The 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix will be recalled in the years to come as one of the best races in Formula 1’s long history. It was a race full of drama and intrigue, capped off with a few classic ‘underdog’ stories.
On the basis of the Ferrari F2012’s woeful pre-season form, few would have expected that Fernando Alonso could be the starring act in a Cinderella Story like this, but he came oh so close to being upstaged by Sauber driver Sergio Pérez, who would have won the race but for a couple of crucial slip-ups by driver and team.
Pérez’s race was perhaps the greater surprise, and without question the source of the greatest joy in the paddock (unless you were Ferrari, of course) and among F1 fans. The young Mexican had progressively hunted down Alonso in the closing stages of the race – sometimes closing at the rate of a second per lap. But for two crucial errors – a late pit-stop call by his team, and an overexcited off-track moment in the final laps – he might have just overhauled the Spaniard to claim a famous win.
As it was, he achieved the Sauber team’s best race result in its history, not counting its 1-2 in 2008 as the works-supported BMW Sauber team. The Swiss outfit is now back among the privateers, with the venerable Peter Sauber at the helm of his quiet and dedicated band of crew members based in the sleepy town of Hinwil.
The team has rarely made waves and the last time it really shook up the establishment was in 2001 when a certain Kimi Räikkönen was driving for the team – the outfit finished a giddy fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
But the team’s history has been a modicum of midfield consistency and anonymity: it will usually start out the season well with a brace of points’ finishes, and then fade into obscurity as the season wears on, and the money starts to run out.
The drive might be a flash in the pan, or it might be an indicator that Pérez and Sauber – a driver/car combination with an unheralded ability to nurse its tyres better than anyone else in the field – are a force to be reckoned with in 2012. Pérez is a Ferrari Academy driver, let’s not forget, and what better way to audition for a seat at Maranello with a giant-killing performance like this.
Contrastingly, what a predictably dire weekend for Felipe Massa. When compared with Alonso’s sensational performances over the last two weekends, Massa is all at sea and it’s little wonder that the calls for his sacking are growing louder and louder. Granted, the F2012 car is a very bad one, but Massa is clearly nowhere near Alonso’s calibre – what on earth has happened to the man who gave the 2008 championship such a shakeup?
Let’s face it, rain is a great equaliser and it allows bad cars – of which the F2012 is a classic example – to close the performance deficit to the front of the field. Starting from eighth place, Alonso drove 56 masterful laps to overcome the handicap of his car and show everyone that he’s as good as, if not better than, the rest of the field.
The afternoon’s racing began – too late in the day, we’ll still add – with some parts of the circuit wet and other parts dry. Most drivers – bar those right at the back of the field – opted for the intermediate tyres as a compromise.
McLaren team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button converted their front-row starts into an early 1-2 in the race, while Romain Grosjean might a lightning getaway to vault into an early third place.
But the Frenchman was too overeager in the conditions, and unfortunately we saw the 2009-spec Grosjean in action and on his way to a not-unexpected retirement. First, he clattered into Michael Schumacher at Turn 4 (which sent both into spins on the opening lap), but in trying to make up lost ground, he would spin off the track and into retirement on Lap 5. In all, he’s completed just five racing laps this season, and remains the only driver in the field yet to finish a race.
By the end of the opening lap, Alonso and Pérez were fifth and seventh respectively, although Pérez would dive for the pits at the end of the opening tour to put on some full wet tyres. This compound would become the preferred choice for much of the field as the heavens opened.
Only the McLarens would remain in front of Pérez after the frontrunners had peeled into the pits for new tyres, such was the Sauber driver’s pace on the water-friendly rubber. And when the red flags came out when conditions became torrential, fifth-placed Alonso split the two Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.
After a painfully long one-hour stoppage, the racing resumed behind the safety car, which peeled into the pits at the start of Lap 14.
By now, the track was ready for intermediate tyres once again, and it was a canny Button who followed the Safety Car into the pits to put on the intermediate tyre, a move that allowed him to leapfrog Hamilton when he and Alonso pitted on the next lap.
Hamilton’s pit stop was slower, allowing Alonso ahead of him as well, and he lost another place when Pérez pitted and emerged in front of him a lap later.
It seemed as though Button was in prime position to claim back-to-back wins, but he promptly knocked himself out of contention when he clobbered the back of Narain Karthikeyan – who had briefly climbed to the unbelievable heights of tenth place during the stoppage – at Turn 9. A trip to the pits once again, and Button would eventually finish a distant fourteenth, after being unable to make his tyres work on the conditions.
Alonso now led from Pérez, and the remaining laps were all about this leading duo as Hamilton tried (and failed) to match them for pace.
