Sebastian Vettel maintained his 100% success record this season with another win from pole position in the Malaysian Grand Prix. Jenson Button finished second and moves into that position in the championship, while Nick Heidfeld gave Renault a second consecutive podium, one which was again based on a sensational start.
But despite Vettel’s smiles, it was a day when reliability issues at Red Bull raised their head again with both drivers unable to use KERS during the course of the race, a big disadvantage. The importance of KERS was highlighted by the failure on Mark Webber’s car at the start, which lost him positions at the start and then made his chances of recovering more difficult. He was carrying the extra weight of the system with none of the performance. Later in the race the same was true of Vettel.
Despite a few spots of rain after a dozen laps, the conditions were dry, with track temperature of 31 degrees, but the humidity was an incredible 88%.
At the start, Vettel got away cleanly, Hamilton was boxed in behind him and this allowed Heidfeld to sweep around the outside into second place from sixth on the grid. Behind them Webber had a poor start and with no KERS available to him, he was swamped by other cars. Both Ferraris went through, with Massa getting past Alonso in the process.
Webber fought with Kobayashi for 9th place, the Japanese enjoying a straight line speed advantage over the Australian thanks to his KERS. It was very frustrating for Webber.
With rain on its way, drivers were told to look after their tyres, so as not to need to stop before coming in for wet tyres. In the end they all gave up waiting for rain.
On lap 11 Webber was forced to pit for slick tyres, his first stop of four on the day. He took a different strategy from his rivals, partly because he is heavier on his tyres. It was a good recovery from 9th on the opening lap to finish fourth.
Hamilton pitted on lap 14, but then rain started to fall. Luckily for him Red Bull pitted Vettel a lap later for dry tyres as did Jenson Button. Alonso came in on lap 15.
Kobayashi ran long on the first stint, running second around lap 17. It set him up for a two stop strategy, one less than everyone else and a strong finish in 8th place, using the Sauber’s gentle action on the tyres to good effect.
Vettel drove a measured race at the front, maintaining his margin, keeping his lap times consistent and fast while managing the tyres and the engine revs. Behind him a lot changed over the course of the race. Any one of five drivers could have joined him on the podium and for most of the race it looked like it would be Hamilton plus either Alonso or Button. But Hamilton had a series of problems, including a collision with Alonso, which knocked the front wing off the Ferrari.
Although the result for Ferrari wasn’t what they had hoped for they will draw encouragement from having competed with McLaren and one of the Red Bulls after their lack of pace in Australia and in qualifying at Sepang.
“Today we were fighting wheel to wheel with the McLarens and with Webber so that was a nice surprise,” said Alonso, who added that the collision with Hamilton was due to his DRS wing not working on the straights, forcing him to race Hamilton in the corners. He was called to the stewards after the race and had 20 seconds added to his race time so he dropped to sixth. Hamilton was similarly punished, so Alonso stayed sixth, Kobayashi was classified 7th with Hamilton 8th.
Hamilton pitted earlier than he needed to on occasions, he still had good pace when he came in at least twice. He lost a place to Button with a slow second stop. He also took a different strategy in terms of switching to the hard tyre at the second stop. His pace on a second set of hard tyres in the later stages of the race was not good and he lost ground, being passed by Heidfeld and Webber and needing a fourth stop. We’ll analyse his strategy decisions more closely in the next couple of days.
No doubt a major talking point from the weekend is the amount of overtaking and the more ‘chaotic’ style of racing. Purists will argue that a lot of the passing was artificial – caused by the new DRS wings, KERS and the on-off nature of the Pirelli tyres. I thought it was entertaining, if rather hard to follow at times. But if the Bridgestone years were like being in a sweet shop and getting only the odd goody, today does feel like having eaten all you can see. There was a bit too much going on.
But I imagine that new fans of the sport and people finding it for the first time will say, “F1’s pretty cool isn’t it?”
Vettel thought it was pretty cool and well he might. He now has twice as many points as his nearest challenger. “A great day,” said Vettel. “It was quite different to what we saw two weeks ago with the tyres. It was difficult (to judge the stops). Lewis had a problem and I realised Jenson was behind and I could comfortably control the gap. I love what I do and I couldn’t be happier. KERS is something we have to work on, it was crucial at the start and it gave us what we needed there, but we had a problem and had to turn it off. We cannot stop pushing, things were much closer here than in Australia.”
Button finished second, having managed a 19 lap final stint on the hard tyres. It was McLaren’s 200th podium in partnership with Mercedes.
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX, Sepang, 56 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h37:39.832
2. Button McLaren + 3.261
3. Heidfeld Renault + 25.075
4. Webber Red Bull + 26.384
5. Massa Ferrari + 36.958
6. Alonso Ferrari + 37.248 (& 20 sec penalty)
7. Kobayashi Sauber + 1:07.239
8. Hamilton McLaren + 49.957
9. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:24.896
10. Di Resta Force India + 1:31.563
11. Sutil Force India + 1:45.000
12. Rosberg Mercedes + 1 lap
13. Buemi Toro Rosso + 1 lap
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso + 1 lap
15. Kovalainen Lotus + 1 lap
16. Glock Virgin + 2 laps
17. Petrov Renault + 4 laps