2011 Malaysian Grand Prix
In the searing humidity of Sepang, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel made it two wins out of two, as the German swept up the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Indeed, it will be a victory to raise broad smiles for those within the Anglo-Austrian team; however the towering advantage that Red Bull possessed in Melbourne two weeks ago, had clearly dissipated somewhat.
And like yesterday’s Qualifying session, it was a McLaren that trailed Vettel, only this time the players had switched roles, as Jenson Button led the silver and red charge.
Once again, the Renault’s proved their worth, but this time it was substitute pilot, Nick Heidfeld that grabbed the final podium spot.
All three had excellent jumps off the line with the Renault start system proving to be very effective. Once off the line, Heidfeld surged into 2nd place ahead of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, while Vitaly Petrov jumped to 5th from the fourth row.
Amongst the first lap shuffling, Red Bull’s Mark Webber lost the use of his KERS and as the field swept into the first turn, the Australian was a sitting duck. Short of his 80 bhp boost, Webber fell from 3rd down to 9th – a disaster for the veteran.
Fernando Alonso slipped down the order, as first Petrov and then teammate Felipe Massa demoted the Spaniard two spots to 7th. The Ferrari man was thankful not be stranded for too long behind Petrov – five laps in, the Russian ran well of the circuit at turn 13 gifting the two spots back to the red cars.
Strife at Williams
Yet if Alonso thought his weekend was difficult, the two-time should probably pay a visit to the Williams squad.
Both Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado had been suffering from a distinct lack of pace throughout the weekend. Maldonado lost a small section of his front wing in a light collision with Sergio Perez (Sauber) at the beginning of lap 3 – within one lap, his Cosworth engine began to misfire, signalling a short day for the Venezuelan. Come the 9th lap, Maldonado’s day was done.
Barrichello also suffered a puncture early on (pitting on lap 4); however his race would also draw to an early close, with the Brazilian citing a hydraulics failure on lap 23. Barrichello cast a despondent, if hopeful figure:
“This wasn’t the start of the season I was hoping for and we need to improve. Right now we don’t have a reliable car and we’re playing catch up, but the team back home are pushing hard to get things resolved and bring performance to the car. I believe they will be there soon.”
Former-Williams driver, Heidfeld was having no such ailments. Not only was the German holding off the rear guard advances of Hamilton, but the Renault kept Vettel faintly in sight.
For Vettel though, it was enough just to have Heidfeld in 2nd. As the tenth lap marker approached, Vettel headed the Renault by nearly six seconds – yes, things were going very well in Camp Vettel.
As for Webber, the Australian was toughing it out against Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi for 9th place — and it was quite a tussle too. Webber was having little issue with passing the Sauber using the DRS, only to lose the spot thanks to Kobayashi’s KERS-assisted Ferrari power. They didn’t just fight on the straights, as shown by five lap paint-swapping dual through the first five turns, settled in Kobayashi’s favour.
It was a battle that would finally be decided on lap 11 by Webber’s pit crew, with the Red Bull pilot pulling in the first of his stops. Kobayashi, meanwhile, continued to charge hard, taking a position out of Michael Schumacher (lap 13), before stopping five tours later.
As one Red Bull pitted, the signal for the rest of the front runners came quickly. Next in was Hamilton (lap 13), followed by Vettel, Heidfeld, Button and Massa (all lap 14), Alonso (lap 15) and Petrov (lap 16).
All were clean bar, Heidfeld and Massa, both of whom dropped to 5th and 7th respectively, once the field had sorted itself out.
In between the pit lane melee, glances looked skyward as droplets of rain descended, although it lasted only a few moments – and with that, thoughts of a 2009-like deluge evaporated.
The circuit remained greasy for a time, but not perilously so.
With Heidfeld out of the way, Hamilton’s charge would begin, as the 2008 World Champion began to slowly reel Vettel in. Very quickly, the gap between the leading pair would shrink from 6 seconds to 3.9 by the 24th lap – the battle was on!
Alonso was also on a charge in his Italia 150º Ferrari. Having followed the Button / Massa pairing through the initial stint, the Spaniard slotted by Massa thanks to poor pit-work, while moves on Button (left the door open in turn one) and Kobayashi (struggling for grip), was enough to promote Alonso to 3rd.
Within a lap, the Ferrari pilot began pulling in both Vettel and Hamilton.
Webber, meanwhile running in 6th, was having an inconstant race. Now confined to a four-stop strategy (unthinkable less than a year ago), the Australian was left to deal with excessive front tyre wear and the heightened understeer that followed.
It would serve as an a catalyst for the recovering Massa to grab a top-six place from the Red Bull man and also as a notice to change rubber – only 23 laps in and Webber was already on his third set of Pirelli’s.
Again, the Australian became the key to start the stops; however on this occasion Button was the next to pit (lap 24). Next in was Hamilton (lap 25), Vettel (lap 26), Alonso and Heidfeld (lap 27), followed by Massa (lap 28) and as the field settled down, it became apparent that McLaren were the big winners.
