Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso took a shock victory in a rain-interrupted race at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday.
However, while Alonso may have picked up an unexpected victory, much of the post-race plaudits have – rightly – been thrust upon Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who came home a stunning 2nd place.
Red flags and doused rags
As rain began to teem down prior to the race start, a majority of the field changed to Pirelli’s intermediate tyres. Yet it was Alonso who made the most opening laps to climb from 8th to 5th, until the once niggling shower became a full on downpour several minutes in.
With the field converting to full wets, Alonso found himself back in 5th and chasing Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but opportunities to charge passed the veteran Australian were denied by ever worsening conditions.
As more drivers began to fall off track – despite their wet tyres – the safety car emerged on lap 7, before the race was finally red flagged two tours later.
The race restarted behind the safety car 52 minutes later, with the field being held in slow order for five laps. A little too long per chance – the field began to pit for intermediates once the pristine Mercedes-Benz SLS departed the live circuit.
A clean stop from the Ferrari mechanics at the start of lap 15 propelled Alonso to the lead, while the Sauber mechanics did an equally impressive job one lap later to get Perez out in 2nd ahead of Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) and Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull).
It was a position Alonso would hold to the end, although Perez ensured the Spaniard would not have an easy time of it.
With the field filtering out, Alonso headed the consistent Perez by 2.4 seconds (lap 16), extending the gap to 7.8 seconds (lap 30) as the Ferrari sought and found grip from its Pirelli’s.
As witnessed in previous events, Perez’ consistency, also delivers a potent longevity and where Alonso’s tyres began to lose their precious edge, the intermediates that clothed the Sauber still held theirs.
Thus the gap came down and down, shrinking with every circulation of the Sepang circuit, until the gap was mere car lengths.
Fast, but temperamental
Meanwhile, the circuit – at one time washed out – was now drying considerable and slick tyres would soon be inevitable; however Sauber were about to receive their first strategic sting.
With the threat of a further shower on the horizon, several cars stayed out in the hope they would not get caught out on the wrong tyres, but every passing lap saw the rain clouds dissipate, leading Ferrari to call Alonso in on lap 40 for a set of scrubbed mediums.
Sauber held Perez out for another lap, losing the Mexican six seconds in the process as he changed to a new set of hard Pirelli’s.
From here, the race should have been wound up with ease in Alonso’s favour, but Perez still sensed victory. Where the gentle touch of the Sauber C31 helped Perez keep his tyres intact, the rugged and insensitive nature of Alonso’s F2012 ensured his medium’s fell away.
On lap 42, the gap was 7.2 seconds; three tours later, it was 3.2 seconds – the final charge was on. Perez pulled further chunks out of Alonso in the following five laps, getting the gap down to 0.575 seconds at the start of lap 50.
Surely it would only be a matter of time?
Interestingly, as the earlier the red flag period turned, Sauber CEO Monisha Kaltenborn was interviewed on Sky Sports F1 during which she noted that:
“…with Checo (Perez), we have to watch out a bit more, being a bit more temperamental, but it’s very important (…) that they keep their calm.”
With a win a distinct possibility, Perez’ radio crackled into life, warning the Mexican that the position was needed and not to make a mistake.
Alas, as the leading pair – still almost together – approached the difficult turn 14, Alonso took the corner with his normal brutal efficiency; Perez, not so.
Indeed, the Sauber driver was lucky. As he closed in on the off-camber right-hander, Perez took his C31 too close to the still damp kerb, instantaneously losing grip. His traction lost, Perez assumed a brief fling with the run-off area – perilously close to the gravel trap – but regained control to restart his chase.
Too little, too late
It was too late though. The gap now five seconds, was enough for Alonso, although Perez closed the margin to 2.2 seconds come the chequered flag, ending a wonderful battle. Alonso, ecstatic with an unexpected haul of 25 points, had nothing but praise for his team.
