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.
Webber became the first driver to blink three laps later to bolt on a set of used rubber, with Hamilton coming in two laps later still and rejoining just
ahead of Scuderia Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari, and Vettel following suit a lap later again as the rain began to spit. Heidfeld, Button and Massa were next in-line – although a wheel nut delay for the Brazilian cost him time and places – with Alonso the last of the front-runners to stop.
Heidfeld was another loser from the pit visits as both McLarens succeeded in leapfrogging him into second and third, with Alonso doing likewise into P4 and Webber hauling himself back into play too in sixth. Hamilton enjoyed some fun-and-games as he went three-abreast with the duelling and yet-to-stop Schumacher and Sébastien Buemi into the final corner, artfully sweeping around the outside of both of them.
Towards the other end of the field, Jarno Trulli emerged from his first pit-stop for Team Lotus only to lock up and go straight on at Turn One – as HRT's Narain Karthikeyan joined the already-retired Pastor Maldonado on the sidelines. That list would soon similarly include Maldonado's team-mate Barrichello – whose FW33 stuck in gear to make it two consecutive double DNFs for Williams following the team's Melbourne disappointment – and Perez, whose Sauber curiously gave up the ghost after being hit by a piece of flying debris from Buemi's Toro Rosso.
Meanwhile, with Ferrari having found some pace, Alonso was the man on the move up at the sharp end, carving his way neatly up the inside of Button into Turn One, with the pair having dropped Heidfeld – whilst Hamilton had begun to peg Vettel, and set about reducing his 6.3-second deficit to Vettel with a third of the grand prix completed.
As Alonso sped away from Button, Heidfeld and Webber began homing in on the McLaren behind, with Massa and Petrov coming along to play for good measure. As Buemi earned himself a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit-lane, Hamilton reduced Vettel's lead to just 4.6 seconds as the German's pace fell away – lapping the slowest of any of the top six drivers – and Massa heaped more misery upon Red Bull by finding a way past the tyre-troubled Webber.
The Australian was the first man to pit again for the second time on lap 23, whilst a gripless Heidfeld fell back from Button after skating briefly off-track through Turn Eleven, leaving him under pressure from the pursuing Massa. Button and Hamilton were the next drivers to pit, with Vettel doing likewise next time around and rejoining right in the wheel tracks of the Heidfeld/Massa scrap, as Petrov separated him from the fast-chasing Hamilton.
The British star wasted little time in releasing himself of his Renault rival by diving up the inside into Turn Five, but Vettel responded by finding a way swiftly past Massa up the inside of the first corner, and when Heidfeld pitted the following lap, it was game on again at the front. The German lost out to the recovering Webber during the stops, whilst Alonso was by now struggling with a DRS system that was refusing to play ball, and to add insult to injury for the double F1 World Champion, he conceded third place to Button again during the stops.
With Vettel now struggling – in company with team-mate Webber – with a lack of KERS – Button homed in on team-mate Hamilton in the scrap over second, and as the momentum shifted yet again during the grand prix, Vettel this time edged out his lead once more, with Button applying the pressure on his compatriot and Alonso, on the harder tyre, falling away in fourth.
Webber made his third stop of the race on lap 33, rejoining just ahead of Petrov and Kobayashi, whilst a delay on the front-left for Hamilton during his own stop five laps later saw the Briton return to the fray just ahead of the Australian – but crucially, behind
Button, who was quick to pull away and begin the pursuit of Vettel. With the Red Bulls coming on increasingly strong as the laps ticked down, it was Hamilton who now found himself on the defensive against the revitalised Webber.
Trulli and Virgin racing rookie Jérôme d'Ambrosio were the final drivers to drop out of the action – the Italian with clutch failure on his Lotus – whilst Schumacher went for a brief bounce through the Turn Seven gravel, finding himself rapidly punished for his uncharacteristic error by the following Kobayashi.