In the resultant shuffle, Button re-passed Alonso for 3rd and began a chase of the Vettel / Hamilton pairing. Admittedly, the front two lost time due to influences beyond their control – exiting the pits, Hamilton found himself temporarily baulked by Petrov, while Vettel emerged behind the then yet to pit Heidfeld and Massa – all of whom were easily dispatched.
For Vettel though, any thoughts of plain sailing to the flag quickly disappeared. A repeated message over the reigning Champion’s radio system at the half-way point betrayed the fact that the KERS had now failed on both Red Bull’s.
Changing the brake-bias to limit the damage of the now useless KERS unit, the young German went about setting several fastest laps, as he sought to put his Renault-powered machine beyond his rivals.
The gap was built quickly – from 3.7 seconds, Vettel had extended his lead over Hamilton to 5.4 seconds by the 32nd tour and then out to over 7 seconds by lap 34. Hamilton, on the other hand, was beginning to struggle on high-wearing tyres.
Amongst this, Webber took his third stop on lap 33; however his speed was such that the race was beginning to come back to the Australian. When Hamilton finally pitted five tours later (with a slightly sluggish stop), the Englishman possessed only a minor advantage over the second Red Bull.
In fact, Hamilton had lost so much pace, Button even beat the 2008 Champion out of the pits when the ex-Brawn driver pulling in on lap 39. Heidfeld, meanwhile made his next stop the following lap around, with Vettel and Alonso both stopping on the 42nd cycle of Sepang.
Impatience Wins Out
Just as the other leading runners were bedding in their fourth set of Pirelli’s, Webber returned to the pits on lap 44 for his fourth stop of the day, dropping the Australian behind the brewing Petrov / Heidfeld / Massa battle for 5th.
As the Ferrari stalked the Renault pair, Heidfeld pulled passed Petrov to lead the trio; however the Russian was unable to keep Massa at bay. As tyre grip fell away dramatically, Petrov made one final stop on lap 44. Sadly for the inexperienced Petrov, he would not take his R31 to the flag.
With only a handful of laps remaining, the Russian ran wide at a corner, hitting a rain gully as he rejoined the track. The lift was enough to launch the Renault into the air, breaking the steering column as it landed. After the race, Petrov concentrated on the brighter aspects of the event:
“I made a small mistake which shouldn’t have had the consequences it had. I went wide and the car took off on the curb, landing hard. Both cars should have been in the points today, but the good news is that we clearly have the pace needed to compete this season.
While Petrov flew, Vitantonio Liuzzi quietly parked his Hispania F111 in the pits – a rear wing problem eventually proved to be terminal, while water pressure issues ended Narain Karthikeyan’s day just prior to halfway. As their struggles continue, Liuzzi was pragmatic:
“It’s a shame we didn’t finish (…) because our target was to reach the chequered flag. It’s a shame because we had a really good start where I was able to pass a few cars (…) but then our pace wasn’t too competitive and those cars were able to overtake me. We knew we weren’t exactly where we wanted to be, but today it was important to achieve mileage and get some information on the car. So now we have some data to work with for the future”.
Alonso was also having difficulties. Ten laps remained when the Spaniard lost the use of his DRS – with Hamilton only just ahead, Alonso was showing signs of frustration.
As the Ferrari man ducked and dived on Hamilton’s tail, Alonso sheered part of his front wing off Hamilton’s rear end. A quick stop would drop Alonso to 7th behind Massa. It was a misjudged manoeuvre from a driver that should know better and a move that would garner Alonso a 20 second post-race penalty.
Hamilton would also garner a similar penalty for weaving in front of the Ferrari; however the pain did not end there for the Briton. The damage incurred in the slight collision denied the McLaren valuable downforce and pace, leaving Hamilton to destroy his tyres in the final laps. A late pitstop for new Pirelli’s became necessary, dropping the McLaren driver to 7th.
As Hamilton nursed his MP4-26 home, Button’s race was unfolding quite nicely in the sister McLaren.
Having driven a canny Grand Prix with few surprises, the former Champion was running in 2nd, only a few laps shy of Vettel. Button was catching the young German as the final laps flirted away, but by nowhere near enough of a margin to worry the Red Bull team.
Calm Under (A Little) Pressure
Alas, Sebastian Vettel wasn’t worrying – and why would he? His obvious talents behind the wheel, mixed in with the mastery of Adrian Newey’s RB7 are proving to be a formidable match.
On a day when virtually everything was perfect for one-half of the Red Bull garage, Vettel pulled off the twelfth victory of his brief career, giving the reigning Champion a 24 point-lead over Jenson Button. This was also Vettel’s fourth consecutive victory (going back to Brazil last year) and also his fifth win in six races.
