Sebastian Vettel won the Malaysian Grand Prix after ignoring instructions and passing team-mate Mark Webber.
The Red Bull racing driver took his 27th Grand Prix victory to move up to equal sixth on the all-time win list, level with Jackie Stewart. He crossed the line four seconds ahead of team-mate Mark Webber, who in turn was seven seconds ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. The podium was subdued, however as Vettel admitted to ignoring Red Bull’s orders to hold station behind Webber. Hamilton, meanwhile, had the opposite problem: Rosberg has obeyed Mercedes’ instructions to stay behind, instead of racing the 2008 World Champion.
The race began on Intermediate tyres. A downpour before the start had left the track wet but drying quickly. Vettel got away well from pole position and held his lead. Fernando Alonso jumped into second but made contact with Vettel and the damage sustained would see him skate into the gravel a lap later, his race over.
Webber jumped into second place, with Hamilton third, Jenson Button an excellent fourth and Nico Rosberg fifth as Felipe Massa dropped back. Rosberg battled past Button before the drying track triggered a round of early pit stops. Vettel and Massa both pitted on lap five, followed by much of the field on laps six and seven. Webber, though, stayed out until lap seven, pulling away from the dry runners who were still struggling around some corners. When the Australian did rejoin, it was in the lead.
The front four began to pull away, driving their own private race as Button dropped back. His day would get much worse, however, when a loose front-left wheel nut cost him a minute in the pits, leaving the Briton a lap down.
That looked like being the last dramatic incident of the race. Vettel briefly dropped behind Hamilton after their third stops but soon took the place back with a DRS pass on lap 38. The leaders battled until a fourth and final stop but at that point the leading pairs seemed to have called off their intra-team battles. Rosberg repeatedly asked his pitwall for permission to attack Hamilton but was his team refused and the Englishman recorded his first podium finish for Mercedes.
“I think Nico deserved to be where I am right now,” said Hamilton. “He drove a much smarter and much more controlled race than I did today.”
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls appeared to have been asked to nurse their cars to the finish – turning down the engines and protecting the tyres. However, Vettel wasn’t settling for second place. He attacked Webber and after some torrid wheel-to-wheel action, muscled his way past to eventually take his third Malaysian Grand Prix win.
On the podium and in interviews later, Vettel admitted the move had been wrong and apologised to Webbe and the team for his actions. “I messed up today,” he conceded. “I would love to come up with a nice excuse as to why I did it, but I can’t. I can understand Mark’s frustration and the team not being happy with what I did; I owe an explanation to him and the whole team. I will try to explain to them later.
“I got the call and I ignored it,” he added. “Mark and I are used to fighting each other when we’re close, but with the tyres how they are now, and not knowing how long they will last, it was an extremely big risk to ignore the call to stay second.
“We could have ended up finishing eighth or ninth after destroying the tyres in those two laps; I put myself above a team decision, which was wrong. I didn’t mean to and I apologise. I’m not happy I’ve won, I made a mistake and if I could undo it I would. It’s not easy right now and I owe apologies to Mark and the team.”
Webber spoke in measured tones that did little to hide his anger. “After the last stop the team told me the race was over. We turned the engine down and we go to the end. I want to race as well – but in the end the team made a decision: we look after the tyres, get the car to the end. But in the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection and that’s the way it goes.”
Behind the leaders, Felipe Massa took fifth place for Ferrari, charging back through the field in the closing stages on newer tyres. He led home the Lotus pair of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Räikkönen. Nico Hülkenberg got his season started for Sauber with eighth place, Sergio Pérez took ninth for McLaren and Jean-Eric Vergne scored his and Toro Rosso’s first point of the year with tenth.