Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix was won by Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso from Sauber’s Sergio Perez and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, but it was a race of two halves, and how different they were!
The skies were already dark as cars went out on to the grid and 10 minutes before the start the rain came. Everyone bar the HRTs started on intermediate tyres, Hamilton led team mate Jenson Button off the line, with Lotus’s Romain Grosjean spearing between Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and the Red Bulls to grab third until he was repassed further round the lap and then clobbered Schumacher into a spin and followed suit himself.
Within a lap Perez was in for wet tyres, followed by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, Marussia’s Timo Glock and Charles Pic on lap three, then Button, Alonso, Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen (who had made stunning progress from 23rd on Lap One to 17th on Lap Two) and team mate Vitaly Petrov.
Hamilton clung on until Lap Five, aquaplaning all over the place, and just skipped back out ahead of his team mate. Perez was up to a stunning third after Sauber’s great strategic move, and even a big off-course moment didn’t hurt him although it brought Red Bull’s Mark Webber within striking distance.
By Lap Six conditions were so bad that the race officials deployed the safety car for the first time officially here. The race continued behind the silver Mercedes until lap nine, when it was red flagged.
Thus Hamilton led Button to a halt on the start/finish line, followed by Perez, Webber, Alonso, Red Bulls’ Sebastian Vettel (who’d had an off), Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne (who had yet to pit), Massa, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg (who’d also been off), the amazing Narain Karthikeyan, who had not stopped thanks to starting his HRT on the full wets and was running a fabulous 10th, Hulkenberg and Force India team mate Paul di Resta, Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, Williams’ Pastor Maldonado, Schumacher, Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, HRT’s Pedro de la Rosa (who like Karthikeyan had started on full wets), Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo, Petrov, Glock, Kovalainen, Charles Pic and Williams’ Bruno Senna. Grosjean was thus far the only retirement, going off for good into the gravel in Turn Six on Lap Four.
It was Canada 2011 all over again, but with dusk approaching much faster in the already gloomy conditions.
At 17.01 it was announced that the race would be resumed at 17.15 behind the safety car, with all cars to be running Pirelli’s wet tyres. There was still some light rain, but conditions had improved sufficiently. The gamble now would be how soon to switch back to intermediate tyres, once the safety car had been called back in.
Button gambled on a change to intermediates at the end of Lap 13, even before the race had officially resumed. Alonso, meanwhile, fought by Webber and Vettel, and pitted for inters on Lap 14 together with Hamilton and Webber.
Sauber brought Perez in a lap later, when Button called in again after colliding with Karthikeyan’s HRT which he clipped with his front wing in Turn Nine. That was the end of the points leader’s chances, but Perez’s were just opening up.
From the 17th lap until the finish, it was Perez against Alonso, the youngster against the old stager, with Hamilton and the Red Bull drivers unable to do anything to challenge either of them.
For a while, Alonso opened the gap; it was as much as 7.7s on the 28th lap, half distance. But then Perez really got the bit between his teeth. More rain was forecast, so now the strategy for all of the drivers was to make their intermediate tyres last as long as they could. And the Sauber is kind to its rubber. Perez began to cut the gap to Alonso: 6.7s on Lap 33, 4.9s by Lap 35, 1.3s by Lap 39. The atmosphere, so drenched earlier, was now electric as everyone willed him on.
Alonso dived for the pits on the 40th lap and took on medium slick tyres, Perez came a lap later and took the harder tyres, as Sauber crucially added more front downforce. By Lap 42 the gap was 7.1s again, and the fairy tale seemed to be over, but nobody told Perez that. Lap by lap he ate into the Ferrari's advantage again; by Lap 49 he was only half a second behind and it seemed only a matter of time. But then he slid wide in Turn 14 leading on to the back straight, and this time the dream really was over. He recovered, and by the chequered flag on Lap 56 the gap was down from 5.3s to 2.2s, but Alonso had it made.
It was one of the best drives of the season thus far from the Spaniard, but though he thoroughly deserved all the plaudits going for grabbing the chance when he saw it, Perez was the 'man of the match' after a truly wonderful performance.
Behind the two leaders there was some great racing, but Hamilton had an untroubled run to third, unable to match their pace, as Webber came through to fourth after Vettel had made contact with Karthikeyan on the 48th lap and torn up his left-rear Pirelli. He was lucky that it happened on the back straight and he was able to pit quickly, but he dropped to 12th, which became 11th when Pastor Maldonado’s tenure of 10th place ended with an apparent Renault engine failure on Lap 54.
Behind Webber, Raikkonen drove a feisty race to fifth for Lotus, while Bruno Senna was another star as he hacked through the field from 22nd on the opening lap to an excellent sixth. Paul di Resta was another to put in an excellent drive in the hugely tricky conditions, finishing seventh for Force India after being unable to keep Senna at bay. The Scot was clear of a huge battle between Vergne’s Toro Rosso and his own team mate Hulkenberg, which Maldonado had been a part of until his engine problem.
That elevated Schumacher to the final points scoring position, on another very disappointing day for Mercedes, with Vettel 11th ahead of Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, which kept Rosberg’s Mercedes and Button’s delayed McLaren at bay to the flag. Felipe Massa had another horrible day, made even worse by Perez’s performance, to finish 15th, ahead of Petrov who brought his Caterham home 16th ahead of Glock’s Marussia, team mate Kovalainen, Maldonado and Glock’s partner, Pic.
After his great early run Karthikeyan inevitably fell back, but he survived the two brushes with world champions to finish 21st, with team mate De la Rosa 22nd after getting a drive-through penalty after the restart as his team members were late leaving the grid. They later swapped places in the final classification after the Indian had 20 seconds added to his race time for causing the collision with Vettel. Besides Grosjean, Kobayashi was the only other retirement, but understandably it went almost unnoticed in the Sauber pit as they focused on the fight for the lead.
Alonso’s totally unexpected victory puts him into the lead of the world championship with 35 points to Hamilton’s 30 and Button’s 25, with Webber fourth on 24, Perez fifth on 22 and Vettel on 18. McLaren still lead the constructors’ world championship, with 55 points, with Red Bull second on 42 from Ferrari on 35 and Sauber on 30. Lotus have 16, Force India 9, Williams 8 and Toro Rosso 6.