Malaysian Grand Prix 2010 - 05/04/10

It has taken until the third race of the 2010 season for the inevitable Red Bull one-two finish, and such is the nature of Formula 1 that the manner in which it was delivered all weekend left the others looking as though they had been on borrowed time for the first 2 events. Of course, it is never as simple as that in F1, just as Red Bull’s 2010 season could not be so quickly written off as being plagued by reliability issues. McLaren and Ferrari will of course win races again this year, but what is clear is that they will have to execute a perfect weekend’s worth of operations to achieve those victories. That kind of weekend begins with correctly reading the weather…

Qualifying in Sepang was rain-affected. Of course it was, how could it not be? Q1 saw many teams go out at the start to register banker laps, among them Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari and McLaren decided to go out much later as they believed the rain would ease off and not return, and this mistake at the very start of competitive proceedings for the Malaysian GP would haunt them until the very last laps of the race on Sunday. The rain came again in the latter stages of Q1, the result being that Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were out of Q1 and would start the race 19th, 20th and 21st respectively. Jenson Button had delivered a lap good enough to see him through to Q2, however one instance of aquaplaning left him beached in the gravel and unable to take up his spot in Q2. The result was 17th on the grid. Despite all of this, the hero of qualifying was Mark Webber who decided to make his final Q3 runs on intermediate tyres, claiming a dominant pole position ahead of an excellent Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenburg also starred in 4th and 5th places after the brief hiatus of a red flag in the final Q3 session.

With the Malaysian GP grid reminiscent of the unforgettable Suzuka 2005, the race itself did not quite measure up to the anticipated excitement, primarily due to the fact that both Ferraris and Button’s McLaren were not able to cut through the field on the early laps in the manner that Lewis Hamilton did, and of course the lack of any rain. Hamilton’s dynamite start and ruthless overtaking saw him make steady progress until his pit stop on lap 30, by which time he had been running 2nd. His meteoric rise through the order was somewhat offset by highly questionable weaving antics on the finishing straight in order to break the tow that Vitaly Petrov’s Renault had on him. He was issued a warning for his behaviour, but at those speeds with those token mirrors and a complete disregard for a gentleman’s agreement between the drivers, Lewis continues to polarise opinion. Luckily there were no Melbourne traffic cops around, and Hamilton continued without penalty.

Another major factor that stopped Sepang 2010 becoming a classic was that up front, barring another failure, there was never any doubt about the eventual victor. Vettel made a great start from 3rd, hugging polesitter Webber’s gearbox and using the associated slip from the sister Red Bull to pass Rosberg’s Merc. Sebastian made great use of Webber’s last minute move to the outside and claimed him down the inside into turn 1. He was unchallenged thereafter, Webber’s attempts to get back at Vettel were hampered by a problematic airgun at his pit stop. Despite briefly being split by Hamilton who ran a very long stint to open the race, the Red Bulls were in control the whole day and finally cashed in on their advantage. With Vettel having firmly thrown his hat back into the championship battle, and the fact that matters outside of his control have stopped him sweeping all 3 of the first grands prix of 2010, the on-form driver of the moment is unquestionably feeling that this must be his year. A victory from a position other than pole, and the mistakes of 2009 seemingly behind him, he could well be right.

The most significant of the early retirements was that of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, who after a good start had to park the car on lap 8 with a loose rear wheel. Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi also missed out on another points haul by retiring on lap 12. The other Force India of Adrian Sutil managed to stay out of trouble and score excellent points for 5th place having spent the latter stages of the race fending off a charging Lewis Hamilton, confirming the significant step forward this team have taken. While Hamilton made big inroads into Sutil, he was not able to find a way past in the normal 2010 fashion and crossed the line 6th.

In the other McLaren, Jenson Button had a comparably difficult start to the race being passed by both Massa and Alonso on the first lap. Button pitted very early for fresh tyres, no doubt hoping to score a repeat of last week’s inspirational decision, but despite being alongside Hamilton when the latter emerged from his stop, was not able to stay with him and fell back into the clutches of both Ferraris towards the end of the race. Massa managed to pass Button after many laps of following, demoting him to 8th place. Alonso, however, who had spent the first part of the race stuck behind Massa, then Toro Rossos and now Button, could not make a pass on Button. He had run very long into the race before putting on soft tyres, he then proceeded to set some extremely fast laps while hunting down Button and Massa at roughly 2 seconds per lap. During on-board coverage it became clear that Alonso had lost the use of his Ferrari’s clutch and was having to monster the throttle to get the car to change gear, making those faster laps even more impressive. These problems coloured his whole afternoon and undoubtedly affected his ability to make a move on the STRs, his teammate or Button. Two laps from the end, Alonso finally took a dive at Button into the first corner but went in too deep, allowing Button back past. The result was an overstressed engine and his first Ferrari retirement. While Alonso will feel aggrieved at having lost the possibility of a few points after what he claimed was the best drive of his career, as well as Massa taking the championship lead by coming home 7th and once again fending him off, neither Felipe nor Fernando should have been in that position in the first place.

Other notable drives included a very solid run to 3rd from Nico Rosberg, a trouble-free day for someone who had very little chance of troubling the Red Bulls. Nico’s first podium for Mercedes and another assertive performance over Schumacher will undoubtedly fulfil all his early season hopes. All that is missing now is a victory. Renault’s Robert Kubica once again took full advantage of a great qualifying and the issues of others to score a 4th place finish, not to mention getting past Sutil and Hulkenburg on the first lap. He later told Polish TV that he had to employ extreme measures to stop his engine from cooking for the last quarter of the race. Along with his 2nd place for BMW in Brazil last year, this is a very impressive patch in Kubica’s career. One of the most standout drives of the day though has to go to arguably F1’s most improved driver so far in 2010, Jaime Alguersuari. His qualifying form and race pace have started to match the much more experienced STR driver Buemi, and his supreme overtaking of Nico Hulkenburg around the outside helped elevate him into 9th place and his first career F1 points. This, coupled with last week’s battle with Michael Schumacher, promises much for the future of the sport’s youngest ever driver. Hulkenburg himself finished 10th for his first F1 points and a much better weekend than in either Bahrain or Australia, undoubtedly more to come from him also.

Under the new points system, Massa now leads with 39 points having not yet won a race, with Alonso and Vettel on 37. Button and Rosberg sit on 35, Hamilton on 31 and Kubica on 30. As far as the championship is concerned, we could not have asked for a better start. Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have all had a day in the sun, and days to forget. With Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari hoping to close the qualifying gap to Red Bull, hopefully things will only get closer as the season wears on. As a side note, under last year’s points system, the championship would currently show Massa 16, Alonso 15, Vettel 15, Rosberg 14, Button 13, Kubica 13 and Hamilton 12. Not a great difference, but then at this stage of the season it’s more about being in touch, and with seven drivers very much in touch one hopes that boredom would be a fading worry for this year’s championship.

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