Malaysian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Third time lucky for Vettel
After two false dawns, Sebastian Vettel finally got the result his season has deserved, leading home a commanding Red Bull one-two in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Vettel had led from pole both in Bahrain and Australia, only to succumb to technical problems. This time there was no hiccup and the German was able to dominate the field after taking the lead at the first corner, sending out an ominous warning to the rest. Their closest challenger Nico Rosberg ended up 13.5 seconds back in his third-placed Mercedes but the Red Bulls barely broke into a sweat.
The others could ill afford, of course, to offer Red Bull an open goal as they did by screwing up their tactics in Saturday's qualifying. If McLaren and Ferrari had hoped for more rain to help them out and pay them back in Sunday's race, it was in vain. This time there was not even a drop of consolation.
After his own stroke of real genius in picking intermediate tyres in the deluge in qualifying, you'd think Mark Webber would have done everything to keep hold of his hard-earned pole position. Instead he suffered a bit of wheelspin, then left the inside line open on the way into the first corner. Vettel, who had already made short work of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes from third on the grid, duly made use of his slipstream and went through the open door. He never returned the favour.
"I realised straightaway that I had a good start," said Vettel. "I passed Nico, then got the tow from Mark. It's a long sprint down to turn one here, then I took the chance. It was quite late so I just made the corner. Mark had a better exit out of turn two into turn three but it was very slippery. We both tried to push and we were fighting among ourselves but we also kept the respect. Then it was just a question of getting away from our competitors."
Red Bull were clearly keeping their reliability problems well in hand because the two cars were in line astern for most of the first stint. In response to a few faster times when other cars started pitting down the field, they were told to push and they responded, trading fastest lap times with the McLarens.
Vettel finally pitted on lap 24, exiting fractionally ahead of the charging Lewis Hamilton. That meant he could soon pull away on his new rubber, setting a couple of fastest laps. Webber was less fortunate when he came in a lap later. There was a problem with the right front tyre gun and he lost crucial time, ending up behind the Englishman.
It mattered little because Hamilton was yet to pit and the Red Bulls were one-two again shortly later. The team told both drivers to wind their engines back later on but Webber still snuck in the fastest lap with two laps remaining, showing just how much of a cushion they had.
"We know these days with the strategy and how the races unfold that the first part of the race is crucial," said Webber. "I had a bit of wheelspin off the line but I didn't know where Nico was so I didn't know whether to go fully to the inside. The fight with Sebastian continued until turn 4 but Christian Horner had said, 'Boys, behave yourselves.' And we did. The result could have gone either way but Seb did the job at the crucial stage and he deserved the victory. The cars clearly ran very well, which was a nice result for us after a couple of races where they didn't go as they should."
Behind the dominant victors, for the first few laps it was all but the Lewis Hamilton show. He made a storming start from 20th on the grid and he was up to 12th after a PlayStation style run down the inside that just kept going through the next two corners.
Then, for the second race in succession he set about overtaking cars left, right and centre. He then started picking off rivals lap by lap until he was 9th on lap 6 - though he was warned for weaving after one particularly 'over-exuberant' attempt to keep Vitaly Petrov's Renault at bay.
Hamilton and the two Ferraris had all started on the harder tyre and they stayed out longer than the rest. As the pit stops played out, Hamilton had two close calls - first when Sebastian Vettel came out just ahead of him, preventing him from moving up to a staggering second place, and then when he exited from his own stop, just in front of team-mate Jenson Button.
The Hamilton charge was eventually stopped by his close friend Adrian Sutil in the Force India. The Briton rapidly caught up with his quarry but he didn't have enough grunt to get past the other car with the Mercedes engine. He came on the radio to report: "He's too quick on the straights."
Afterwards Hamilton said: "It was a good start but I couldn't see a thing because the dust down the inside was incredible. In the end I couldn't ask any more than to make it up to 6th. I tried my best to get past Adrian but they've got the same engine as us and he was faultless."
It was inevitably an exciting afternoon for the McLarens and Ferraris after their collective blunder in qualifying. Jenson Button was the only one to start on the softer tyre but he found himself in a three-way battle with the two Ferraris for 14th place early on. Felipe Massa was at the head of the queue but as he was unable to make it past Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso the three were stuck in a bunch.
