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Awesome Alonso causes real shock in Malaysia thriller

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX RACE REPORT

Sergio Perez celebrates his superb result in Malaysia (Yahoo)

FERRARI returned to the top of the podium against the odds in the Malaysian Grand Prix today.  Fernando Alonso drove an awesome race in very changeable conditions to take an unlikely victory, taking advantage of superb pitwork and awful pitstops from McLaren that put them in the driving seat.  The drive of the day though came from Sergio Perez.  The Mexican drove a blinding race to finish second, achieving Sauber’s best ever result as an independent constructor.  Alonso is now the surprising leader in the drivers standings, as Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes GP had a day to forget.

Cooler conditions and grey skies overhead threw all planned strategies out of the window as the build-up to the lights going out came closer.  With rain in the air, all drivers started on intermediate tyres, apart from Pedro de la Rosa.  The Spaniard would begin from the pitlane after an issue firing up his car on the dummy grid.  When the lights went out, the two McLaren’s charged away from the rest of the field, with Lewis Hamilton protecting the inside line from Button to maintain track position, unlike last Sunday in Melbourne.  Into turn three, Michael Schumacher was tagged by the fast-starting Romain Grosjean in the Lotus which saw both cars spin around.  The unrepentant Frenchman blamed his rival, telling Reuters: “I was there, I was careful and unfortunately Schumacher hit me in turn four and I spun.”  At the end of a very tricky first lap, Hamilton led Button, Mark Webber, Vettel, Alonso and Nico Rosberg.  Meantime, Perez’s stunning day started with an inspired decision to pit for extreme wets at the end of the first lap.  This moved him upto into third place by the time everyone else made the same switch.

Grosjean became an early casualty again, when he spun off on the fourth lap entering turn six.  Soon afterwards, a bolt of lightning hit the circuit and the Safety Car was dispatched as conditions worsened.  Button saying over the team radio; “The last sector is like a lake.”  On lap nine, Charlie Whiting sensibly got the track officials to throw the red flag, suspending the race pending a Safety Car restart.  Following a 50 minute delay, the cars left the grid with Hamilton leading Button, Perez, Webber, Alonso and Vettel.  Following four slow laps, conditions eased up on lap 13 for the green light to resume racing.  Some drivers, including Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen came straight in for intermediate tyres.  On the restart, Alonso caught Webber napping into the first corner and vaulted into third position, as Button had also pitted after the restart for fresh rubber.

Button's misjudgement cost him dear (Autosport)

Two laps later, Perez inherited the lead as Hamilton came in.  However, a delay on the rear jack, combined with having to wait whilst Felipe Massa came into his box saw the McLaren costly lose track position to both Alonso and Button.  Perez’s gamble of staying out an extra lap saw him have the lead on merit, but only briefly as better traction off turn two on lap 16 gave Alonso first position.  Traditionally, Jenson Button thrives in these conditions but a lap earlier, he made a clumsy error of judgement and tagged the Hispania of Narain Karthikeyan in turn nine.  No blame could be attached to the Indian driver, as they were battling for position at the time.  Another horrible McLaren pitstop whilst his front wing was changed effectively took the Melbourne winner out of serious contention for points.

For a while, Alonso threatened to runaway completely from the rest of the field, but as his intermediate tyres started to lose grip, Perez continued to hassle him with the gap dropping to less than a second.  The Sauber was the fastest car on the circuit, proven by his string of fastest laps.  Further back, a dry line began to appear and Daniel Ricciardo’s smart move onto slick tyres saw another mad dash for the right rubber, with little change to the significant positions.  Once again Mercedes showed no race pace whatsoever, evidently showed when Rosberg lost three positions to Vettel, Raikkonen and Webber in two laps.  He finished out of the points, whilst Schumacher benefited from a late engine failure on Pastor Maldonado’s luckless Williams to score a fortunate point.

For once, Vettel was out of luck too, as he collected an instant left-rear puncture whilst lapping Karthikeyan with eight laps remaining.  The German’s choice of sign language wasn’t appropriate, but understandable as he lost a certain fourth place.  The damage to his tyre destroyed the rear brake duct on his Red Bull, which led to the team almost retiring him on the final lap.  In the media pen afterwards, Vettel didn’t hold back on his words to BBC’s Lee McKenzie; “To lose the points like that is extremely frustrating.  It’s like on the normal roads, you have some idiots driving around and it seems like we have one driving here.”

