Alonso rains on McLaren parade as Perez auditions
25 March 2012
The unlikely combination of heavy rain, a red flag, problematic pit-stops and uncharacteristic errors came together to provide an early band-aid to Ferrari's problems, but it was a future Maranello man who stole the show at Sepang.
The conditions always hinted at a possible surprise result, but it would have been Michael Schumacher, one of the Red Bulls or Kimi Raikkonen that attracted the most money. Instead, just as he did at Silverstone last July, it was Fernando Alonso who came through the wet-dry conditions, using his experience rather than any recently-unlocked Ferrari performance to see off the Sauber of Sergio Perez, the Ferrari Academy driver already being linked to the second seat at the Scuderia.
The build-up to the race focused as much on the skies as on the track, as a menacing black cloud loomed from the end of the preceding GP2 race before finally beginning to deposit its contents as the cars formed up on the grid. Despite the track being wet, however, it wasn't seemed wet enough for a safety car start, and the two McLarens, having come out on top in qualifying, duly led away as the lights went out.
Perhaps determined not to get too close on the long run to turn one, poleman Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button picked opposite sides of the circuit before entering the corner neck-and-neck. Ironically, they then nearly came together as Hamilton drifted away from the apex, but the pair emerged unscathed and slowly established a cushion over the rest.
Leading the pursuit, meanwhile, was Romain Grosjean, the Frenchman having fired his Lotus between the two Red Bulls and past Schumacher, but the returnee's luck was, once again, not to hold, this time spinning at turn four - where it was suddenly a lot wetter - and collecting the hapless seven-time champion, promoting Mark Webber into third. Further back, Bruno Senna also spun, damaging his front wing on the kerbs and leading to an unscheduled pit-stop.
Already heading for the pits were Nico Rosberg and Perez, who had both decided that it was too tricky for the intermediate Pirellis they had started on, beginning a surge for full wets as their rivals decided to follow suit. Grosjean was among those poised to change when he spun again, this time beaching himself in the gravel and becoming the race's first retirement. The Lotus driver's pain only increased when, just two laps later, the stewards decided to send out the safety car as lightning began to flash around the Sepang venue.
The order of the snake behind the Mercedes SLS AMG was already a little unfamiliar, although Hamilton and Button continued to lead. Perez's early stop allowed him to pop up into third, ahead of Webber, Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jean-Eric Vergne, who was the only man still running on inters. Behind the Toro Rosso, Felipe Massa and Rosberg ran ahead of HRT's Narain Karthikeyan, who had started on full wets and picked off the later stoppers to reach the heady heights of the top ten.
After three laps of paddling around the 17 turns, the conditions had worsened, prompting the first red flag of the season. As a tented village assembled on the grid, in a vain bid to keep cars and personnel dry, few would have guessed that fully 50 minutes would be lost before engines could be fired in anger. Again, the safety car assumed the role of pacesetter for another couple of laps, before Hamilton backed up the pack and then bolted. All cars were now on the required wets, but it wasn't long before some were heading for the pits again.
Hamilton was a lap later than most in taking new tyres, and then overshot his marks, leading to a delay in getting the rear of the car jacked up. To compound the lost time, the Briton was then held to allow Massa to make his stop, all of which resulted in him dropping down the order. Perez led briefly as the order shook itself out, but was forced to concede as Alonso came through on lap 16.
Button should have been in position to take control of the race, but had misjudged a move on Karthikeyan - for position - and damaged his front wing, necessitating another stop, which dropped him almost to the rear of the field. Unlike last year's Canadian Grand Prix, and despite immediately setting the fastest lap to that point, there was to be no reprieve, and no stunning victory, as a fourth stop in the first third of the race was required to fit the McLaren with another set of inters....
The reactivation of DRS on lap 20 continued to keep the order moving, with Rosberg an early casualty as Vettel, Raikkonen and Webber all passing the Mercedes within the space of two laps. Massa, too, should have passed the German, but made a mistake when poised to make his move, leaving him at the mercy of Vergne, who duly claimed eighth place. Senna, seemingly suffering no other ill-effects of his opening lap excursion, was also on the move and by half-distance was on the fringe of the points.
At the front, the order was led by Alonso, with Perez, Hamilton, Vettel, Raikkonen, Webber, Paul di Resta, Vergne, Senna and Nico Hulkenberg making up the top ten. Schumacher had recovered to twelfth, despite his Mercedes continuing to have a voracious appetite for tyres, while Button remained mired down in 18th. The developing story, however, was the pace of Perez's Sauber, which was beginning to eat into Alonso's advantage at a rate of several tenths a lap.
Although a dry line was beginning to form, the constant threat of rain kept the teams on their toes, some happy to take the risk and others seemingly trying to prolong the life of their inters lest the deluge return. In the end, all were forced to give in to the temptation of running several seconds a lap faster. Daniel Ricciardo was among the first to pit, with the leader following suit three laps later. Strangely, Sauber opted to keep Perez out a lap longer than Alonso, allowing the Mexican to retake the lead, but ultimately denying him the chance of dropping in right behind the Ferrari when he rejoined.
The Swiss team also fitted the harder Pirelli to Perez's car, contrasting with the medium option preferred by the majority of the field, and a slow getaway should have ended his dreams of catching and passing the double world champion at the head of the field. Perez, however, was not yet done with Alonso, and again set about hacking chunks out of the Spaniard's lead.
From seven seconds adrift when he rejoined after his stop on lap 41, the Mexican was on the Ferrari's tail by lap 48, only for a message from the team urging caution to appear to distract him. Although the resulting error wasn't terminal, running wide at the final corner effectively handed victory to the Scuderia, even though he proceeded to trim the margin back to a couple of seconds by the flag.
Hamilton had also suffered a problematic final stop, with time lost as the team attempted to remove tape blanking his front brake discs, but the Briton continued in third spot, ahead of Vettel and Webber. The German then copied Button in making a mistake in the company of Karthikeyan, suffering a puncture as he clipped the errant HRT and dropping out of the points as he headed for the pits. The German would be classified eleventh, but only amid hurried calls from Red Bull urging him to stop as resulting problems forced his brake temperatures sky high.
With the pressure eased on Hamilton, Webber took a comfortable fourth, ahead of Raikkonen, Senna, di Resta, Vergne - scoring his first points second time out - Hulkenberg and Schumacher, who was promoted back into the points when the luckless Pastor Maldonado, who had crashed on the penultimate lap in Australia, suffered an engine failure at the same time in round two.
However, the day, or evening as it now was, belonged to Alonso, who moved to the head of the championship standings as a result of his win, and Perez who, if he needed an audition to replace the hapless Massa alongside the Spaniard, passed with flying colours. What chance the two being team-mates before the year is out....