All complaints about tyre wear were put to one side as Red Bull and Mercedes filled the top four places in the Malaysian Grand Prix, but harmony within both teams took a hit as their drivers squabbled over position.
Sebastian Vettel emerged on top to claim his 27th grand prix win, putting him level with fellow three-time champion Jackie Stewart in the all-time list, but it appears that he did so against team orders, with Mark Webber reminding him post-race of the instruction 'multi21', apparently Red Bull code for its drivers to turn down their engines and hold station. It was a similar story in the battle for the final podium spot, with Nico Rosberg imploring the Mercedes team to allow him to pass Lewis Hamilton, only to be told to accept fourth position.
Vettel had led from his pole position, fending off the two Ferraris into turn one, and then survived a nudge from Fernando Alonso which left the Spaniard with damage to his front wing. Webber, up from fifth after an unusually mega getaway, was initially unable to take advantage of the situation, despite numerous looks at Alonso, but had grabbed second place into turn one next time around – just as the wing broke free and the Ferrari skated into the gravel trap.
Without Alonso to interfere, and with Massa having been swamped at the first turn, the Red Bulls were able to eke out a gap over the field, with Vettel enjoying a cushion over his team-mate as they negotiated a drying track following a pre-race rainstorm. With lap times tumbling, however, the German decided that he needed slicks instead of Pirelli's intermediates. The stop, on lap five, dropped Vettel to fifth as he struggled for grip in the first part of the lap after rejoining, and Webber was advised to delay his stop by another lap. The decision proved to be a wise one for, when the Australian got back on track, he was ahead of his team-mate, and able to assume the lead when Rosberg stopped next time around.
With a couple of seconds separating them, both Red Bull drivers were then told to look after their tyres, a subtle hint not
to engage in battle while the opposition was still within striking distance. Despite fitting the harder tyre at his first stop, however, Webber was in again just twelve laps later, this time taking on the medium compound that had struggled so much with wear earlier in the weekend. Vettel duly assumed the lead, but held it only for another three laps, after stretching his mediums to 17 tours.
It wasn't enough, however, as Webber swept back into the lead as the German emerged from pit-lane, but could not match the German's initial pace. Vettel, clearly impatient to hit the front again, radioed the team, asking them to get Webber to move over. His request was denied, with another order to look after the tyres….
Webber responded with the fastest lap of the race, but the pair remained close throughout their stint until Webber peeled off again on lap 31, this time receiving another set of the hard tyres and rejoining behind Jenson Button's McLaren as Vettel retook the lead. The world champion had just a lap to try and make his pace work for him, but failed to get enough out of his RB9 and again came out behind both the #2 machine and Hamilton's Mercedes, having briefly snagged an airline as he pulled away.
Button proved to be no match for Webber who, despite running wide as he dived down the inside of the McLaren into turn one, briefly put another car between himself and his main rival. With Button pitting next time around, and Vettel making short work of Hamilton, battle was rejoined at the front, although Webber enjoyed a useful cushion that kept Vettel off his rear wing until both made their fourth and final stops.
Again, the pair opted for different tyres, with Vettel, who stopped first, taking on another set of mediums and Webber responding with more of the orange-banded hards. The German's earlier stop appeared to have paid dividends as he homed in on the pit exit just as Webber approached from the other side of the wall. The Australian just held the advantage into turn one, and gave a squirt on the throttle to ensure that he remained in front through two, but Vettel had made his intent clear, despite being warned to 'be careful' by the RBR hierarchy.
That comment was followed by another warning the German that 'this is silly' as Vettel dived to the inside of Webber heading down the main straight on the next lap and went wheel-to-wheel with his team-mate through turns one, two and three. He eventually emerged ahead at turn four, getting the bird from Webber as the Australian realised that he was going to lose a win he clearly felt had been his for some time.
Once in front, Vettel was able to ease away, eventually taking the flag by a little over four seconds, but it was clear that he had erred, with the team tempering its congratulations by warning him that he has 'some explaining to do'.
Behind the top two, a similar battle was brewing between Hamilton and Rosberg, with the German being the one to claim that he was being held up by his team-mate. After a brief spell swapping places in the back-to-back DRS zones, Hamilton remained in front, with every Rosberg request to be allowed to take third place denied by the Mercedes pit-wall, which explained that the Briton was running to order as the team attempted to monitor its fuel consumption.
In this case, the status quo
was maintained, although Rosberg made it clear that he was playing the dutiful role, telling the team to 'remember this one' as he headed for parc ferme
. The Briton had held the upper hand through most of the 56 laps, but admitted on the podium that Rosberg had probably deserved to be there instead of him.
Mercedes was the only team able to hold a candle to Red Bull once Alonso had made his early, and somewhat embarrassing, exit. With his wing hanging by a thread, it is unexplainable why he did not pit at the end of lap one, but Hamilton and Rosberg were happy to take advantage, slotting into third and fourth, and appearing mid-race to have the pace to challenge the leaders, fuelling Vettel's desire to pass Webber. Once the instruction to save fuel was issued, however, the gap to Red Bull grew and Hamilton and Rosberg were left to squabble over the final piece of silverware.
There was no threat to the Silver Arrows, with fifth-placed Massa some 13 seconds adrift after a fraught race that saw him lose his front row start to team-mate Alonso and then get caught out when the Spaniard clipped Vettel. Relegated to sixth, the Brazilian did not appear to have the performance to live with those ahead of him, and spent the race battling with the Lotus and McLaren drivers. A late stop for fresh rubber than allowed him to consolidate a top five spot following Button's untimely DNF, passing Sergio Perez, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in the closing stages.
With the Australian Grand Prix winner unable to repeat his Melbourne feats, despite both Lotuses again making one stop fewer than their main rivals, Button appeared in line for a top five until the failure to secure his right front wheel at the final round of stops left him stranded in pit-lane. Rejoining in 14th, he posted the fastest lap of the race to that point before McLaren took the decision to retire him with a view to the next race in China.
Grosjean and Raikkonen followed Massa home, the Finn having got a little heated in a wheel-banging battle with Nico Hulkenberg before eventually getting the better of the Sauber driver, while Jean-Eric Vergne claimed the final point for Toro Rosso despite having missed the cut in Q1 on Saturday afternoon and escaped censure for an 'unsafe release' which saw him make contact with Caterham's Charles Pic.
Force India would have been in the hunt for further points after bringing both cars home in the top ten in Australia, but suffered a pit-lane nightmare as its mechanics struggled to deal with new wheel nuts. After lengthy delays for both drivers, a double retirement completed a miserable day for the Silverstone team.
Vergne was just a second ahead of rookie Valtteri Bottas at the flag, the Finn having recovered from dropping to the tail of the field at the start. The Williams driver was also one of a handful to slither off the road on their way to the grid, as the tricky conditions affecting half the circuit caught them out, with Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Pastor Maldonado and Webber all taking to the grass and gravel.
Ricciardo and Maldonado joined Alonso, Button and the Force Indias in retirement, while Gutierrez came home as the first of the lapped runners, albeit comfortably ahead of the usual 'back four', headed by the impressive Jules Bianchi, who enjoyed Sepang's faster corners in the Marussia.
Unsurprisingly, the podium ceremony was awkward, to say the least, with Webber speaking his mind when asked for his thoughts, Vettel appearing contrite and Hamilton suggesting that it should have been his team-mate on the bottom step rather than him. The Australian later revealed that he had a lot going through his mind over the last few laps, and will no doubt use the three-week break between Malaysia and China to ponder further.
In the meantime, Red Bull – which notably cancelled the traditional team victory photo opportunity – appears to have a few bridges to rebuild...