Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel retained his flawless 100 per cent victory record in F1 2011 with a cool and composed triumph for Red Bull Racing in sweltering conditions in the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang today, as Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton renewed their rivalry by getting just a little too close for comfort.
With rain threatening before the 'off', a tight battle at the front in forecast on the basis of qualifying and plenty of question marks over tyre performance in the hot and potentially also wet conditions, the air was tense with anticipation in the build-up to the race.
What's more, a change of grid positions – with the pole-sitter and all those who qualified in odd-numbered positions switching from the left-hand side of the track to the right, following an agreement between drivers and the FIA due to more 'marbles' on the left – only added another unknown into the equation. If expectations were high for an exciting afternoon's action, then the Malaysian Grand Prix would not disappoint.
As pole-sitter Vettel made a textbook getaway when the starting lights went out, fellow front row sitter Hamilton went with him, as third-placed Mark Webber – suffering from a KERS failure – found himself with no acceleration and was swamped by the pack, ending the opening lap just ninth. The chief beneficiaries of that were the two Lotus Renault GPs, who both left the line well and aimed for the outside into Turn One.
Keeping his nerve and keeping his foot firmly planted, Nick Heidfeld extraordinarily swept all the way around the outside of both McLaren-Mercedes' into Turn One, ably showing the benefit of his experience as he snatched second place, albeit nearly touching Hamilton on the exit. The 2008 world champion slotted into third ahead of team-mate Jenson Button, with Vitaly Petrov in the second Renault stealing fifth and Felipe Massa muscling his way past Ferrari team-mate Alonso into sixth and Michael Schumacher, Webber and Kamui Kobayashi completing the initial top ten.
As Vettel focussed his efforts on scampering away at the front and established a two-second advantage by the end of the first lap alone, his team-mate Webber was busy staving off the combative Kobayashi, who proceeded to energetically trade places on a number of occasions over the opening laps, with the Australian better into the corners but the Japanese ace benefitting from KERS on the straight. Further back still, a poor start for Mercedes' Nico Rosberg was concentrated on fighting his own way back from 13th as he went wheel-to-wheel with Force India F1 rookie Paul di Resta.
There was misfortune for Williams veteran Rubens Barrichello, who picked up a puncture going onto lap three – leaving the Brazilian with a long, slow lap to complete on his way back to the pits – and shortly afterwards, to compound the Grove-based outfit's misery, Pastor Maldonado came together with Sauber's Sergio Pérez into Turn One.
As Vettel extended his margin out front, Heidfeld frustrated Hamiton's advances and Button led the second gaggle of cars, with the two Ferraris pressurising fifth-placed Petrov for all they were worth. Massa dived up the inside to grab the spot at the beginning of lap six, and when the young Russian ran off-piste through Turn 13 heading onto the back straight shortly afterwards, Alonso seized his chance too, leaving Petrov to deal with the attacking Schumacher and the frustrated Webber behind.
As Hamilton ramped up the pressure on second-placed Heidfeld – and Button and the Ferraris closed slowly in behind – the first sign that the Pirelli soft tyres were beginning to fade came when race leader Vettel reported a vibration on lap eight, but with the threat of rain still very real, all teams were endeavouring to stretch the opening stint out as long as possible.