Alonso conquers the rain at the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix
Double world champion Fernando Alonso sealed victory for Ferrari in the rain affected 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix ahead of a spirited Sergio Perez. Alonso had to fend off a late race charge from the Mexican’s Sauber in an event red flagged for over an hour due to treacherous track conditions. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line in third after starting from pole position. Alonso relied on his typically fiery driving style and perfectly timed pit-stops from Ferrari to take the chequered flag after 56 nail biting laps of the Sepang International Circuit.
Earlier in the afternoon, all cars started the race on Intermediate tyres after rain began to pour down minutes before the start, except for both the HRT drivers who strapped on the full Wet tyres. Lewis Hamilton led from team-mate Jenson Button into the first corner as Lotus’s Romain Grosjean sneaked up to third ahead of Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Mercedes’s Michael Schumacher. At the exit of turn 4 on Lap 1, Grosjean tagged Schumacher into a spin and dropped the latter far down the field. As rain continued, grip levels fell apart significantly at various points on the track, prompting the Sauber team strategists to bring in Perez for a set of full Wet tyres at the end of Lap 1. Laps 2 to 4 saw almost all cars switching to the Wets. Button pitted a lap earlier than race leader Hamilton, the latter still managing to rejoin just in front of his team-mate. Perez, having taken early advantage, was now up to third.
With puddles of water on track the cars began to aquaplane. Grosjean lost his rear end on lap 4 and skidded off into the gravel. Race Control deployed the Safety Car on Lap 7, which led the field in formation for a lap. Eventually, the race was red flagged with all cars coming to a halt, holding their track positions, on the start finish straight. After a long wait, Race Director Charlie Whiting deemed the rain light enough for a Safety Car restart. Wet tyres being an imperative under a Safety Car start, the only driver who had stuck to Intermediates all through, Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne, received a free tyre change without having to pit. This promoted him to eighth. With the rain fading away, most teams planned a shift to Intermediate tyres again as the Safety Car pulled in on Lap 13 and the field was led back to racing speed by Hamilton. Behind him, Button came in for his tyre change at the end of Lap 12 followed by an array of midfield cars. Most of the front runners, except Perez and Sebastian Vettel, followed suit after Button set the fastest middle sector time of anyone on his out lap. Alonso, in the meanwhile, passed Webber to take third on Lap 14.
As Hamilton and Alonso pitted at the same time, the latter managed to get a jump on the race leader as McLaren found their pit release compromised due to pit lane traffic and lost precious seconds. He joined behind Alonso but ahead of Button as Perez led the race from Vettel. One lap later, both Perez and Vettel dived into the pit lane making it tight between Perez’s release and the fast approaching Alonso. Even as Perez came out just ahead of Alonso, the Ferrari man got a neat overtaking manoeuvre to stick on the Mexican and seized the race lead. Button, meanwhile, clipped his front wing against the rear tyre of an HRT while attempting a brave passing move. He pitted again to change his nose but started to complain about “shuddering” front tyres as he got back out on track. Insisting on another tyre change, his race was effectively over due to the incident.
Through laps 22 to 26, Alonso set five consecutive fastest laps and went on to pull out a 7.7 seconds lead over Perez by lap 30. Perez was faster than Hamilton and ran 7.7 seconds ahead of him. Further down the road, Mercedes’s Nico Rosberg clung on to fourth place following a continued run on wet tyres after the safety car restart. He blocked Vettel behind him for a while until the latter pulled of a nerve wracking move through the outside of turn 1 on lap 23. Rosberg eventually pitted and rejoined in sixteenth place. On lap 30, third placed Hamilton had 8.4 seconds on Vettel, who in turn led Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen by 7.3 seconds. Webber was right on Kimi’s tail, within a second of the Finn.
Perez’s battle with Alonso essentially began on lap 30 as he tried to close the gap. The two front runners traded lap after fastest lap, with Perez trumping Alonso almost every single time in a faster Sauber. As he brought the gap down to 5.7 seconds by lap 33, a dry racing line was beginning to emerge on track. On lap 36, Perez banged in a fastest 1:54.738. Alonso immediately responded with a 1:54.7 only to see it slashed with a 1:54 dead from the Sauber driver. By lap 37, the gap was 3.2 seconds as the epic prospect of a wheel to wheel fight between a double world champ and a super talented youngster beckoned with 20 laps left to run.
Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo was the first to change into slick tyres on lap 38. Even as Ricciardo became the fastest driver on lap 39, Perez had closed down to 1.3 seconds of Alonso. Most of the midfield got onto slicks. Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel pitted on lap 40 as McLaren and Sauber decided to keep Hamilton and Perez out on track for one extra lap. When they rejoined, both had lost time with Alonso now 5.7 seconds ahead of Perez. The relentless Sauber driver kept at it though, and got the gap down to 2.3 seconds by lap 46. On lap 47, Vettel collided with Narain Karthikeyan, puncturing his rear tyre against the front wing of the HRT and shredding it dramatically on his way to the pits.
The big moment came on lap 50 when Perez really shifted into attack mode, right on Alonso’s rear wing. The latter being no mug at defending either, things were getting dicey as the worried Sauber engineers radioed their driver and advised him to be careful; stressing the importance of a second place for the team. In the same lap, Perez slid wide off the track at turn 14 after losing grip and lost the advantage to Alonso. Luckily, he had put enough tarmac between himself and Hamilton to hold onto second.
As the overjoyed Spaniard roared his Ferrari V8 across the finish line to the collective cheer of the Ferrari team, it was a spirited Sergio Perez who had risen to the occasion on the day. Hamilton came in a distant third. They were followed by Mark Webber and a feisty Kimi Raikkonen in fourth and fifth. Bruno Senna brought much joy to the Williams team with his sixth place after being down in 22nd initially. Senna’s team-mate Pastor Maldonado suffered an engine failure on lap 54 and handed tenth place to Schumacher. Between them Force India’s Paul DiResta and Nico Hulkenberg finished seventh and ninth respectively, sandwiching the Torro Rosso of Vergne in eighth place.
After an unusual race, Alonso and Ferrari have conceded that they are under no illusions about the shortcomings of the car. They will, however, drawn further motivation from this result to max out their development over the coming months. With Felipe Massa finishing fifteenth amidst ever increasing criticism about his place in the team, the general paddock consensus is that Perez is all set to take over from Massa as Alonso’s understudy at Ferrari by 2013. Speculation apart, 2012 has so far been intense yet unpredictable. With Australia slated as an uncharacteristic track and Malaysia providing rain, the attention now shifts to Shanghai for the Chinese GP on April 15. Most of the front-running teams are working flat out on bringing major upgrades to China. Alonso leads the championship from Hamilton and Button, but for how long? Till the five red lights go out in China, F1 fans await.