Just as Perez prepared himself for a possible attack on Alonso, he made his only error of the afternoon by running wide in turn 14 and onto the damp run-off area.  The mistake cost him five seconds, but didn’t affect his confidence as he continued to hunt down Alonso in the final few metres.  Remarkably, the Spaniard held on for his third success in Malaysia, his 28th career victory but Perez’s second place brought team principal Peter Sauber to tears.  Without the BMW involvement, it beats Sauber’s best ever result, achieved by Jean Alesi at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix.  Hamilton had a lonely run to third infront of Webber, Raikkonen and Bruno Senna’s Williams.  Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne, Nico Hulkenberg and Schumacher completed the points scoring.  Massa had another day to forget, finishing 15th after spending half his race battling Vitaly Petrov’s inferior Caterham.  Alonso was honest enough in his assessment of things in the post-race press conference; “The win is an unexpected surprise, we were not competitive in Australia or here and the goal for the first few races was to score as many points as possible.  It’s an unbelievable result and a great job from the team.”

Today, Fernando Alonso reminded us just why he is a former double world champion whilst Sergio Perez deserves to share the headlines for his incredible drive.  He gave us a glimpse of a promising future, possibly very soon as Alonso’s team-mate.  The teams head home for a three week break, before resuming in China on April 13-15.

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FINAL RACE RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 56 2hr 44min 51secs
2 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 56 +2.2secs
3 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +14.5secs
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +17.6secs
5 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 56 +29.4secs
6 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 56 +37.6secs
7 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +44.4secs
8 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 56 +46.9secs
9 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +47.8secs
10 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 56 +49.9secs
11 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +1min 15.5secs
12 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 56 +1min 16.8secs
13 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 56 +1min 18.5secs
14 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +1min 19.7secs
15 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 56 +1min 27.3secs
16 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 55 1 LAP
17 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 55 1 LAP
18 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 55 1 LAP
19 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 54 ENGINE
20 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
21 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
22 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
Retired KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 46 BRAKES
Retired ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 3 SPUN OFF

Narain Karthikeyan was given a 20 second time penalty for causing an avoidable accident

  DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI) 35
2 LEWIS HAMILTON (MCLAREN) 30
3 JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN) 25
4 MARK WEBBER (RED BULL) 24
5 SERGIO PEREZ (SAUBER) 22
6 SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL) 18
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS) 16
8 BRUNO SENNA (WILLIAMS) 8
9 KAMUI KOBAYASHI (SAUBER) 8
10 PAUL DI RESTA (FORCE INDIA) 7
11 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE (TORO ROSSO) 4
12 DANIEL RICCIARDO (TORO ROSSO) 2
13 NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA) 2
14 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (MERCEDES GP) 1

 

  CONSTRUCTORS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 MCLAREN MERCEDES 55
2 RED BULL RACING RENAULT 42
3 FERRARI 35
4 SAUBER FERRARI 30
5 LOTUS RENAULT 16
6 FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 9
7 WILLIAMS RENAULT 8
8 SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO FERRARI 6
9 MERCEDES GP 1

Two in a row for Lewis in sweltering Sepang

BRITAIN’s fantastic start to this season’s Formula One world championship continued in Malaysia today, as for the second successive Saturday, two British drivers take the front row of the grid.  As in Melbourne last week, Lewis Hamilton took his second pole position in a row by a small margin from Jenson Button.  Michael Schumacher achieved his best ever position of his second comeback, lining up third for Mercedes GP.  The race tomorrow is set for an interesting battle involving looking after tyres in sweltering track and air temperatures.

The first qualifying session saw Jean-Eric Vergne ending up as the surprise casualty from the midfield, despite some threatening pace from Toro Rosso on Friday.  Heikki Kovalainen will start last on the grid, following his penalty that he picked up in the race in Albert Park for overtaking cars behind the Safety Car.  The Finn revealed to Sky Sports F1; “To be honest, the balance of the car wasn’t as good on the soft tyres as it was on the harder tyres.  I don’t know why and whether it is the same for everybody.  Even with my penalty, I reckon I will be up to my normal position quite quickly.”  Kovalainen will begin behind both HRT’s, who both escaped the 107 per cent ruling and will start the event tomorrow.

In Q2, Felipe Massa failed to make the top ten, although he was a more slender 0.3secs behind Fernando Alonso.  Although Alonso made it into the pole position shootout, eigth and 12th on the grid highlights Ferrari’s fundamental issues.  Urgent development is required on the car before the next event in China which is on the 15 April.  Also dropping out was Pastor Maldonado who created some headaches in the Williams garage by an early excursion into the gravel at turn 11, damaging barge board components.

The remains of Lotus hospitality unit after a fridge fire last night (Crash.net)

In the final session, Lotus backed up their solid pace shown throughout the weekend so far.  Despite a major fire in the hospitality suite they were staying in last night, which lost them millions of pounds in equipment, the team bounced back with Romain Grosjean impressing to sixth.  Kimi Raikkonen actually set the fastest time in Q2 and ended up in fifth on the timecharts.  However, he will start tenth following an overnight gearbox change.  Red Bull opted for split strategies on their two cars.  Unhappy with the balance on the option tyre, Sebastian Vettel elected to stick on the prime tyre.  Fifth place was a good save although the world champion did look deflated in the media pen afterwards.  Mark Webber stuck with the traditional route and came fourth quickest, lapping fastest in Q1 and proving that the team does have some one lap pace.

