There were definite signs of improvement in the form of McLaren-Honda in Malaysia, and while 17th and 18th on the grid is not where anyone in the team wants to be, the important thing was that the time gap to the opposition had closed. The drivers continue to say good things about a the MP4-30 chassis, and it's clear that the cars will move up the grid as Honda extracts more performance from the hybrid V6.
Sepang was of course the first of the new generation of Tilke tracks, and as such the first to open up the sport to a whole new market. I enjoyed the place on my first visit in 1999, although I can't say I've ever been a fan of the stifling humidity that hits you as soon as you step out of the plane.
As such it has always been a tough test of man and machine, and for Honda the weekend was something of a step into the unknown in terms of the ambient temperatures – and bear in mind that we were told in Australia that the power units had been turned down in large part because of heat issues. Sepang was a much greater challenge, and while both cars retired in the race, the overall lap total achieved over the weekend was respectable, especially given the struggles faced in testing just a few weeks ago.
For the moment, everyone admits that there's still a mountain to climb. The good news in Malaysia was that Fernando Alonso was back, and showing no ill signs of the Barcelona test incident after his extended spell of recuperation. With due respect to Kevin Magnussen – I'm sure that the young Dane will be winning races with McLaren at some point in the future – both McLaren and F1 need Alonso to be present and at the top of his game.
His appearance meant that in tandem with Jenson Button the Spaniard set a new record for the most experienced driver pairing the sport has ever seen. And that is of course why McLaren ended up with a 2015 line-up compromised of a pair of world champions. Heading into what was always going to be a challenging year it was deemed essential to have two guys on board who have seen it all before, and endured the sort of ups and downs that inevitably accompany a long career at the top.
Reading what they both had to say in Malaysia it was obvious that both men recognise that they have a key role to play in keeping up morale in the camp, and quite rightly they regularly refer to the potential of the McLaren Honda marriage, which is what it's all about.
The resurgence of Scuderia Ferrari is a source of motivation for everyone chasing Mercedes, including McLaren. No one expected Sebastian Vettel to win in only his second race with his new team, and yet in the past we've often seen big name drivers who have made major career moves find success pretty quickly. Indeed Seb’s own current team-mate Kimi Raikkonen won on his very first start with Ferrari in Australia in 2007, after he moved from McLaren to Maranello.
In fact, in winning on his second outing with his new team, Vettel matched what Alonso achieved when he joined McLaren in that same 2007 season. And given that that Fernando's maiden victory came in Malaysia, there's also a nice synergy with his return to the cockpit last weekend.
The parallels between the Vettel and Alonso situations are clear. Brought up through the ranks by Red Bull, Vettel achieved huge success with the team, winning four titles. Some observers thought he would probably never leave. However, he decided that the time was right to find a new home and a new challenge – and you might also say it was a good idea to leave the nest and prove that he could win elsewhere.
When he joined McLaren in 2007 Alonso had been with Benetton/Renault for five seasons (one of them as test driver supporting none other than J Button!). He'd won two titles, and like Michael Schumacher before him, he seemed to be an integral part of the team. But he too decided it was time to move on and break away. And McLaren was his destination of choice.
Some thought that he'd got his timing wrong, given that McLaren had finished a distant third in the 2006 constructors' championship, and the departing Raikkonen only fifth in the drivers' version. But Alonso had faith in the team, and with rookie Lewis Hamilton in the other car, it was a fresh start in every respect.
As noted, the man Alonso replaced – Raikkonen – won the opening race of the 2007 season for Ferrari. But there have been many Melbourne races where the advantage of the dominant team has for some reason been exaggerated (as we saw this season!). An interval of two weekends, and the chance to test in Malaysia, allowed McLaren to haul in Ferrari.
Specifically, the team was able to come to terms with the tyres, having made the switch from Michelin to Bridgestone during the winter. Everyone had been running on the same spec tyres since November, but Ferrari still had a huge amount of previous Bridgestone knowledge upon which it could call, and the others were still catching up.
In addition, Raikkonen now had to protect his engine, which was potentially damaged by a loss of water in Australia. His team-mate Felipe Massa made up for disappointment in Melbourne with pole at Sepang, while Kimi had to settle for third, with Alonso inbetween. Fuelled more heavily than his team-mate in qualifying, Lewis took fourth.
The start was a nightmare for Massa, who was beaten by both McLaren drivers in the run through the first two turns. Suddenly stuck in third, he panicked, and in his desperation to get back past on lap six he ran wide t Turn Four after Lewis brilliantly outfoxed him. He dropped behind Raikkonen and the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld – and his race was ruined.
Thereafter it was a relative straightforward afternoon for McLaren, and Alonso and Hamilton ran around with no pressure from behind. Lewis rightly received the plaudits for a solid performance in his second GP, after his debut third place in Australia.
But Alonso was the man of the moment, and he'd proved to the world that he could win in a different team, just as Vettel did last weekend. He was delighted to get his first McLaren victory out of the way so early.
“When I was leading after the first corner and saw Lewis second, well that opened a little bit the dream to win the race,” he said. “We knew our chance was to overtake the Ferraris at the start and we were lucky to do it and, for sure, [it was] even better to have your team-mate second.
“But I was not confident until the final stint, to be honest, even in lap 40 or something like that, the team kept telling me to push because we thought Kimi was going very long for the second stint. So I was not confident until Kimi pitted for the second time and we realised the victory was in our hands.”
“I’m proud for the team, above all else,” said Ron Dennis, who was delighted to join his guys on the podium. “Both drivers did an excellent job. We had a good strategy. Lewis was very controlled at the end, very cool, and did what was necessary to come second, which was his objective.
“I’m still basically letting it sink in. It was a great result. It was a good strategic race, and I think we showed we had the pace to beat the Ferraris, and I’m very pleased with the outcome, obviously. Inevitably you go through peaks and troughs of competitiveness, and hopefully this will be a trend that we can continue into the future.”
That day Dennis looked every inch the proud father figure as Alonso and Hamilton took the plaudits. He neatly ducked away before the champagne started flowing, and came down the stairs just in time to see Hamilton’s half empty bottle slip through the fingers of a mechanic after Lewis passed it down from the podium.
The unfortunate fellow caught it on the first bounce, and yet the Mumm bottle didn’t break. Ron joked about it with his guys, perhaps aware that here was further confirmation that this was a day when nothing could go wrong.
That hot and humid Sunday afternoon in Malaysia was certainly a time for celebration. It might not happen any time soon, but I'm sure that Fernando will one day enjoy a few more wins with McLaren.