Sergio Perez was the star on Sunday

Sergio Perez was the star on Sunday, photo by Nic Redhead

It looked like a race McLaren would dominate based on form and qualifying, behind was where the most exciting racing was expected with the Mercedes, Lotus and Red Bulls fighting for the last podium place but the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix didn’t work out quite that way; it was in fact McLaren who took the final podium spot and the Ferrari and Sauber who despite being expected to be fighting for the minor points positions took the first and second steps of the podium respectively.

 

Things could have been very different had it not begun raining just before the race started, meaning a start on intermediates and even then it was the increasing intensity of the rain that really mixed things up with some cars getting the point to switch tyres just right, some leaving it a little too late, in the case of Jean Eric Vergne not changing from intermediates at all and in the case of Karthikeyan starting on wets meaning that when the race, already behind a safety car, was red flagged Vergne was 7th and Karthikeyan was 10th.

 

The start had gone well for the McLarens, both got away well with Button briefly challenging Hamilton into turn 1 but backing off at the right moment, fine judgement that would later seem lacking.  Behind them Schumacher kept position and backed the Red Bulls up into following traffic giving the McLarens a little breathing space at turn 1 but Grosjean was already coming through and was soon in third with Schumacher dropping back, Webber passing Grosjean though then sent him back to the point where he caught Schumacher and both spun and lost a lot of places.

 

At the end of the first lap it was the McLarens from the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber ahead of Alonso, Perez had been 6th at the final corner but he went straight in for wet tyres despite only parts of the track being truly wet. As the next few laps passed more cars came in for wets, Grosjean didn’t and went off while his team waited in the pits for his arrival. The wet middle sector giving them an advantage and comparable times to those on intermediates over the course of a lap as the balance tipped though Button came in and instantly looked fast on the wets getting past Schumacher on intermediates. Hamilton came in the next lap and only just made it out in front of Button, the time lost by Button behind Schumacher probably making the difference; this was at the end of lap 5 and though things seemed to have worked well for the McLarens, waiting to pit, Perez seemed to have benefitted from pitting early getting up to third place once others had pitted.

 

The race was neutralised going into lap 7 when a safety car came out, though a red flag showed up as a race control message, perhaps due to a brief loss of power thanks to a lightning hit. On lap 9 the race was finally red flagged with cars aquaplaning even behind the safety car.

 

One thing you can say for Tilke is he is able to design a track that drains well and the track was ready to see a race restart behind the safety car while the rain had barely stopped and a total of around 40 minutes since the race was red flagged.  For four laps the cars went round behind the safety car,  helping clear a dry line and at the end of lap 13 things got under way again with Hamilton doing a good job of backing the pack up and bolting;  already though it was clear that changes to inters might not be too far away and that picking your moment would be vital, especially for drivers driving toe to toe with their teammates.

 

Several cars, getting on for half the field, bolted for the pits straight away, around half the field in fact, Button and Rosberg were among those who pitted for intermediates straight away while Hamilton led followed by Perez, and then Webber and Alonso wheel to wheel with Alonso getting the better of Webber.

 

The field was now in two parts with Hamilton leading those yet to pit and Button the second group; next lap almost the whole of the rest of the field pitted but importantly not Perez or Karthikeyan. It was perhaps the better time to pit for Hamilton a lap after Button but Hamilton over shot his pit box and had a delayed stop, delayed further waiting for a slow moving Massa to pass in front to enter his pit box. This let not only Button come past in front of him but also saw Alonso leave the pits before Hamilton; had Ferrari planned that Massa would delay Hamilton to let Alonso get out first or was that luck?

 

While some of the cars out front had yet to pit the battle of the cars that would end up at the sharp end of the race once everything shook out looked to be Alonso followed by Button and Hamilton with it still being unclear where Perez and Vettel would slot in and whether they were now gaining or losing time by being on wets for a lap longer.

