Following an unexpected, and crucial, swing race in Singapore, we check in to see who needs a big weekend in Sepang.
1 Sebastian Vettel
There couldn't be a more obvious pick for the top driver to need a good race weekend ahead. Vettel essentially threw away 25 crucial points in Singapore with an aggressive line into turn one that destroyed several drivers' races and, perhaps, his championship chances. Make no mistake, this was a pure racing incident no matter what his many detractors say, but a completely needless one.
Ironically, it was his rival Lewis Hamilton who needed a big race this time a year ago, and he delivered before his engine went up in flames. Now, with the barrel of the gun facing the German this time, he finds himself in desperate need of scoring some big points to trim the 28 point deficit he faces. There are several things going his way though: He has more race wins in Malaysia than anyone else on the grid (Multi-21 anybody?), and took his first win for Ferrari on this track just two years ago. Additionally, the SF70H is a much stronger car than Ferrari's 2015 offering was.
Confusingly, at high-speed Spa, the car looked Mercedes' equal apart from a deft move from Hamilton through Eau Rouge during a restart. Then, at the following race at Monza, the Ferrari was a massive disappointment, finishing way off the pace of the leading Mercedes.
Vettel's form is also hot and cold. A scintillating pole in Singapore showed he will blaze when he's on form, but following that with moves like he pulled the at the start in Singapore leaves people wondering if he remembers how to win. Look for him to be on top form this weekend, but to fall victim to the great white shark that is the Mercedes straight-line speed.
2 Jolyon Palmer
This young Brit has deservedly found his name on this list more than once during his short time in F1, to the point that his tenure has almost become a joke. However, he now finds himself in a situation that is no laughing matter. Things got very real for him during the Singapore weekend when he learned the inglorious fate of his career by reading about being replaced by Carlos Sainz while on the internet!
The completely classless move by Renault aside, Palmer had his best race in Singapore, scoring his first points of 2017 with a fine sixth. Too little, too late, or substantial addition to his CV that will doubtlessly be circulating this off-season? With most of the 2018 doors closed for out-of-work drivers, Palmer has to be fighting hard for the few remaining places at the highest level of motorsport.
Realistically, he's probably done in F1 but can do a lot to further his chances for a top drive in other series like the WEC with a sustained effort over the final races of the season. He started that effort in Spa and solidified it in Singapore; let's see what the lad can pull off in Sepang.
3 Lewis Hamilton
How ironically opposite Hamilton's situation looks to the one that existed a year ago. Last year, his famous "oh no, no!" and head held in hands told the story of how 2016 had gotten away from him. Now, thanks to Vettel's aggression, he finds himself more than a race win ahead of his closest championship challenger. His position is one that suggests he could almost cruise home with consistently decent finishes and no more wins.
It would be premature, yes, but you could forgive your neighbour if he suggested the 2017 title battle is essentially over. This is foolhardy though; One look in Hamilton's mirror and he will see one of F1's foremost competitors since his introduction to the sport. Vettel, as an opponent, is not one to be taken lightly. All other things being equal, he has a better chance at catching Hamilton than anyone else in the field and carries an unquestionable record at the circuits that make up the final flyaway races.
Hamilton would be well-advised to keep every ounce of pressure on his rival wherever he can, as one DNF to a Vettel race win would nearly level the field again. Hamilton is no rookie (not that he ever drove like a typical one anyway), and likely recognises the reality of the championship game more than anyone else. Malaysia is also not the US or UK, i.e. venues with distractions, so his focus is bound to be just as stern as ever, and my money, if I had any, would say he will punch as hard as he can this weekend, keen to exorcise last year's demons while crushing his championship rival.
4 Max Verstappen
It is a sporting crime the young Dutchman is nearly 100 points adrift of his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo through no fault of his own. He has been featured here, in the driver's needing a solid outing, more than once this year, and yet when given the chance to race his talent has continually been impressive.
What more can really be said about Verstappen's year other than his incredible streak of bad luck? Thankfully, it will not last forever and every F1 fan knows it. Sepang would be an ideal place for the poor luck to end. Second place in 2016 shows his potential on the track and, with rain set to feature prominently in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, Verstappen has to be licking his lips at his prospects.
Max needs a big weekend just because he, and F1, need him to have one. He is one of the premier talents on the grid and watching his season continually go up in flames or electrical problems is well past tiring. If his car holds up this weekend, I would expect Max to come at it with a vengeance.
5 Williams Martini Racing
The Williams team, behind drivers Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, have a massive qualifying problem. With the bewildering exception of Monza, they have failed to get both cars past Q1 since the Azerbajian Grand Prix in June, eight races ago. The car suffers from understeer in rainy or twisty conditions but even when the circuit seems to favour the team slightly, they can't put a decent single-lap time together. Worse still, it seems no progress is being made on this front as their form continues to be miserable.
Their focus on race results has been relatively consistent, with Massa frequently near the bottom of the points and Stroll having reasonable success for an 18-year-old rookie. However, what results they have dragged home still leaves them just seven points up on Toro Rosso for fifth in the constructor's championship, and starting near the bottom cannot be helping that climb.
Given their varying track inconsistencies, it is difficult to tell where this team is headed on Saturdays. One thing is for certain: Williams is a team in flux, and one that may be about to be overhauled by the talented junior Red Bull squad. They could desperately use a strong qualifying result on Saturday to catapult into a decent race in order to put some distance between themselves and the hungry Toro Rossos behind.
Who deserved a mention this weekend that didn't get one? Let us know in the comments below!
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