Sepang, 24 March – Felipe Massa fought back strongly after slipping down the order from his front row start position, to bring home valuable points for fifth place. Fernando Alonso’s 200th Grand Prix is not one he will care to remember, as it lasted only just over a lap, before ending in the gravel. Sebastian Vettel headed home a Red Bull Racing one-two ahead of Mark Webber. Completing the podium was Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes.
Inevitably here in Sepang, the rain appeared minutes before the cars were due to leave the shelter of the garages, so the Intermediate and Extreme rain tyres were prepared, as the rain intensified. It was heavy in parts and several cars went off the track on their way to the grid, which resembled a strange Garden Party as all the teams erected temporary tents over their cars. With 15 minutes to the start, the rain began to ease, turning to a light drizzle, as team strategists faced the traditional Malaysian puzzle.
Along with the other 20 drivers, Felipe and Fernando opted to start on the Intermediates. It seemed the best choice as the cars threw up plumes of spray on the parade lap. As the lights went out, Vettel led from pole, Fernando got ahead of Felipe, but Webber in the other Red Bull nearly passed the Spanish Ferrari driver, as Felipe dropped to fifth behind Hamilton in the Mercedes, ahead of Nico Rosberg.
Trouble struck on lap 2: Fernando had fought hard to get ahead of Vettel, but the two men touched and this had caused damage to the nose on the Spaniard’s F138. On the pit wall, the thinking was to leave him out for a lap or two longer to deal with the damage, in order to change the front wing at the same time as the switch to slicks, which was imminent. But the part failed, consigning Alonso to the gravel trap on the outside of Turn 1. He signalled for the marshals to push him back on track but in vain. Meanwhile, Button in the McLaren had moved up to fourth ahead of Rosberg, with Felipe, having had a difficult opening lap, now sixth. The top three was made up of Vettel, Webber and Hamilton, but Rosberg had managed to get back in front of Button for fourth. With four laps gone, Felipe was 2 seconds behind Button.
Lap 5 and Vettel was the first to pit for slicks, followed by Felipe, who thus dropped to eighth. The track seemed very wet in sector 1. On lap 6, Sutil, Ricciardo Raikkonen, Di Resta, Maldonaldo, Van De Garde, Bianchi, Bottas all came in for slicks. Lap 7 and it was Webber, Hamilton, Button, Hulkenberg, Vergne, Perez, Pic. Hamilton made the classic “new team” mistake and at first stopped in the McLaren pit, instead of Mercedes! With the field now all on slicks, the order on lap 9 was Webber, Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg, Button, Hulkenberg, Felipe in seventh, 4 seconds down on the German Sauber driver and 22.6 behind the race leader. Behind the Brazilian, Perez, Grosjean and Raikkonen completed the top ten, all of whom were on the Medium tyre. The order hardly changed, with the most exciting battle at this point being Raikkonen’s attack in the Lotus on Perez’s McLaren for ninth spot.
The second pit stops started on lap 19, with Webber and Ricciardo. Felipe was closer to Hulkenberg in the Sauber, but eighth placed Grosjean in the Lotus was closing on the Ferrari. In fact these two came in together on lap 20 for new tyres – the Brazilian was now on the Hard Pirellis – and left pit lane in the same order. Di Resta also pitted the Force India at this time. Hamilton and Button both came in on lap 21, as did Hulkenberg and Raikkonen. Felipe was in a battle for seventh, behind Sutil in the Force India and ahead of Grosjean and Hulkenberg. Lap 22, Vettel and Rosberg, lying first and second came down pit lane, followed by Perez from sixth. Sutil had a very long stop and Felipe was sixth, 9.2 behind Button. At the front, Webber was coming under attack from his second placed team-mate, with the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg still behind the Red Bulls fighting among themselves. Button was fifth, 8.9 ahead of Felipe.
On lap 30 of 56, Hamilton was the first to three-stop, coming from fourth, followed in by race leader Webber and third placed Rosberg. Felipe was still sixth, with Hamilton five seconds ahead of him. Vettel pitted from the lead on lap 32, coming out fourth, just centimetres in front of Rosberg. Felipe made his third stop next time round, while Button now found himself temporarily leading, but on fresher tyres, Webber was able to pass him on lap 34, as Hulkenberg and Raikkonen came out of pit lane wheel to wheel after their third stops. Button then brought the McLaren into the pits but stopped the car in the middle of the pit lane with a loose wheel and had to be pushed back to the garage.
With 20 laps to go, Felipe had fought his way up to a lonely fifth, a long way off fourth placed Rosberg and around 7 ahead of Grosjean. While Webber had a 3.6 cushion over Hamilton, the Mercedes man had Vettel and Rosberg breathing down his neck. It became a Red Bull one-two at the front, as the reigning world champion got past Hamilton on lap 38. The English Mercedes driver was the first to four stop on lap 41, followed next time by Vettel and then Rosberg. Webber made his stop on 43 and just managed to get out ahead of his team-mate with the two Red Bulls running wheel to wheel for a while. Felipe was still posting good lap times and was now 6.5 behind the battling Mercedes. Hard to believe Vettel and Webber were team-mates as they fought tooth and nail for the lead, the German eventually getting ahead on lap 46. Felipe made his fourth and final pit stop on lap 48 which dropped him to eighth, right behind the Perez-Raikkonen battle and it didn’t take long for the Brazilian to dispense with the McLaren and the Lotus to get back up to sixth. On fresh rubber he was flying and with two laps to go he made his final move, passing Grosjean for fifth.
Nico Rosberg finished between the Ferrari man and the podium trio.
This result means that after two races, Scuderia Ferrari is third in the Constructors’ classification, although equal on 40 points with second placed Lotus, while Red Bull now leads. Felipe and Fernando are fifth and sixth respectively in the Drivers’ points table.