the championship, and likely wouldn’t quit until he did.

It’s impossible to predict how long it would have taken for Rosberg to conquer Hamilton, if at all without 2016. But Bottas may not have had the opportunity to be a nine-time race winner if it wasn’t for the power-unit failure in Malaysia.

Mercedes also had two junior drivers racing in F1, Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein. Both were drivers brimming with potential and proving themselves in the painfully slow Manor in the latter half of 2016.

The pair eventually left the team, Ocon being upgraded to race alongside Sergio Perez at Force India; Wehrlein moving sideways to the equally poor Sauber for 2017.

Ocon – who was arguably favoured by Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff – matched up well against his new teammate, despite the two often coming to blows on-track.

The Frenchman was very impressive during his first year at Force India, consistently securing impressive results and only trailing the experienced Perez by 13 points in the final standings.

It was certainly form which could have earned him a Mercedes seat. Eventually, 2018 wasn’t as good for Ocon, and he became caught-up in several incidents.

This wasn’t helped by Force India’s financial struggles, which would see them rebrand as Racing Point. Ocon would lose his drive after the Lawrence Stroll consortium took over the team, leading to his son Lance being appointed for 2019; the now Alpine driver would spend a year on the sideline as a reserve driver for Mercedes, before moving to Renault for 2020. He is no longer a part of the Mercedes family, but continues to managed by Wolff.

But if Rosberg was able to win in 2017, would the German team have opted for Bottas? Ocon was proving himself to be a very tidy pair of hands in the Force India, and could have been the young, feisty star who joined Hamilton at the front – an obvious progression through the ranks of the Mercedes junior driver programme.

Meanwhile, a young British racer was making himself known in the lower formulas. In 2017, George Russell dominated the GP3 series, winning the title by 79 points. He then won the Formula 2 title at the first attempt the following year.

Williams-bound Russell claims F2 title in style at Yas Marina | Formula 1®
Russell became the second winner of the revived F2 series, after Charles Leclerc in 2017

Since then, Russell has broken into F1, however has found himself rooted to the back of the grid with Williams – despite his regular qualifying heroics.

An Ocon move to Mercedes could have opened up space at Force India, which would have allowed the Brit to really show his pace in a faster car. However, this is unlikely due to the team’s collapse in 2018.

While Bottas has been a consistent performer at Mercedes, he seems to lack that cutting edge which would allow him to challenge Hamilton on a regular basis. The team seem content with this though, it prevents any of the heated feuds seen between Rosberg and Hamilton returning.

Ocon has proved himself a tough nut, and one that isn’t willing to crack easily. The former Renault driver bulldozed his way into F1 with very limited backing, and has had his fair share of clashes since entering the sport.

This may not have gone down to well with Mercedes, opening the door for other young talent – namely Russell, who has already proved capable in the Mercedes at last year’s Sahkir Grand Prix.

There are also other future stars who potentially never got a fair crack of the whip, especially Nyck de Vries who was the F2 champion in 2019, how might the spill over have affected his career? Could he have joined Nicholas Latifi at Williams if Russell was driving for a quicker team?

The possibilities are almost endless. The driver market in this alternate universe could be completely different to the one we’ve witnessed in recent years, with new faces and new race winners.

Now, this is all very hypothetical and just a discussion about what could have been. But in 2016, a fire in Malaysia changed the future of F1’s most successful team.

 

 

Image credit: f1.com

 

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