 

Kathikeyan was in 7th having not had a single pitstop before or after the red flag, Button was chasing Alonso and keen not to lose time this led to a collision that would be to all intents and purposes the end of Button’s race: watching him struggle from the back for the rest of the afternoon you almost wished he had been put out of the race and put out of his misery. It took an age to change Button’s front wing and this as well as putting him to the back the wait may have been what led to the cooling of his tyres that he then struggled to heat up again or it may have been getting stuck on his charge through the field behind Maldonado.

 

Perez had been leading prior to stopping for intermediates and he managed one of those rare things for someone used to running in the midfield a pitstop that only loses you one place: that place was to Alonso and he now sat in second ahead of Hamilton.

 

The race continued with cars on intermediates while the track dried with several messages about rain showers on the way, Senna and Kobayshi seemed to be on the move and Vettel passed Rosberg who started slipping back soon to be behind Raikonnen and Webber as well.  Massa was another driver to fade and slip back from the bottom of the points having chosen to pit for new intermediates, he would later cause Button trouble getting past as Massa nearly drove Button off the track.

 

With the excitement of the first two sets of tyre stops the change to slicks was expected to be a major point in the race that could change everything again, but it didn’t, at least not for the top three.  By lap 33 it was looking high time to change to slicks and with cars looking for moisture to cool their tyres it seemed odd someone didn’t try earlier but the weather forecasts predicted showers that never came, except a few drops in the last couple of laps.  Ricciardo was the first to blink, struggling anyway he was watched carefully when he changed on to mediums on lap 38; Massa was used as a Guinea Pig by Ferrari a lap later and after that it became clear that the slicks were the tyres to be on and most changed by lap 41, though the choice of hards or mediums was mixed. Alonso pitted on lap 40 with Perez close behind him on track having closed him down over the last dozen laps, Perez left it a lap later and lost probably around five seconds.

 

The rest of the afternoon for the top three saw Perez drawing Alonso back in, getting within a second by lap 49 with potentially 8 chances before the race ended to use DRS, he only had tried once though when he made a mistake went wide and lost five seconds;         still well ahead of Hamilton he started closing in on Alonso again before holding position to the end for a fantastic first podium and first second place for the Sauber team who, excluding their time as BMW, had only managed third places or lower before, despite having managed third place no less than 6 times.

 

Hamilton could have been unhappy with only third but it put him second in the championship, behind Alonso who had finished fifth in Australia. The top two going into the Malaysian Grand Prix Button and Vettel were unable to score points. Vettel had looked good for fourth place before following Button in colliding with Karthikeyan. Vettel it is good to see is human and does make mistakes still; he didn’t leave Karthikeyan enough room to stay on the dry part of the track, moving across a few feet too early.

 

While Button after the race seemed forthright and accepted his mistake causing a collision, Vettel seemed to verge on abusive when giving his thoughts on the HRT driver: perhaps showing the strain being in a less competitive car is putting on Sebastian while Button seems to have continued his strong yet easy going mindset from 2011: although his collision was a rare error, that had conditions not been difficult people might have seen as desperation.

 

Drivers well worth a mention for their Sunday afternoon performances, other than Alonso and Perez, include Senna who did a great job and looked very racey, at last showing why he got himself noticed in GP2 what seems like a long time ago now, and for those that missed it it wasn’t just his name. Mark Webber had a reasonable afternoon as well looking the equal to Sebastian Vettel most of the afternoon and avoiding any mistakes. Then there is Kobayshi, often worthy of a mention, having started the race 17th and worked his way up to 10th before retiring due to brake problems.

 

Raikonnen and Di Resta also looked solid in the middle of the points positions keeping consistent pace to pick up a few places. Jean-Eric Vergne managed his first points in F1, having narrowly missed out the week before in Australia; the strategy presumably handed to him helped but he made it work including staying out on Intemediates while experienced drivers such as Vettel went off track on full wets. Later in the race Vergne kept a good pace while surrounded by what should have been faster cars to finish 8th.

 

This 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix  has made the championship more interesting than it could have been if McLaren had got a one two, which they were probably fast enough to do had everything gone to plan. In China McLaren may dominate again and start to pull away as many have expected them too but it could be they have missed a chance and that several teams will have updates for China and their advantage will be gone.