Thunderstorms crashed down on the Sepang circuit to shatter the established order in the Malaysian Grand Prix. In it’s place, up floated a tremendous race that had the crowd on the edges of their very damp seats. Fernando Alonso drove a brilliant race to victory but for once he and Ferrari were not the story. Nor was pole man Lewis Hamilton, who finished a disconsolate third. Instead, it was Sauber’s Sergio Pérez on whom headlines will be written. The Mexican looked like a winner but had to settle for second.
The race was dominated by weather. A shower shortly before the scheduled start at 4:00 p.m. had the majority of the grid lining up on Intermediate tires but a forecast thunderstorm hit soon after the start and the pitlane was busy as cars came in for full wets. As the storm intensified, the safety car appeared and finally the red flags came out and the race was halted after eight laps.
With the grid reformed and sheltering under umbrellas and tents, the McLaren pair of Hamilton and Jenson Button had maintained their positions at the front, though the big winner from the early exchange was Pérez. The Sauber driver had pitted early for the full wet tires and as a result had climbed up to third. Michael Schumacher, the man who started third, had been spun by Romain Grosjean and catapulted down the field. Grosjean himself went out three laps later, beached in the gravel. Mark Webber, Alonso and Sebastian Vettel held fourth, fifth and sixth places at the break.
The restart was taken on mandatory full wet tires and the McLarens once again got away cleanly, but everything changed around in the pitstops. Button pitted early, on lap 13, and Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel passed Mark Webber on track. Hamilton, Webber and Alonso all pitted on lap 14; Pérez and Vettel stopped a lap later. Hamilton’s stop had been slow, and Button’s possibly a few laps too early for the Inters. It left the McLarens behind Alonso and Pérez when everything shook out. Button had the satisfaction of being in front of his teammate but that lasted less than a lap as his race went wrong when he collided with the yet-to-stop HRT of Narain Karthikeyan in what was an unlikely battle for position. It elevated Hamilton into third.
With no rain falling but the track very wet, a long stint on the Inters ensued. Alonso initially had a big lead over Pérez but the Mexican began to reel him in. Approaching 20 laps into the stint Pérez was getting very close but a bigger issue was timing a pitstop. The track had dried sufficiently to make slicks viable but radar was forecasting more rain to come. Everyone tried to delay the decision but eventually had to stop. They all opted for slicks. Alonso went first on Lap 40, Pérez followed a lap later on 41 – Alonso managed to stay in front.
Pérez wasn’t done and closed to within a second but didn’t have the straightline speed to take advantage of DRS, instead he pushed in the middle sector and ran off the road. He had to settle for second position, but Sauber, with their best-ever result as an independent team, were jubilant at the checkered flag nonetheless.
“I have to say the team has done an incredible job,” said Pérez. “They called me always at the right time, especially for the first pitstop, it was really at the right moment. Unfortunately towards the end of the race, Fernando pitted one lap earlier than us when the track was already dry and he opened a gap there. The pace was fantastic, I was really quick. I have to say many thanks to the team, they have done a great job and I’m very happy for them.”
Hamilton had an untroubled run to the final podium place, while Webber took advantage of a puncture suffered by Vettel in the closing stages that threw the World Champion out of the points.
“It wasn’t very F1 out there with that little grip!” said Mark. “All of us just had to get on with it and keep the cars on the black stuff. But there were plenty of positives for us out of this weekend. We would have liked a slightly better result but there were some inspired calls up the front and hats off to those guys. When you’re in the position to roll the dice a little bit, sometimes you throw a double-six. Those guys did today.”
Vettel, meanwhile, was rather less pleased with his exit, his puncture caused by a collision with Narain Karthikeyan, for which the Indian driver was penalized 20 seconds after the race. “Some people obviously have no eyes and it’s frustrating to lose points and to lose the race like that,” said Vettel, who had also spent a difficult race driving without radio communications.
Behind him, Kimi Räikkönen’s fifth was solid and Bruno Senna’s sixth miraculous, having been dead last after the first lap. Paul di Resta was seventh and Scuderia Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne took his first F1 points with a massively committed drive from 18th on the grid to eighth in the race.
“That’s not too bad is it?” said Jean-Eric afterwards. “I think the race went well for us. At the beginning, the rain was really, really tough. I stayed on the Intermediate tire when most people went to the full wet – and when we were behind the safety car I was pushing like crazy just to follow the pack. We were aquaplaning just trying to drive in a straight line! But ultimately it was a good call and after the restart the race was okay. I am really happy with this result. It’s great.”
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