At one point Massa made a mistake and Button moved to pass, only to lose out to Alonso. Eventually Button and McLaren realised they were losing too much time so - for the second time in two weeks, the Englishman was the first car to pit. Again Button's decision was motivated by a problem with his first set of tyres, this time oversteer.
For a while it looked as though Button's move could prove as inspirational as last week as he made up ground, setting a string of fastest laps in clear air. A number of others duly followed him in a few laps later, including Nico Hulkenberg's Williams from 6th and Vitaly Petrov's Renault from 8th. They both came out behind Button showing how strong the move looked. In the end he couldn't keep up the pace and the Ferraris ended up regaining all the advantage by staying out so long on their hard tyres.
It was a similarly difficult day for Ferrari, though Felipe Massa will console himself with the fact that his 7th place finish took him clear at the top of a very tight world championship.
Fernando Alonso shares second place with Sebastian Vettel, two points behind, but it was another difficult day for the Spaniard, who suffered a downshift problem for the entire race and suffered accordingly. He later revealed his gearbox broke on the formation lap and he had no clutch during the race so he had to improvise braking methods throughout. Remarkably he hung on to his team-mate and late on he made a move to pass Button but went wide and suffered an apparent engine blow-up seconds later.
Nico Rosberg shares fourth place in the championship with Jenson Button, just two points further back, after taking Mercedes' first podium since its return as a manufacturer. He admitted that he'd tried too hard from his first front-row grid position, causing the wheelspin that allowed Vettel past. From there he had a relatively lonely race to 3rd, helped out by a pit stop of 3.9 seconds, the quickest of the season so far.
There was yet more frustration for team-mate Michael Schumacher, who is rapidly learning that the 2010 Formula 1 season is a very different from the cakewalk he enjoyed first time round. The German made a strong start, going round the outside at the first corner to make it up to 6th. He was running comfortably and looking set for a good points haul until he suddenly pulled over on lap 10.
"One of the wheelnuts came off," said a bemused Schumacher. "I don't know how it happened - I thought it was a suspension problem but I just looked at the car and saw there was none there. The car had been reasonable and I had been pacing myself so we could have had two cars in the points today."
After his podium in Australia, Robert Kubica took another fine haul of points with 4th place. His race was relatively quiet as there was as little threat from Sutil's Force India behind as there was of him threatening Rosberg in front. Sutil's 5th place was a similarly impressive result, aided by his impressive ability to keep Hamilton behind him late in the race. Team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi failed to keep up his points-scoring run due to an early throttle problem that proved terminal.
Jaime Alguersuari impressed in the Toro Rosso with two fine overtaking manoeuvres - first on Vitaly Petrov's Renault, then on Nico Hulkenberg. His first ever Formula 1 points were the deserved result with a fighting 9th place.
While his Williams team-mate Rubens Barrichello stalled on the start line, Hulkenberg had started strongly and ran 6th early on. But after his relatively early pit stop his pace suffered. He ended up making a second stop late on but he nevertheless also put himself into the F1 points for the first time, profiting from Fernando Alonso's late blow-up to take 10th.
Of the new teams, Lotus had the most incentive to do well at their home race, but it was ultimately a poor day. Heikki Kovalainen seemed to have retired with a hydraulics problem but he was sent out again later on in front of the Malaysian crowd. Jarno Trulli had a similar issue later on but he was told to just drive around and bring the car home regardless.
Trulli ended up behind both Hispanias, who had an impressive afternoon with Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna both making the flag. But Virgin won the new teams' battle courtesy of Lucas di Grassi, who finished 14th, three laps back - despite the team's infamous problem with its fuel tanks. Timo Glock had been in front early on until he spun into his old Toyota team-mate Jarno Trulli while trying to pass, taking himself out of the race.
Pedro de la Rosa had the shortest afternoon of all, making it only as far as turn 3 of his lap to the grid before succumbing to an engine failure in his Sauber. Team-mate Kamui Kobayashi lasted little longer, suffering the same problem on lap 9.
But the day belonged to Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, who said: "That was a very good result, especially after two races where we didn't finish where we started. But it's crucial in that position not to panic and to stay relaxed. It's a long season..."
Vettel survived a stewards enquiry after he passed Jarno Trulli's ailing Lotus under the yellow flags caused by Fernando Alonso's late exit - a case of good sense applied by the stewards including former racer Johnny Herbert.
Now just two points off the championship lead despite his disasters from the first two rounds, Vettel will happily console himself with the fact that one out of three ain't bad.