Vettel and Alonso bot made their final stops with 15 laps remaining, with the former retaining his lead but the latter dropping behind both McLarens and Webber, whilst Heidfeld's last tyre-change saw 'Quick Nick' rejoin behind team-mate Petrov, with the ever-present Massa similarly in close attendance behind. Petrov dutifully released Heidfeld at the end of the back straight, and the German then found himself promoted another spot when Webber pitted for the fourth time a couple of laps later, whilst Massa made short work of Petrov.
In what was a dramatic race throughout, the next 'moment' came as Alonso homed in on the ailing Hamilton, as the two old foes disputed the final podium position. Despite his rear wing not working, the Spaniard was still clearly the faster of the pair, and he was soon all over the back of the McLaren – but then he got just a touch too
close, as he misjudged the distance between himself and his rival heading towards Turn Four and caught the back of Hamilton's right rear tyre with his front wing.
That left Alonso needing to pit for a new nosecone and Hamilton – for the second grand prix in succession – with a damaged floor on his MP4-26, and with Heidfeld, Massa and the charging Webber, who with seven laps remaining was all over the Brazilian ahead of him and, with newer tyres, visibly with more grip at his disposal than the Ferrari ahead of him.
The following lap, the Aussie bravely forced his way around the outside of Massa through Turn One, securing the inside line for Turn Two and gutsily toughing it out to steal fifth and set his sights on Heidfeld ahead. The Renault returnee, however, was fully focussed himself on chasing down the fading Hamilton in front of him, with the three drivers separated by less than three seconds as the tension mounted.
With five laps left to run, Heidfeld got a superb run on Hamilton and forced his way cleanly and aggressively down the inside into Turn One, keeping it tight on the exit to complete a textbook manoeuvre. Any welcome breathing space the German had, though, was swiftly negated when Hamilton went wide and Webber needed no second invitation to nip past. The McLaren pitted shortly afterwards for his fourth stop of the afternoon, rejoining in-between Petrov and Kobayashi in eighth place.
The Russian would not go much further, however, as he went off through Turn Eight and attempted to rejoin the circuit at unabated speed – an unadvisable move, it would transpire, as the Renault bounced over the grass and flew briefly into the air, leaving its driver with a broken steering column as Petrov managed to bring it to a halt against a marker board on the other side of the track.
With Button dovetailing careful tyre-management with trying to keep the pressure on Vettel at the front, all eyes turned to the scrap over third, as Webber closed inexorably in on Heidfeld, taking full advantage of tyres with more life in them. A lock-up for the Renault on the penultimate lap looked as though it may provide the Red Bull star with his opportunity, but Heidfeld recovered himself and when Webber went too deep into Turn Nine on the final lap, the positions were effectively set.
Almost unnoticed against the backdrop of the fierce fight in his wake, Vettel coasted his way around the last lap to claim his 12th grand prix victory and preserve a peerless record in F1 2011 to-date, and the defending world champion will carry a 24-point advantage in the title standings to round three in China next weekend.
Having expertly coped with the lack of KERS and turned up the wick on his adversaries just when he needed to, the German weaved across the finish line in celebration of his success, with Button taking the chequered flag just over three seconds behind in the end for an excellent second place.
Heidfeld hung on grittily to take his first podium finish in F1 since the same race two years ago – a superb result for a driver who only a matter of weeks ago, didn't even have a seat this season and looked to have reached the end of the line in the sport – with Webber crowning an impressive fightback with fourth and Massa leading Alonso nose-to-tail across the line in fifth and sixth, although the Brazilian would park his car on the slowing-down lap after running out-of-fuel.
The delayed Hamilton, Kobayashi, Schumacher and di Resta rounded out the top ten – the Scot scoring points for the second successive grand prix, and this time entirely on merit, and outperforming his far more experienced team-mate Adrian Sutil, who ended up eleventh – whilst Rosberg, Buemi, Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock were the final finishers.
But the final word should go to the race-winner, who ebulliently declared to his team on his victorious slowing-down lap: “In the heat, we kept our heads cool – I'm loving it!”
To see the race results in full, click here