Malaysian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Alonso the Sepang opportunist
BY TONY DODGINS
After the final pre-season test in Barcelona, if anyone had suggested that Fernando Alonso would be five points clear at the top of the championship table after the first two races of 2012, they would have been certified insane.
As Alonso himself said in Australia, the plan was to approach the opening races in damage limitation mode with a recalcitrant Ferrari F2012. So what better method than to take full advantage of a mixed conditions Malaysian GP to score 25 points at a time when Ferrari had no business to be thinking of a podium never mind a win!
The star of the show was undoubtedly Sergio Perez, who finished second and could -- perhaps even should -- have won.
Sauber, of course, uses Ferrari engines. Would Perez have been allowed to triumph and take points from Alonso? The conspiracy theorists can have a field day conjecturing about that.
The foundation of Perez's excellent result was the decision to pit at the end of the opening lap for full wets after everyone except Narain Karthikeyan had started the wet race on intermediates.
It took the significant runners another three or four laps to follow suit, by which time Perez had the Sauber established in third place, with only the front row-starting McLarens ahead.
As conditions worsened the Safety Car was deployed and then the race was neutralised by a red flag after eight laps, before a 50 minute delay saw it resume behind the Safety Car with the whole field compelled to restart on full wet tyres.
One winner was Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne who, having started 18th, soldiered on with his intermediates and was now seventh with the benefit of a free tyre change to full wets before the restart.
After five slow laps behind the official Mercedes we were racing again, with the top 10: Hamilton, Button, Perez, Webber, Alonso, Vettel, Vergne, Massa, Rosberg and Karthikeyan.
Button, Rosberg, Raikkonen and Senna of the significant runners pitted immediately to go back onto intermediates, with Hamilton, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Di Resta, Maldonado, Schumacher, Ricciardo and Kovalainen all filing in next time around.
Although Hamilton was first of those into the pitlane on lap 14, a constant stream of traffic followed him in, meaning McLaren could not release him safely and he lost track position to Alonso.
Perez led until he pitted a lap later, rejoining second behind Alonso, while Button had a costly contact with Karthikeyan's HRT, which he was racing for position after his stop, and was forced to stop again for a new nose, dropping him from contention.
The surprising thing was that on intermediates Alonso and Perez comfortably had the legs of everyone, the Ferrari opening up a 5s advantage over the Sauber and Perez easing 7s clear of Hamilton's McLaren.
On lap 17, Button, having taken another set of intermediates when he stopped for his new nose, lapped over a second faster than the leaders in clear air down in 20th place but within a couple of laps his pace had dropped off as he hit traffic and could not maintain tyre temperature.
That, and the fact that Hamilton could not keep pace with Alonso and Perez made you wonder whether McLaren's MP4-27 was a little bit too stiff to suit the softer, more compliant set-up characteristics which reap reward on a wet track.
With 29 of the 56 laps down, Alonso had the lead out to 7.5s but then Perez started to come back at him. Ten laps later the Sauber was just 1.3s behind as a dry line started to emerge and Ricciardo did the team strategists a favour by going onto slicks.
Was it too soon? No. Immediately the young Australian started to record purple (fastest) sectors on the timing monitors.
Alonso peeled into the pitlane on lap 40 and you expected Perez to follow him, but the Sauber went round again.
That, and a slow release, the Mexican claiming a clutch problem, had the doubters wondering if Sauber was really trying to win this one. Once they were both back up to speed again - Alonso on options and Perez on primes -- the Ferrari was more than 7s to the good once more. The only real explanation for the extra lap was that at that point there was the threat of more rain, although a used set of intermediates would have fared little better than slicks if the rain had arrived.
Just three laps later though, Perez had the gap down to 3.2s again and with eight laps to go, was in DRS range for the first time. It was then that a radio message went out: "Be careful, Checo, we need this position..."
Was it coded instruction not to pass Alonso? Had Perez done so, might there have been a large gap behind his shoulders where the engine should be at the Chinese GP?
We'll never know because on lap 50, with six to go, Perez dropped his left front onto the wet kerb in Turn 13 and cost himself 5s, giving Alonso welcome breathing space to reel off his 28th GP victory.
Perez crossed the line just 2.2s behind, the first Mexican to finish on the podium since Pedro Rodriguez brought his BRM home 8s behind Jacky Ickx in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in 1971.
So, had it been a team order to Perez?
"What we meant was, get the car home, the result is important for us," said Sauber's CEO Monisha Kaltenborn. "There was nothing else to it, it was no instruction and maybe just our poor English!"
Certainly it was delight and not disappointment that was the over-riding emotion down at Sauber.
Hamilton, for the second weekend in a row, started from pole and finished third: "I can be satisfied," he said. "I would have liked more points but I can't complain about being on the podium for the second weekend running."
Mark Webber finished fourth for the second consecutive race too, while his world champion team mate punctured his left rear tyre in a lap 47 collision with Narain Karthikeyan while lapping the HRT, needing an extra stop.
Vettel rejoined 12th and crossed the line 11th and without points when the luckless Pastor Maldonado was forced to pit from 10th with two laps to go, his engine smoking.
Fifth was Kimi Raikkonen, who came alive in the final stint on a set of primes, repeatedly setting fastest lap. What with his qualifying problems in Australia and his gearbox change and five place grid demotion at Sepang, Raikkonen's pace has not yet fully appeared on the radar. Once Lotus has a 'normal' race it will do, and there is every reason to suspect that the 2007 champion will be challenging at the very front.
Bruno Senna was delighted with a fine sixth place for Williams, ahead of Paul Di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne, Nico Hulkenberg and Michael Schumacher, who took the only point for Mercedes after a strong qualifying performance.
Schumacher was tagged by Romain Grosjean on the opening lap, the pair spinning to the tail of the field before Grosjean retired in the gravel trap after three laps.
Nico Rosberg again found high tyre degradation on the intermediates and needed to stop for a fresh set, indicating that a bugbear of the car in Australia is still prevalent, although he looked more competitive on dry Pirellis.
Felipe Massa was a lowly 15th after also suffering high degradation on his intermediates.
In the light of pre-race calls for Massa's head from the Italian media, with many suggesting that Perez should replace him, one can only speculate what race engineer Rob Smedley's post-race message may have been.
Perhaps, "Do you want the bad news or the really bad news? Fernando was faster than you. By 97 seconds to be precise. And Sergio Perez finished second in a Sauber..."
Although the team gave Massa a vote of confidence over the weekend, it may have been the sort that football club chairmen give under-fire managers. It probably won't have escaped the Brazilian's notice that team principal Stefano Domenicali was not slow to heap praise on Perez and to point out that he was a member of the Ferrari young driver academy...
Peter Sauber, for his part, said that he wants to hang onto the Mexican and suggested that he believes it is better for Perez to learn in the Hinwil environment rather than cope, before he is ready, with the pressure that a set of red overalls bring.
Alonso, meanwhile, is nothing if not pragmatic.
"This changes nothing," he said. "We are in a position we don't want to be in -- fighting to go into Q3 and for points when we want to be fighting for pole positions and victories. The win makes up happy today and in the factory for the next two days, but it doesn't affect our determination to improve the car."
Alonso, who loves Sepang, has now won in Malaysia for Renault, McLaren and Ferrari. Going to bed, he probably didn't quite believe it.