As expected, McLaren and Mercedes GP set the majority of the running.  A couple of basic errors on his one lap in Q3 left Nico Rosberg languishing back in seventh place.  Schumacher was an amazing third fastest, lapping consistently throughout qualifying.  The previous Achilles heel of his comeback seems to be put to bed.  Hamilton’s great lap in the opening stages of the session was good enough, despite two attempts from Button that ultimately left him just 0.149secs behind his team-mate.

Tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix promises to be a real stormer of a race.

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING SESSION

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 14 1.36.219
2 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 14 1.36.368
3 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 14 1.36.391
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 19 1.36.461
5 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 14 1.36.634
6 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 14 1.36.658
7 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 14 1.36.664
8 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 16 1.37.566
9 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 17 1.37.698
10 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 13 1.36.461
11 (Q2) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.37.589
12 (Q2) FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 15 1.37.731
13 (Q2) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 13 1.37.841
14 (Q2) PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 15 1.37.877
15 (Q2) DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 14 1.37.883
16 (Q2) NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 13 1.37.890
17 (Q2) KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 12 1.38.069
18 (Q1) JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 7 1.39.077
19 (Q1) VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 6 1.39.567
20 (Q1) TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.40.903
21 (Q1) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.41.250
22 (Q1) PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 4 1.42.914
23 (Q1) NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 6 1.43.655
24 (Q1) HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 9 1.39.306

KIMI RAIKKONEN RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR SAFETY CAR INFRINGEMENT IN AUSTRALIA

History of the Malaysian Grand Prix

HERMANN Tilke’s first Formula One circuit was the challenging and demanding Sepang, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix.  In the 13 runnings of the race so far, there have been plenty of great stories in a place known for its humid heat temperatures and biblical thunderstorms!

The first event was held in 1999 and the inagural race came at a crucial time for the world championship battle that season.  Mika Hakkinen arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a slender two point advantage over Eddie Irvine.  What’s more, Michael Schumacher chose this race to return after his six race absence as he recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the British Grand Prix.  Schumacher returned in style, by qualifying a whole second faster than anyone else, then dictating the race so well, Irvine was almost too slow to beat him.  The Ulsterman got help from the normal Ferrari no.1, twice being allowed into the lead.  He used clever defensive tactics to keep an exhausted Hakkinen back in third place.  Just as Ferrari celebrated a magnificent 1-2, the team were thrown out after measurements from the scrutineers suggested the team were running illegal barge boards.  The fault was even admitted by technical director Ross Brawn and the championship was Hakkinen’s.  Conversly, Ferrari’s lodged an appeal, saying the measurement taken was from an angle, not a flat surface.  A week later, the FIA overturned the decision made by the stewards and Ferrari kept their victory.

The Schumacher family have had plenty of success down the years in Malaysia.  Ralf produced one of his most convincing displays in 2002 to lead home a Williams 1-2.  That day, his older brother clashed with Juan Pablo Montoya in the first corner and the Colombian was given a very harsh drive-through penalty.  At least he made some history in becoming the first ever recipient of one of these penalties!  Schumacher Snr won the final race in 2000, more remembered for the red wigs the team showered themselves on the podium with after wrapping up a second constructors title in a row.  The race also brought a sad end to Johnny Herbert’s career, as he sustained leg injuries in a nasty accident when his Jaguar rear suspension collapsed.  In 2001, the Ferrari team produced a stunning recovery from a synchronised gravel visit from both Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, then a 84-second pitstop in the midst of a traditional Malaysian monsoon.  The team’s decision to fit intermediates saw them ending up annihilathting their rivals once the Safety Car withdrew.

Malaysia was also the setting stone for a changing of the guard in 2003.  Then, a 21-year old fresher looking Fernando Alonso stunned the paddock by becoming the youngest ever poleman for Renault.  He went onto finish third on an aggressive strategy, becoming the first Spaniard on the Grand Prix podium since 1956.  The race was controlled by Kimi Raikkonen, with the 23-year old winning his first race for McLaren, a feat that left Ron Dennis close to tears.  That day gave us a glimpse of the exciting future that lay await for Formula One fans.  A year later, Jenson Button joined the elite when he made up for two agonising near misses in Malaysia previously and earnt his first F1 podium for BAR Honda.  For the record, the 2004 race was Schumacher’s third and final Malaysian success.