“It was an incredible race! While we have been going through this difficult time, no one gave up, in fact everyone has doubled their efforts to try and catch up. To win with all the problems we have got is something quite extraordinary. In the wet, I was going very well, but then when the track dried out, our weaknesses showed themselves,”
said the Spaniard. He then added:
“Sergio got very close and I was trying to stay on the only dry line: if he wanted to pass me, he would have had to take a risk. Yesterday, he and I ended up ninth and tenth and today we found ourselves fighting for the win, which shows how unpredictable is this championship.”
While disappointed to have not won, Perez claimed the runner-up spot in magnanimous fashion. It was a startling drive by a young driver keen to assert himself amongst the Formula 1 elite.
“It is a great day for me. The team did a very good job and I feel very happy for them. It is a really nice feeling to have been on the podium here, but I think victory was also within reach. On the final (…) I went wide and touched a curb. I actually was lucky not to go off.”
Sauber are very suddenly much in the fight for 4th / 5th in the Constructors Championship – remember of course that Renault’s 5th place in 2011 owed much to two podiums in the opening races of the season. Thus far, Mercedes have stalled and Lotus (nee Renault) are collecting minor points… but that’s something for later on.
Others were racing
Lewis Hamilton had a far more straightforward day to finish 3rd place, despite grabbing pole in qualifying and leading ably until his first tyre stop on lap 14.
As the former world champion slotted in to his pitbox, the McLaren slid beyond its marking, causing a brief delay while mechanics moved to accommodate. Hamilton’s cause was not helped when his escape had to wait an extra moment for a clear spot to emerge in the pitlane.
It would drop the McLaren man behind the Alonso / Perez battle for the duration – a battle that proved to be insurmountable for the Englishman.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber had a somewhat similar experience on his way to 4th place. The Australian was another to lose out in manic tyre change on lap 14 and soon began to struggle on the intermediate tyres.
Running 7th for sometime, Webber made it passed Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) on lap 24, later taking 5th as pit strategies unfolded.
The Australian made that 4th when teammate Sebastian Vettel collided with the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan on lap 47, forcing a late stop from the reigning champion due to a shredded left rear tyre.
A late charge by Webber on a set of used mediums came too late to truly threaten Hamilton’s podium spot; however the Red Bull man may still be happy with a tidy bundle of points from a chaotic race.
As for Vettel’s fall down the order, it was a silly and unnecessary accident. Lapping the sluggish HRT driver, Vettel appeared to forget Karthikeyan was not fully behind him, swinging back on to the racing and over the HRT’s front wing.
For an unknown reason, Karthikeyan – the innocent party – was handed a 20-second post-race penalty, leaving Vettel to showcase a fine degree of petulance in the interviews after the race.
Kimi Raikkonen recovered from a post-qualifying penalty (dropping the Finn to 10th) to come home 5th after the 56 tours of Sepang.
The Lotus racer jumped to 8th on the opening tour, only to lose out badly during the opening round of stops at the end of the fourth lap. Falling to 13th did little to deter F1’s returning champion, with Raikkonen being one of the first to change to intermediates, bring the Finn to 6th.
From there the Lotus pilot raced a tidy Grand Prix, assuming 5th when Vettel fell backwards late on.
Bruno Senna’s second Grand Prix was far from standard. The Williams made up for a disappointing weekend in Melbourne, by surging up the Malaysian order, eventually finishing 6th come the flag.
It did not start well for the Brazilian. As he tiptoed his way around the greasy circuit on the opening lap, Senna clipped the rear of teammate Pastor Maldonado, with the 28-year-old requiring a new front wing. Demoted to 24th and last, the Williams crew fitted a new set of wets onto the FW34 machine, gifting Senna plenty of grip, while opponents were crying out for more.
Biding his time initially, Senna was – like Raikkonen – one of the first to switch to intermediates after the red flag – it worked perfectly for the Brazilian. While others floundered on wearing wets, Senna set quick lap after quick lap, rising to 13th once every runner had moved to the same intermediate tyre.
Forceful moves on the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo (lap 23), Michael Schumacher (Mercedes, lap 25) and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg (lap 27) propelled Senna into the top ten, while a pitting Felipe Massa offered up 9th one lap later.
