Fernando Alonso produced a scintillating performance today, with the Ferrari strategists and pits crew making all the right moves, to win a rain hit Malaysian Grand Prix. The track has always been good to the Spaniard; he took his first pole position and podium here and has won the race twice before.
But even he had to admit that he was lucky not to lose the victory in the closing stages to 22 year old Sergio Perez, who was challenging for the lead with seven laps to go but made a mistake, losing four seconds and giving Alonso breathing space to win the race. It was the 28th victory of Alonso’s career and moves him ahead of Jackie Stewart in the all time winners’ list.
Perez finished second, the first Mexican to stand on an F1 podium for 41 years, with Hamilton again finishing third after starting on pole position; the same result as Australia.
It was classic Alonso; the weather conditions offered an opportunity to level the playing field and Alonso snatched it gratefully. The turning point of the race was the second round of pit stops on lap 14 when the drivers moved from full wet to intermediate tyres. Alonso came in behind Hamilton, but fast pit work by Ferrari got him moving and then McLaren had to hold Hamilton in his pit box as Massa swept into the next door Ferrari box. This meant Alonso left the pits ahead of Hamilton. Perez had stayed out but when he stopped a lap later he took second place ahead of Hamilton. The order stayed that way to the end.
The track was wet at the start and most drivers started on intermediate tyres, but Perez the rain intensified as the cars made their way around the opening lap. Sauber pitted Perez for full wets from 11th place and it proved an inspired call as it took him to third place when everyone else followed suit.
The race had to be suspended after just nine laps due to a heavy rain down pour and up until that point it seemed as though the McLarens were going to match their qualifying dominance as they navigated their way through the familiar puddles at Sepang. An opening lap tangle between Romain Grosjean and Michael Schumacher, dropping them out of third and fourth places allowed the Red Bulls to take their positions as the rain began to fall harder.
By the time the red-flag was dropped the whole grid had changed to the full wet apart from Narain Karthikeyan, who began the race on them and, Jean Eric Vergne who had managed to stay on-track with the intermediates. The rules state that all cars must restart the race on the full wet tyre, which gave Vergne a free set of tyres with no lost time in the pits. This put him in 7th place.
After the re-start race leader Hamilton and third placed Alonso pitted a lap earlier than Perez, who stayed out and took the lead. McLaren held Hamilton in his pit box to avoid a collision with Massa and that gave Alonso second place. Then when Perez rejoined after his stop a lap later, he struggled initially with tyre warm up and Alonso passed him in turn 3. Alonso and Perez pulled away from Hamilton and the rest of the field. Hamilton had no response for the pace of the leading two cars in either intermediate or dry conditions.
The top three remained unchanged until the end of the race, however Perez found incredible pace as his ever-degrading intermediates became worn out slicks and he began to catch Alonso at around a second a lap, setting continuous fastest laps in the process. The track was looking ready for slicks and this point was proven when Daniel Ricciardo took the medium compound slick on lap 37 and set the timing screens alight, dropping the fastest lap mark by three seconds. Once again Sauber made a bold call and put hard compound tyres on Perez’s car for the remaining fourteen laps, a call that proved to be inspired as it warmed up more quickly than the medium on Alonso’s Ferrari.
Perez moved ever closer to the rear of the Ferrari. However a small mistake saw him touch a wet kerb and run wide at turn fourteen, losing the majority of his hard work.
Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel both made uncharacteristic errors when passing the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan. Button misjudged his braking as he looked to pass the Indian down the inside and slid into
him, breaking off one end of his front wing. He could not recover enough to get back into the points.
Vettel was running fourth when he sliced his left rear tyre on the HRT’s front wing as he moved back onto the racing line after lapping it, the tyre shredded and after it was changed there was some confusion as he was told to pit and retire, then the order was overturned, then reinstated.
Further back there were also tremendous drives from Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen and Bruno Senna who completed the top six, with Raikkonen having the final say on fastest lap whilst producing another strong points finish in fifth place for Lotus who once again saw Romain Grosjean exit the race early with a trip into the gravel.
It was Senna’s highest race finish to date but it could have been a different story when he came together with team-mate Pastor Maldonado on the first lap. Senna was forced to pit for a new nose and managed his recovery well with tyre stops at the right moments. Maldonado’s poor luck in races continued as an engine problem put him out of tenth place with only one lap remaining.
Force India also had another points scoring Sunday as Paul di Resta in seventh and Nico Hulkenberg ninth were split by the Toro Rosso of Vergne, claiming his first points in Formula One after narrowly missing out in Melbourne. Michael Schumacher claimed the final point in another very forgettable race day for Mercedes, Schumacher having spun on lap one and Nico Rosberg not being able to keep up his early fourth place pace as he rapidly dropped down the field to thirteenth.
It was another disappointing afternoon for Mercedes; Rosberg came home 13th, ahead of Button, as his unscheduled pit-stop and slow race pace were not reflective of the Mercedes’ qualifying speed and potential.
Felipe Massa had another weekend to forget, finishing 15th, despite battling with Di Resta at one point. It’s hard to escape the feeling that today was an audition for Perez to take Massa’s seat sooner or later. Ferrari don’t like firing drivers mid season, but Perez is a Ferrari Academy driver and the pressure is building for the team to take some action. The Mugello test on May 1st is the obvious place to give Perez a chance in the Ferrari, so China is a critical race for Massa.
(Additional reporting: Matt Meadows)
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX, Sepang, 56 laps
1. Alonso Ferrari 2h44:51.812
2. Perez Sauber + 2.263
3. Hamilton McLaren + 14.591
4. Webber Red Bull + 17.688
5. Raikkonen Lotus + 29.456
6. Senna Williams + 37.667
7. Di Resta Force India + 44.412
8. Vergne Toro Rosso + 46.985
9. Hulkenberg Force India + 47.892
10. Schumacher Mercedes + 49.996
11. Vettel Red Bull + 1:15.527
12. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 1:16.826
13. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:18.593
14. Button McLaren + 1:19.719
15. Massa Ferrari + 1:37.319
16. Petrov Caterham + 1 lap
17. Glock Marussia + 1 lap
18. Kovalainen Caterham + 1 lap
19. Maldonado Williams + 2 laps
20. Pic Marussia + 2 laps
21. Karthikeyan HRT + 2 laps
22. De la Rosa HRT + 2 laps