Fernando Alonso took an improbable victory for Ferrari in the Malaysian Grand Prix, judging changeable conditions to perfection, crossing the line with Sauber’s Sergio Pérez a close second.
Trailing the pair, who fought a captivating battle against the clock in the second half of the race, came pole position man Lewis Hamilton, narrowly ahead of Mark Webber. Kimi Räikkönen was fifth, Bruno Senna an excellent sixth, Paul di Resta seventh, Jean-Eric Vergne scored his first F1 points in eighth, Nico Hulkenberg was ninth and Michael Schumacher took the final point for tenth.
Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel, first and second in Australia, both failed to score after eventful races. The race was dominated by weather. A shower shortly before the scheduled start at 4pm had the majority of the grid lining up on Intermediate tyres but a forecast thunderstorm hit soon after the start and the pitlane was busy as cars came in for full wets. As the storm intensified the safety car appeared and finally the red flags came out and the race was halted after eight laps.
With the grid reformed and sheltering under umbrellas and tents, the McLaren pair of Hamilton and Button had maintained their positions at the front, though the big winner from the early exchange was Pérez, the Sauber driver had pitted early for the full wet tyres and as a result had climbed up to third. Michael Schumacher, the man who started third, had been spun by Romain Grosjean and catapulted down the field. Grosjean himself went out three laps later, beached in the gravel. Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel held fourth, fifth and sixth places at the break.
The restart was taken on mandatory full wet tyres and the McLarens once again got away cleanly but everything changed around in the pitstops. Button pitted early, on lap 13, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel passed Mark Webber on track. Hamilton, Webber and Alonso all pitted on lap 14. Pérez and Vettel stopped a lap later. Hamilton’s stop had been slow, and Button’s possibly a few laps too early for the Inters. It left the McLaren’s behind Alonso and Pérez when everything shook out. Button had the satisfaction of being in front of his team-mate but that lasted less than a lap as his race went wrong when he collided with the yet-to-stop HRT of Narain Karthikeyan in what was an unlikely battle for position. It elevated Hamilton into third.
With no rain falling but the track very wet, a long stint on the Inters ensued. Alonso initially had a big lead over Pérez but the Mexican began to reel him in. Approaching 20 laps into the stint Pérez was getting very close but a bigger issue was timing a pitstop. The track had dried sufficiently to make slicks viable but radar was forecasting more rain to come. Everyone tried to delay the decision but eventually had to stop.
They all opted for slicks. Alonso went first on Lap 40, Pérez followed a lap later on 41 – Alonso managed to stay in front. Pérez wasn’t done and closed to within a second but didn’t have the straightline speed to take advantage of DRS, instead he pushed in the middle sector and ran off the road. He had to settle for second position but Sauber, with their best-ever result as an independent team, were jubilant at the chequered flag nonetheless.
“I have to say the team has done an incredible job,” said Pérez. “They called me always at the right time, especially for the first pitstop, it was really at the right moment. Unfortunately towards the end of the race Fernando pitted one lap earlier than us, when the track was already dry and he opened a gap there. The pace was fantastic, I was really quick. I have to say many thanks to the team, they have done a great job and I’m very happy for them.”
Hamilton had an untroubled run to the final podium place, while Webber took advantage of a puncture suffered by Vettel in the closing stages that threw the World Champion out of the points. Fernando Alonso leaves Malaysia the surprise leader of the world championship.
“Today, was one of the races that easily you can make a DNF because the conditions were quite difficult. So we stay calm, we try to do the best job we can and I think the team did, again, a fantastic job, not only preparing the race but the weekend in general,” said Alonso in the official FIA press conference. “ In the race [we had] a perfect start and perfect pit stops, at the right time. We cannot ask any more of today’s race.”