Senna’s progressed halted briefly behind the quick Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso), until Williams brought the Brazilian for a change to new mediums, gaining another spot in the pits, thanks to Williams’ rapid tyre change.
Where Senna had set good times on the intermediates, his pace on the slicks mediums proved explosive. On a mission, Senna passed the defenceless Paul di Resta (Force India) and the hobbling Vettel to end up 6th; however Raikkonen’s late race pace proved to be too much.
Battles to the end
A 7th place finish was a solid result for di Resta considering his 14th place starting position. Seeing the weather visibly worsen by the 2nd lap, the Scot made a switch to wets, gaining a couple of spots.
His speed in the changing conditions after the red flag period brought di Resta into the top ten, with that becoming 9th when intermediates became the obvious choice. The Force India racer would spend much of the running under severe pressure from Vergne, as the Frenchman eyed his first World Championship points.
The pair were quickly joined in battle by Hulkenberg and later Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) – all of whom were rarely covered by more than five seconds until the final round of pitstops and even then the battle remained tight.
As tactics played out, this became a battle for 7th – 10th positions. On lap 47, a brake failure would remove Kobayashi from the fight, only for Maldonado and Schumacher to join the fight in the final laps.
Entering the final five tours, di Resta held 7th ahead of Vergne (8th), Hulkenberg (9th), Maldonado (10th) and Schumacher (11th) – a mere 8.4 seconds covering the group; however as di Resta’s tyres aged, the gap shrank rapidly.
With less than three laps remaining, Maldonado’s Renault engine cried enough, forcing the Williams to retire within sight of the flag – and a point.
Di Resta did claim 7th – just – heading off Vergne’s challenge by two seconds come the flag. Vergne, however, was busy keeping Hulkenberg behind, with the Frenchman taking 8th, a mere nine-tenths up on the Force India pilot.
Unable to catch the trio ahead, Schumacher took 10th, from what had been both a disappointing and impressive race for the veteran. Having qualified 3rd, Schumacher dropped to 4th in the three turns, before being tapped around by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean on the exit of turn four.
Plummeting to 16th, the Mercedes pilot silently rose through the field as the race aged, only presenting himself as a threat to points in the final third of the event. Indeed, Schumacher was still only 12th when Vettel and Maldonado fell by the wayside, ensuring Mercedes of their first point of the season.
Regardless of how it was achieved, the disappointing pace of the F1 W03 during the drying conditions late on will be a disappointment.
Meanwhile, Grosjean – while attempting to recover from his foray into Schumacher’s side – spun off again on lap 4; however this time, his day was done. A poor effort.
Disappointment and irritation
Oh and Sebastian Vettel – the Red Bull driver may wish to forget this particular Malaysian Grand Prix. Prior to the red flag, Vettel held 4th behind Webber; however he lost positions during both of his early race stops, only to retake them as the stints progressed.
Interestingly, Vettel did not seem to pose a huge threat to the front three in either wet or changeable conditions, with the reigning champion only drawing toward the front as the Malaysian circuit dried.
Vettel’s error in lapping Karthikeyan dropped him out of the points, although he did manage to just stay ahead of the Ricciardo / Rosberg / Jenson Button battle.
Well, not so much a battle, but rather handbags at dawn. Led over the line by the smiley Australian, endured a rather anonymous race as he struggled with high tyre degradation, leaving him to bring the Toro Rosso home 12th.
Rosberg suffered similar tyre issues in the second Mercedes; however where Schumacher pulled his way back up the order, Rosberg clearly struggled to make his intermediates work. Despite running 4th in the early stages, Rosberg’s Pirelli’s were giving up quickly, forcing the German to make an extra pitstop on lap 26, as he began to fall down the order.
Emerging from the pits in 16th, Rosberg claimed some minor positions, but essentially remained mired in the pack for the duration.
