Malaysian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Tactical Sepang race can't stop Vettel
By Tony Dodgins
Malaysia gave us the kind of tyre management challenge predicted pre-season, and fascinating it was. Pit wall tacticians looked frazzled by flag fall but the ins and outs and the nuances did nothing to stop Sebastian Vettel taking his second 2011 25-point maximum and his fifth win in the last six grands prix.
It was far from straightforward, Vettel crossing the line with a 3.2s margin over Jenson Button's McLaren Mercedes after 56 laps of Sepang. Nick Heidfeld's Renault was another 22s down.
Red Bull, with what looked like a decent margin in hand throughout free practice, had gone a little more conservative on qualifying set-up in an attempt to preserve tyres in the race and you got the impression that they'd been a bit surprised by McLaren's qualifying pace.
Off the start though, Vettel had an unexpected bonus in the shape of the fast-starting Renaults, which pressed home an attack around the outside into Turn 1 with Nick Heidfeld emerging second and Vitaly Petrov fifth from sixth and eighth on the grid respectively.
Unless you happened to be driving a Sauber (Kamui Kobayashi did a two-stop race), Malaysia was always going to be three or four stops. It was working out the details that caused the pit wall headaches.
"To be honest," Red Bull's Christian Horner said, "I'm not the person to ask what I thought of that as a race because I was too involved in our own. It was pretty busy!"
Stop too soon and you risked running out of tyres later on and having to make a fourth stop. But if a rival stopped before you, he made the substantial gain from new tyres earlier and had every chance of taking track position. So it was a constant round of looking to see where you would pit out and trying to second-guess what everyone else was doing. You basically wanted to optimise tyre performance without costing yourself an additional stop. And you had to do it without knowing exactly how much the surface would rubber in as the race progressed and what the performance difference between the soft and hard Pirellis would be.
The reality was, if someone close to you stopped, you couldn't afford not to react. As in Melbourne, the first serious runner in was Mark Webber, after 10 laps, but this was slightly different. Webber, from third on the grid, had his KERS go into safety mode on the formation lap and was without it for the duration. The Red Bull was swamped on one of the longest runs to Turn 1 on the calendar. Webber emerged from the first corner ninth and then had to cede another slot to Kobayashi further round the lap.
"From that point we decided to go aggressive with him and put him on a four stop strategy," Horner explained. "It was an excellent drive by Mark and he very nearly managed to overcome the extra stop and still finish on the podium."
Webber's fourth stop was four laps later than Heidfeld's third and, on fresher tyres at the end, he caught the Renault hand over fist. Without KERS from the start though, he was powerless to pass as Heidfeld adapted his KERS useage for defence rather than optimum lap time.
From the start Vettel used the unexpected buffer provided by Heidfeld to open up a 9.4s lead by the time that Lewis Hamilton's third-placed McLaren was the first of the planned three-stopping front runners to pit, after 12 laps, in a bid to jump Heidfeld. Vettel, Heidfeld, fourth-placed Button and Felipe Massa all came in next time around, but the Brazilian had a problem with a stuck left front, costing him 7s and dropping him down the order. "But for that I could have fought for a podium place," Massa said.
The first stint lengths were significantly longer than many had predicted after the first day's running on Friday, when it had been looking like eight or nine laps on a set of softs and there were predictions of stops after five or six laps. In fact, it didn't rain and wash the surface clean pre-race and the wear rate and performance differential between the soft and hard was not as big as expected. There were therefore no gambles on the hard tyre from the start with everyone starting on the option Pirelli whether they had qualified in the top 10 or not.
All except Hamilton, they took softs again at the first stop and once again at the second, but Lewis, having flat-spotted a set of softs in qualifying, was forced to go onto the hard tyre sooner then he would have liked. His race got worse when he was forced to take a used set of hards at what was to have been his final stop. Powerless to resist Alonso, he was clipped by the Ferrari as the Spaniard tried to go by, with both drivers attracting penalties (see separate story). Lewis, having started on the front row, had to make do with seventh after a 20s addition to his race time dropped him behind Kamui Kobayashi.
"Today was just one of those days," Hamilton grimaced. "It's never satisfying to start second and finish seventh. I was on the outside going into the first corner, I got squeezed and it was difficult to defend without hitting Jenson or Nick. Then my tyres kept dropping off; we pitted earlier than was optimal and ran out of tyres at the end. I'd hoped to make the end of the race on a set of used primes but they didn't last so we had to pit again with four laps to go.
"A lot of factors made the afternoon very difficult: a delayed pit stop, being chased when I was trying to look after my tyres, and being hit from behind by Fernando, which lost me downforce."
Button drove a typical Jenson thinking man's race to second and admitted: "It was confusing in a way, trying to understand the stops and whether it was worth looking after tyres or not. Then, in the last stint on the prime, the car came alive and my pace was much better.
"It's hard to understand what to do because if you back off to try to preserve tyres sometimes you make it worse because you don't get as much downforce through fast corners and damage the tyre more. But I didn't get down to the canvas, which was nice! I had to be conservative with front wing angle and I backed out too much front wing and was really struggling at the front end. The first stint was not very good but we improved from then on.
"I've got to say, I didn't expect the Ferraris and Renaults to be as consistent as they were. A big thanks to the guys who made some good calls in the pits. I seemed to have a better balance on primes than others -- it worked for me. It's complicated at this stage of the season but if we had tyres that lasted a long time and one pit stop, would it be more exciting? I think it's working well and as the season goes on we will understand more and the races will calm down -- but hopefully not too much!"
And that, by and large, was the general sentiment. Some don't like it, thinking that an inability to use car performance due to tyres that need to be managed is not truly F1. That and phoney passing devices make it too artificial, they say.
On the positive side of the ledger, it means that you have to think a bit, you have cars on differing strategies, whether by design or circumstance, plenty going on throughout the field and, even if you have the best car, the closeness in race performance means you can't afford to make a mistake. Would a one-stop Bridgestone race with Vettel able to utilize the full extent of the Red Bull performance have provided a more watchable 100 minutes? Highly unlikely.
The podium finishers - Vettel, Button and Heidfeld - all drove fine races, as did Webber. Massa and Alonso both missed out on potential podiums but showed much more promising Ferrari race pace, while Kobayashi partially made up for Sauber's unfortunate Melbourne exclusions with seventh place.
Hamilton had an afternoon he will want to put behind him, while Mercedes did not have a strong enough race pace. They compromised themselves slightly by doing slightly longer opening stints in the vain hope of rain and buying a free stop. Given their level of competitiveness at Sepang, they had little to lose, with Schumacher ultimately claiming a couple of points for ninth.
Paul Di Resta turned in another accomplished drive to claim the final point for 10th place in the Force India, team mate Adrian Sutil hampered by an early coming together with Rubens Barrichello's Williams that dictated an unscheduled stop.
"I just couldn't hold off Michael at the end," Di Resta said. "He had fresher tyres and we had to stop a bit earlier for my third stop than predicted."
Vettel was clearly delighted by the maximum score start to his title defence.
"Today KERS was crucial at the start and without it the race would have ended in a different way," he said. "Then there was a little problem and we turned it off. I think we can be proud but we can't stop pushing because we saw how close it was."
McLaren, certainly, was buoyed by that. They came to Malaysia with a new floor, which was tried on Friday but discarded because a couple of things weren't working as hoped. The team will try it again on Friday in China five days hence, in the hope of closing down Red Bull even further. The season is off to a more competitive start than many predicted.