“The entire race was quite different to what we saw two weeks ago – it was a lot closer and there were more pit stops due to the tyres. With the stops, you don’t want to be first in, as you want to do as few stops as possible, but also you don’t want someone else to go in, get an advantage with new tyres and undercut you. I’m very pleased with today’s result. I love what I do and don’t think I could be happier at this stage.”
Button meanwhile, took the second spot, albeit not a threat to Vettel, while not under any pressure from behind. For all his doubters, Button out-performed his more wily teammate today and runner-up spot is just rewards.
“This has been an extremely encouraging weekend for us. Today’s race was all about looking after the tyres. On the way to the grid, I purposely took a lot of front wing out of the car, which was a mistake because I had massive understeer for the first stint, which also hurt the rear tyres. So at each pitstop, I dialled in more front wing and my pace kept getting better and better. In the closing laps, the team told me to take it easy on the tyres, but I chased down Sebastian as much as I could all the same – still, it wasn’t quite enough. We should all feel very encouraged that we have a good, strong package.
Renault’s Nick Heidfeld completed the podium, thanks to a startling launch off the line and a solid race thereafter.
The German came under some late race pressure from the surging Mark Webber, while his Red Bull sang under the grip of newer Pirelli’s – indeed his stunning pass around the outside of Felipe Massa in the opening turn hammering home the Red Bull advantage over Ferrari.
Felipe Massa held off teammate Fernando Alonso over the line for 5th and 6th respectively. Lewis Hamilton initially took 7th ahead of the solid Kamui Kobayashi; however these positions changed once Hamilton’s penalty was applied.
It made up for some of the disappointment Sauber suffered following their disqualification in Melbourne. As a sign of how improved the Swiss team is, Kobayashi battled hard with the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher throughout the early stages, eventually winning out. A late fight with Vitaly Petrov came to nothing when the Russian took flying lessons.
Schumacher took 9th and while he was not spectacular, the veteran easily had the best of fellow Mercedes runner Nico Rosberg. A late race pass on Paul di Resta (Force India) while on fresher tyres, was enough to pull in an extra point for Schumacher.
Di Resta took the final score. The Scot drove a very good race, beating off early challenges from team mate Adrian Sutil, Rosberg and both Toro Rosso’s.
Sutil had a quiet run on his way to 11th – something that he cannot afford against a rookie teammate; however Sutil enjoyed a better run than Rosberg (12th).
The Mercedes driver suffered a dreadful weekend that lacked confidence and pace. Although Rosberg beat the Toro Rosso’s to the flag, there were occasions during the running when Rosberg’s pace was not much quicker than the Lotus’.
Sebastien Buemi (13th) and Jaime Alguersuari (14th) had virtually invisible runs to the flag, although Buemi’s early race was blighted by a stop / go penalty for pitlane speeding. Realistically, neither Toro Rosso had the speed where it mattered – on track.
Heikki Kovalainen (15th, Lotus) showed much improved pace from Melbourne, although the Renault-powered machine is still slightly shy of the midfield. Virgin’s Timo Glock came home 16th and last, with little pace or signs of improvement.
Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin) accidentally turned off his engine over a bump 43 laps in, while Jarno Trulli’s Lotus succumbed to a clutch failure. Sergio Perez couldn’t repeat his dream Melbourne run in Sepang – although the Mexican displayed solid race pace, an electrical problem ended the Sauber driver’s race after 24 laps.
It was an interesting, albeit somewhat confusing race to follow. With 56 pitstops and numerous strategies evolving and unravelling, the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix proved to an memorable, if odd affair.
Race Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Malaysian Grand Prix Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; 56 laps; 310.408km; Weather: Dry. Classified: Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h37:39.832 2. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 3.261 3. Heidfeld Renault + 25.075 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 26.384 5. Massa Ferrari + 36.958 6. Alonso Ferrari + 57.248 (*20 sec penalty) 7. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:07.239 8. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 1:09.957 (*20 sec penalty) 9. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:24.896 10. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:31.563 11. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1:41.379 12. Rosberg Mercedes + 1 lap 13. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 15. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 16. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 17. Petrov Renault + 4 laps Fastest lap: Webber, 1:40.571 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 47 D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 43 Trulli Lotus-Renault 32 Perez Sauber-Ferrari 24 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 23 Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 15 Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 9 World Championship standings, round 2: Drivers: 1. Sebastian Vettel 50 2. Jenson Button 26 3. Lewis Hamilton 24 4. Mark Webber 22 5. Fernando Alonso 20 6. Felipe Massa 16 7. Nick Heidfeld 15 8. Vitaly Petrov 15 9. Sébastien Buemi 4 10. Kamui Kobayashi 4 11. Adrian Sutil 2 12. Michael Schumacher 2 Constructors: 1. Red Bull/Renault 72 2. McLaren/Mercedes 50 3. Ferrari 36 4. Renault 30 5. Toro Rosso/Ferrari 4 6. Sauber/Ferrari 4 7. Force India/Mercedes 4 8. Mercedes 2