At just over half-distance, Pérez trailed Alonso by over seven seconds. The track was beginning to dry and the balance started to swing in Pérez’s favour: the Mexican put the hammer down and slashed the gap to less than one second over the next ten laps.
At the end of Lap 42 and with the track almost dry, Alonso pitted for slicks, but Sauber made the decision to keep Pérez out one lap longer. That decision and a sticky clutch as he left his pit box meant that Pérez trailed Alonso by over seven seconds once again as he emerged from the pits with it all to do again.
Running on newer hard-compound tyres in contrast to Fernando’s scrubbed medium-compound set, Pérez rapidly closed down the gap once again.
A radio call – urging Pérez not to risk second place and the 18 points that went with it for a rash move on Alonso – sparked suggestions that Sauber (a Ferrari customer) wouldn’t be allowed to battle with the works Ferrari team, but all parties later denied it.
In the end, it became academic when Pérez had a minor moment at Turn 14 on Lap 50, blowing the gap back out. He ran out of time to challenge Alonso for the lead and what would have been a sensational win.
For the other teams, Mark Webber finished fourth again, closing on third-placed Hamilton in the final laps. Clearly the Red Bull RB8 isn’t quite a match for the faster McLaren, and perhaps this is what is bringing out frustration in the usually unflappable Sebastian Vettel, who had a right royal tantrum after his own collision with Karthikeyan during the race as he lapped the HRT driver. Incredibly it was Karthikeyan who was penalised, despite many believing that Vettel was the man at fault…
Despite its qualifying promise and Michael Schumacher’s best grid position to-date in the Mercedes since his return to the sport, the ‘Silver Arrows’ is struggling for race pace and seems to have a penchant for chewing through its rear tyres – the same problem that afflicted its predecessor. Despite his first-lap incident, Schumacher scraped a point with tenth place, while Nico Rosberg could only manage twelfth as he munched his way through several sets of intermediate tyres.
While Kimi Räikkönen drove sensibly to claim fifth place for Lotus, there were plaudits for his fellow Renault engine runner Bruno Senna, who finished sixth for Williams, giving the Grove team more points in one race than it had achieved in the whole of 2011.
Despite his first-lap contact with team-mate Pastor Maldonado (who was running in the points when he retired on the penultimate lap with an engine failure), Senna showed the same wet-weather feel reminiscent of his late uncle on his charge through the field to claim an excellent sixth place.
Force India was the only team to get both of its drivers in the points, with Paul di Resta finishing seventh and Nico Hülkenberg in ninth – the pair sandwiching Toro Rosso driver Jean-Éric Vergne, who claimed his first-ever points’ finish.
2012 Malaysian Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (56 laps):
|1.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari F2012||56||2:44:51.812|
|2.||Sergio Pérez||Sauber Ferrari C31||56||+ 2.263|
|3.||Lewis Hamilton||McLaren Mercedes MP4-27||56||+ 14.591|
|4.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing Renault RB8||56||+ 17.688|
|5.||Kimi Räikkönen||Lotus F1 Renault E20||56||+ 29.456|
|6.||Bruno Senna||Williams Renault FW34||56||+ 37.667|
|7.||Paul di Resta||Force India Mercedes VJM05||56||+ 44.412|
|8.||Jean-Éric Vergne||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR7||56||+ 46.985|
|9.||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India Mercedes VJM05||56||+ 47.892|
|10.||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes AMG F1 W03||56||+ 49.996|
|11.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing Renault RB8||56||+ 1:15.527|
|12.||Daniel Ricciardo||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR7||56||+ 1:16.828|
|13.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes AMG F1 W03||56||+ 1:18.593|
|14.||Jenson Button||McLaren Mercedes MP4-27||56||+ 1:19.719|
|15.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari F2012||56||+ 1:39.319|
|16.||Vitaly Petrov||Caterham Renault CT01||55||1 lap behind|
|17.||Timo Glock||Marussia Racing Cosworth MR01||55||1 lap behind|
|18.||Heikki Kovalainen||Caterham Renault CT01||55||1 lap behind|
|19.||Pastor Maldonado||Williams Renault FW34||54||Engine|
|20.||Charles Pic||Marussia Racing Cosworth MR01||54||2 laps behind|
|21.||Pedro de la Rosa||HRTF1 Cosworth F112||54||2 laps behind|
|22.||Narain Karthikeyan*||HRTF1 Cosworth F112||54||2 laps behind|
|DNF.||Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber Ferrari C31||58||+ 36.766|
|DNF.||Romain Grosjean||Lotus F1 Renault E20||1||Collision|
|Kimi Räikkönen||Lotus F1 Renault E20||53||1:40.722|
* Denotes post-race drive-through penalty applied for ‘causing an avoidable collision’ with Sebastian Vettel
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