There were victories for Alonso in 2005 and 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively and a Giancarlo Fisichella triumph in 2006, also for Renault.  In 2008, Raikkonen produced a convincing display to take the honours on the tenth anniversary of the event.  A Ferrari 1-2 was thrown away when Felipe Massa made an elementary error and spun into the gravel trap.  Raikkonen has had plenty of drama down the years in Sepang and more came his way in 2009.  Predicting a thunderstorm in this part of the world is always hard to do, but Ferrari attempted to do so and put Raikkonen on full wets on a bone dry track!  The thunderstorm held off for a long while, but when it rained, you know about it.  Fading daylight and the unrelanting rain meant the race was stopped and eventually abandoned, with half points being awarded.  Button won his second race in a row for Brawn GP.  On the same weekend, Lewis Hamilton was forced to face the media after being disqualified from the race in Melbourne for lying to race stewards.

Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel have turned the place into their own over the past two seasons, winning in 2010 and 2011.  Can they make it a hat-trick in 2012?  Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen have all tasted success in Sepang in the past – who knows what will happen in 2012, especially with the forecast for a wet weekend.

Talking Point: Will a new chassis save Massa from the sack?

IT MIGHT only be the second round of the championship this weekend in Malaysia but already, Felipe Massa is under a pile of huge pressure to deliver.  The Brazilian’s shambolic performance in last week’s season opener in Melbourne has left his future prospects of staying with Ferrari hanging even more by a thread.  On Tuesday, the Italian team announced that a new chassis will be flown to Kuala Lumpur, but is that enough to save the charming Ferrari no.2 from the sack.

From the moment Felipe spun off in the opening practice session, his fate in Albert Park of a mediocre performance was sealed.  He never looked comfortable with the F2012, which it has to be said, is proving to be a real handful anyways.  Qualifying saw him a distant 16th, four places behind Fernando Alonso.  That was despite Alonso spinning out early on in Q2.  Although he made an excellent start which saw him upto tenth, Massa quickly fell away from the leading group and spent the majority of the afternoon battling a poor chassis, high tyre wear and probably, his demons on a mental basis.

Massa struggled to hold off the Sauber cars in Melbourne on Sunday (Autoweek)

He was overwhelmed by the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Kamui Kobayashi and the race ended with an unsavoury tangle involving the Williams of Bruno Senna.  When you consider Alonso saved fifth place for the team and was lapping 2-3 seconds a lap quicker on a regular basis, it highlights Massa’s nightmare Down Under.  I described his driving performance as akin to a pig on rollerskates!  It is a sad and sorry decline for one of F1’s nice guys.  Team principal Stefano Domenicalli is still backing his driver though, telling JAonF1; “We need to stay close to Felipe because it’s clear that he’s under pressure.  I’ve asked his engineers to analyse the data on the car, also to reassure him.”  It means that there can be no excuses this weekend.

Mentally, Massa is driving like Damon Hill did in his final, troubled season in the sport in 1999.  The former golden boy of Ferrari has been cast adrift by Alonso’s arrival and moulding the team around the Spaniard’s comforts.  The days of Felipe outpacing Raikkonen in their three years together are a distant memory.  Has he ever recovered from the radio message below (using clever F1 2010 graphics) whilst leading the German Grand Prix by merit in 2010;

I don’t think he has and Shanghai aside last season, I don’t think he has driven as well as he did that day at Hockenheim.  Immediately afterwards, he said he would walkaway from F1 if he was a no.2, having experienced a similar order at Sauber in his debut season, ironically at the same circuit.

Now I don’t know what Felipe Massa thinks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mental note saying ‘it is wrong to beat Alonso.’  It is frustrating, as he can match the best on his day.  Since Hockenheim 2010, it has led to those basic errors that littered his first season in 2002 reappearing far too regularly.  Don’t forget his attempt to pass cars on the grass on the approach to turn one of the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix?  Of course, his high profile incidents with Lewis Hamilton last year have been well documented.

Then, there’s the factor of the crash during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when Massa was knocked out by a loose spring that had bounced down the road off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car.  He might have scars for the incident, but big knocks can affect a driver.  Ralf Schumacher had a similar experience after a testing shunt in 2003 and he never recovered from this shunt, while it took Mika Hakkinen the best part of 18 months to fully recover from his near fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995.  Only Massa will know how much the Budapest shunt has affected him.

I do hope that the driver who came within seconds of the 2008 world championship does find some of his old form again.  The bare facts are he hasn’t scored a podium since Korea 2010, the longest run a Maranello driver has gone without a podium since Eddie Irvine, 17 races between (1996-1997).  We will see whether a new chassis is the solution to Massa’s problems.  However, more races like Melbourne and Felipe will be lucky to see the season out, let alone hope for a contract extension.