After suffering DNF’s in the first two races of 2010, when victory seemed well within his grasp, Sebastian Vettel avoided mechanical gremlins in Malaysia on Sunday to take a clean victory in a race which he controlled from the first lap. Although Vettel had qualified third on the grid, he deftly passed Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber at the start, and never looked back.
Malaysia seemed to provide antidote to the hand-wringers who fretted after the season-opener in Bahrain that the rules needed immediate change if the series were to escape terminal boredom. The next venue, in Melbourne, thanks to rain, provided an exciting race, but that was a weather-provoked anomaly. In Malaysia, however, there was plenty of overtaking (the lack of which is the usual cause for complaint), in a race that was run entirely in the dry.
There was one wrinkle in the proceedings, of course: qualifying was run in the wet, which turned some of the results upside down. This, in turn, helped create some of the drama in the race. Most notable was Lewis Hamilton’s charge through the field from 20th to 6th. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, and Hamilton’s McLaren team mate, Jenson Button, also advanced to make up for poor qualification strategies that had been called by their respective teams, however none of them mounted a charge with quite the same ferocity of Hamilton’s.
Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull): Had it not been for a failed spark plug in Bahrain, and a brake failure in Melbourne, very likely Vettel would now be looking at a hat trick of wins. But that’s racing. Vettel kept his head down, slipped into the lead on lap one, turn one, and never looked back. It was a mature, confident drive, of the sort that Herr Michael Schumacher used to turn in with regularity.
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes): The putative number two on the rebranded team has never blanched at being partnered by the most decorated man in the sport (Schumi), and has outperformed the comeback kid at every race thus far this year. Rosberg drove a measured, if uneventful race to snag a first podium for the Merc squad.
Robert Kubica (Renault): Once again, he drove a clean race in a much improved (over last year’s iteration) Renault, and finished 4th, a nice follow up to last week’s 2nd place. Last year, both Renault and Kubica’s former team, BMW, weren’t in contention for podiums for the most part. Kubica must be heaving a sigh of relief.
Adrian Sutil (Force India): Lewis Hamilton seemed unstoppable as he charged through the field from his anomalous 20th grid position, until he reached Sutil. Sutil proved to be unpassable, and the Briton was stuck in his wake for much of the latter half of the race. Hamilton, to his credit, later praised his German friend for having driven a perfect race. He noted that Sutil had been very savvy in negotiating his turn exits, to prevent being overtaken. And the Force India car was using a low downforce setup which, coupled with the same Mercedes power used by Hamilton’s McLaren, kept Sutil out of Hamilton’s grasp on the long straights.
Lewis Hamilton (McLaren): The young Briton has a polarizing effect on people (people seem to love him or hate him), but it can’t be denied that he had the bit between his teeth at Sepang. Hamilton is undeniably quick, and while some might question his judgment or his ability to look at the big picture, his strength clearly seems to be in overtaking. He pulls off maneuvers that seem more typical of karts than F1 cars. Senna and the Schumacher of old were able to cut through the field like a hot knife through butter, and Hamilton has that kind of skill. If only he wouldn’t keep reminding everyone of the fact.
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari): Although his engine blew on the last lap, his performance was masterful. He lost his clutch at the beginning of the race, and had to use his throttle to downshift. Alonso said he had to improvise on every lap, and yet he was able to keep pace with his team mate throughout, and put pressure on Jenson Button, even making an aborted pass, before his engine finally gave way. Alonso said it was the most difficult drive of his career.
Vitaly Petrov (Renault): The Russian rookie proved to be a game racer in his duel with Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton passed Petrov once while making his charge to the front, but Petrov refused to be brushed aside, and he quickly took the position back. Hamilton eventually got past him for good, and during the course of their dogfight the Briton was forced to weave excessively to break the Russian’s tow down the main straight, for which he was later reprimanded.
Mark Webber (Red Bull): The Aussie Red Bull pilot was arguably as quick as Vettel throughout the race, but he allowed Vettel to slip by him on lap 1, and he never recovered. He caught an unfortunate break on his pitstop, losing a couple of seconds due to difficulty with a wheel nut. Webber is always gracious in complimenting his younger team mate, but surely he realizes that the young German is the de facto star of the team. Webber’s disappointment was written on his face during the trophy ceremony on the podium.
Michael Schumacher (Mercedes): The Germain ace’s comeback hasn’t exactly been a smooth one. He’s been steadily outperformed by his younger team mate, Rosberg, however probably Schumi’s critics are being needlessly harsh. As Schumacher has said, he’s no magician, and returning to the pinnacle of motorsport after a three year layoff is no mean feat, even for a driver of Schumacher’s caliber. At Malaysia, he started 8th, and gained two positions on the first lap. After that, by his own description, he paced himself, setting himself up for points. In this case, his luck failed him, not his skill. A wheel nut failed on his left rear on lap 8, and with the wheel completely deranged, Schumi was forced to retire. Schumi was philosophical. That’s racing, he said.
Jenson Button (McLaren): Button started ahead of his team mate, in 17th position, but finished behind him. Button won kudos last week by making a savvy call for a tire change at just the right time which set him up to win the race. In Malaysia, he attempted the same trick, by pitting on lap 10 to trade options for primes, and he had trouble maintaining a competitive pace for the remainder of the race. Hamilton slid by him relatively easily, and Button spent much of the race trying to keep the Ferraris at bay. Massa eventually got past him, and likely Alonso would have completed his pass had it not been for his mechanical difficulties.
McLaren-Mercedes: The team was quick at this venue. Clearly, with Sepang’s long straights, the cars benefitted from their much vaunted and innovative F-duct system which stalls downforce on the rear wing on the straights, giving the cars a boost of 6 mph. But a decision to delay the cars during Q1 on Saturday, on the assumption that the weather was clearing, cost both drivers valuable grid postions. Whether or not they could have matched the Red Bull’s pace is open to debate. Very likely one of the McLarens (read Hamilton) would have reached the podium, however.
Ferrari: See Mclaren-Mercedes, above. Same error in Saturday’s Q1, same results.