For the first time in a long time, it is safe to say Button had an awful race. Starting 2nd, the McLaren held that position behind Hamilton on either side of the red flag, briefly falling to 13th as the field moved to intermediates.
Eager to retake his place near the front, Button attempted an unwise move on the luckless Karthikeyan in the tight turn nine, clattering the HRT, with both cars obtaining damage. Button returned to the pits for a new front wing, while Karthikeyan took new tyres – both would remain near the back for much of the day.
Button suffered on his next set of tyres, ensuring he only climbed to 15th, by the time the last set of stops arrived. When the chequered flag fell, the 2009 World Champion crossed the line in 14th.
Another awful drive by Felipe Massa has most certainly ended any hopes of being retained by Ferrari after the 2012 season. Like Rosberg and Button, Massa struggled on the inters, requiring an extra set at the mid-point of the race, leaving the Brazilian to finish limply ahead of the Caterham’s.
Normally these bizarre races offer small teams an opportunity of rare points – not this time. Still far from the midfield pace, Vitaly Petrov led the Caterham charge home in 16th, with the Russian driver once again proving his worth again teammate Heikki Kovalainen.
The Finn took home an 18th place finish, following a tough day fighting a poorly balanced car. An off track excursion damaged Kovalainen’s nosecone on lap 23, demanding an unscheduled change.
Timo Glock led the Marussia charge to 17th place, while teammate Charles Pic claimed 20th. Both ran somewhat closer to the Caterham’s, although the tricky conditions blurred the picture of performance somewhat.
Pic led Kovalainen for a time; however an extra lap on already well-worn intermediates cause enough of a loss for the Finn to pass in the pits. Irrespective of the result, the young French rookie is obtaining plenty of mileage.
It was a day of poor luck for the HRT squad. A stall on the grid at the start meant Pedro de la Rosa had to start from the pitlane – the Spaniard would then earn a drive through penalty when a mechanic was still working on his car beyond the final restart signal at the end of the red flag period.
Karthikeyan cleverly started on wets, bringing the Indian up to 10th at the race stoppage; however that was never going to last when the race restarted. He was then unlucky to be tagged by both Button and Vettel, receiving an unfair penalty for the latter contact.
The result leaves Alonso at the top of the point standings, but for how long? In regular conditions, the F2012 is clearly not good enough and with China coming in the middle of next month, the Ferrari man may well lose his top spot.
But who will take it..?
2012 Malaysian Grand Prix (Round 2, 56 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Alonso Ferrari 2h44:51.812 2. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 2.263 3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 14.591 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 17.688 5. Raikkonen Lotus-Renault + 29.456 6. Senna Williams-Renault + 37.667 7. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 44.412 8. Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 46.985 9. Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes + 47.892 10. Schumacher Mercedes + 49.996 11. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 1:15.527 12. Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:16.826 13. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:18.593 14. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 1:19.719 15. Massa Ferrari + 1:37.319 16. Petrov Caterham-Renault + 1 lap 17. Glock Marussia-Cosworth + 1 lap 18. Kovalainen Caterham-Renault + 1 lap 19. Maldonado Williams-Renault + 2 laps 20. Pic Marussia-Cosworth + 2 laps 21. De la Rosa HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps 22. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps* Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap DNF. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 47 DNF. Grosjean Lotus-Renault 4 Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:40.722 *20-second post-race penalty for collision with Vettel World Championship standings (Round 2): Drivers: 1. Alonso 35 2. Hamilton 30 3. Button 25 4. Webber 24 5. Perez 22 6. Vettel 18 7. Raikkonen 16 8. Senna 8 9. Kobayashi 8 10. Di Resta 7 11. Vergne 4 12. Hulkenberg 2 13. Ricciardo 2 14. Schumacher 1 Constructors: 1. McLaren-Mercedes 55 2. Red Bull-Renault 42 3. Ferrari 35 4. Sauber-Ferrari 30 5. Lotus-Renault 16 6. Force India-Mercedes 9 7. Williams-Renault 8 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6 9. Mercedes 1 ^Notes compiled from live updates and team releases.