Sebastian Vettel took the laurels today in an action-packed Malaysian Grand Prix that descended into controversy during a fraught final 15 laps.
The World Champion overtook team-mate Mark Webber for the lead after being told to hold station by his Race Engineer Guillame ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin. Behind the duelling Bulls, Mercedes ensured team orders were obeyed and denied Nico Rosberg permission to pass struggling stablemate Lewis Hamilton for 3rd.
The race began in damp conditions after a light shower hit the circuit 90 minutes before the start and, as expected, Vettel duly led the way from pole. Webber made amends for Melbourne by vaulting to 2nd behind his team-mate, while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, starting 3rd, eliminated himself from the Grand Prix after damaging his front wing against Vettel’s car at turn two; inexplicably he did not pit on lap one and lost control when the wing shattered, jamming itself under his F138’s front suspension and leaving him in the turn one gravel trap.
“Despite the fact the car was damaged, it didn’t seem to be too bad and, together with the team, we decided to keep going, because if we’d stopped immediately and then again on lap 3 or 4 to fit dry tyres, we would have dropped too far back and definitely lost the chance to finish up the front.” said the disappointed Spaniard after the long trudge back to the pits. “It’s easy to criticise this decision, but at the time it seemed like the right one.”
Nico Hulkenberg made rapid progress in the wet, as did Jenson Button who climbed to 5th in the spray. As the conditions eased and a dry line became visible, Vettel chanced his arm and elected to pit for a set of dry Pirelli medium compound tyres, only to regret his decision as Webber leap-frogged him by staying two laps longer on intermediates. Chaos ensued as the Force India duo of Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta queued in their pit box, only to find faulty tyre guns dropped them to the back of the field.
With the field having changed tyres the order read Webber, Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg, Button and Hulkenberg the top 6. The two Mercs soon began eating into the narrow advantage of the Austrian team, with Vettel pleading with his pit wall to let him past Webber who was ‘going too slow’. Although Hamilton closed to within a second of Vettel he couldn’t make his tyres last, and just 9 laps after his second stop he was in again for a fresh set of rubber. During his first stop, the 2008 World Champion made the mistake of pulling into his old McLaren pitbox before realising his error and gunning his car into the Mercedes area. Jean Eric Vergne and Charles Pic came to blows after the Toro Rosso collided with the incoming Caterham as Vergne was leaving his box, while Jenson Button’s efforts to climb to 5th were wasted when McLaren, in a haunting repeat of their 2011 British GP antics, released the former World Champion with his front-right wheel unsecured. Halted in the pitlane as the mechanics worked feverishly to correct their error, he rejoined the race in 14th, retiring late on with a severe flat-spot to his front left tyre.
“We drove a good race today. Strategy-wise, we did everything right.” claimed the Briton. “We pitted on the correct laps and looked after the tyres exactly as we should have done. We’d have finished fifth but for the problem in the pit stop – maybe we’d even have been in the battle for third and fourth. It’s very disappointing that we weren’t able to demonstrate that, of course.”
With racing resumed following the final stop, things began to get fraught the length of the pitlane; Vettel closed remorselessly on his Australian team-mate, while Rosberg claimed he could easily pass Hamilton (by now in fuel-saving mode) and hunt down the Red Bull’s. Twice he asked, and twice he was refused, the tension in Ross Brawn’s voice evident. That the Team Principal himself was ‘on air’ during the race was proof of the severity of the situation.
While Rosberg did as he was told, Vettel quite certainly didn’t. After being told he was ‘getting silly’ by Christian Horner, he chose to attack Webber in the first DRS zone on the approach to turn one. Slicing by on the right hand side of the circuit and hard up against the pit wall, Vettel forced Webber onto the defensive. The Aussie responded magnificently and, despite inexplicably being placed on the harder, slower compound tyres, stuck his elbows out and fought back past the German. Vettel wasn’t to be denied, and passed Webber around the outside of turn four as the Australian seethed in the cockpit of his RB9.
As Vettel crossed the line he swerved wildly across the track, clearly delighted with his victory. Webber pointedly stuck to the opposite side of the track, as far from his team and pitcrew as he could get, while Lewis Hamilton felt no need to celebrate his maiden Mercedes podium and barely acknowledged the ecstatic Merc pitcrew hanging from the pitwall.
Felipe Massa upheld Ferrari honour with a fine 5th, while Romain Grosjean followed him home for a solid 6th. Melbourne winner Kimi Raikkonen was a muted 7th, but Nico Hulkenberg was pleased to score his first points for Sauber after a difficult winter and first race in Australia.
“I think eighth was well deserved, considering I had to fight and push a lot today.” the German star said post-race. “I think the potential is there, and now we have to work on a few details.”
Despite pitting on the penultimate lap, Sergio Perez took his maiden points for McLaren in 9th, while Jean Eric Vergne overcame his pitlane shenanigans to score Toro Rosso’s first point of the year.
The unenviable task of interviewing the podium finishers fell to SkyF1 commentator and former racer Martin Brundle, who remarked afterwards that he felt he was happiest man up there and he hadn’t even won a trophy! The atmosphere in the pre-podium ante-room was frosty to say the least, with Webber citing ‘multi-21’, a team-orders code, while Vettel moodily downed a bottle of mineral water.
“I messed up today.” admitted the German later.
“I would love to come up with a nice excuse as to why I did it, but I can’t. I can understand Mark’s frustration and the team not being happy with what I did today; I owe an explanation to him and the whole team. I will try to explain to them later. We talk about this situation happening many times and what we will do if and when it happens and normally it doesn’t, but today it did and I should have translated the call into action. I got the call and I ignored it.”
Perhaps with memories of Turkey 2010 in his mind, Webber remained calm on the subject:
“I think Sebastian has respect for me and I have respect for him, but the situation today was not handled well. It’s hard to put your finger on it all now after the race; when we’re racing on the limit and pushing as hard as we can, then it’s the worst situation for a team. I am sure they are bricking themselves and know that things can go wrong. There’s a bit of history to this as well; my mind in the last 15 laps was thinking about a lot of things, but I was happy with the way I drove. I tried to isolate what happened at the end and we got something out of it today, but of course I’m not satisfied with the result. This puts heat on a few people and unfortunately there’s no rewind button. I know people want raw emotion from us after these situations and it’s there, but we need to remain cool.”
The podium was not a happy place, with Lewis Hamilton too feeling the need to to do some explaining:
“I have to say big congratulations to Nico. He drove a smarter and more controlled race than me this afternoon and deserved to finish where I did. The team made the call for us to hold positions and we both respected that.”
Ross Brawn attempted to shed some light on Mercedes peculiar handling of the situation, despite claiming pre-season there would be ‘no number one driver’ at the team in 2013.
“We had a heavier than expected fuel consumption during the race and as we got towards the end, we had to take some measures to ensure that both cars finished. We asked Lewis and Nico to hold position and both drivers respected that. Whilst it was tough for Nico and I fully expect him to be disappointed, we have now got a car we can fight with and that there will be plenty more opportunities to achieve good results this season.”
‘Opportunities’ were something used and abused a little too much today. With the tension and Championship action bubbling away nicely, Formula One will head to China in three weeks time for round three of the 2013 title chase.