Sunday’s 2012 Malaysian F1 GP was a race of two halves: nine or so laps dominated by the McLaren pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button who had locked out the front row of the second successive race; then, after an extended rain-stopped-play red-flag period, a race to the end of the 56-lap race between Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, and coming man Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez in the similarly powered Sauber.
RENCKEN: Sepang rain and pain
For a handful of laps it looked promising: the Mexican closed in on the double World champion at the rate of a second per lap, then disaster: in 10 years Peter Sauber will still rue the moment his rookie slid wide and off the Sepang track, thereby losing all hope of a shock victory for the elderly Swiss’s beleaguered team.
True, Perez did himself and his outfit extremely proud on a day when even the best of the best battled to keep it together under trying conditions, but the bottom line is that he tossed away all hope of a maiden victory with that slip five laps from the end.
“Twice in the race I was catching Fernando,” he explained. “On the final stint, when I was on the hard tyre compound, my tyres had degraded quite a lot. It wasn’t easy and I went wide and touched a kerb. I was not to have gone off.”
However, the mere fact that after the second race of 20 in the 2012 World championship the entire paddock was abuzz about a win lost rather than Sauber’s highest-yet finish – excluding results during the BMW Sauber era – is indicative of how highly the 22-year-old, in his second F1 season, is rated.
Taking on Alonso on the same tyres, with the same power train – Sauber buys in complete Ferrari back ends, down to suspension geometry – is no mean feat; carving a second a lap out of the most relentless driver on the grid, pre-race on Sunday reckoned by triple champion Sir Jackie Stewart to be the best on the grid, is plain incredible.
Yes, Sauber’s masterstroke was switching Checo to full wets after the opening lap, but he still had to drive the C31. Already the word is that Perez will replace Felipe Massa sooner rather than later, given that he is a Ferrari development driver; chances are he will test in an F2012 during May’s in-season test week and could be dressed in red by Monaco, with the Brazilian going the other way to end his career where he started – at Sauber.
The day, though, belonged equally to the victor, who once again hauled a car that had no right even to qualify inTO the top 10 to line honours, again sparking comparisons with the (late) great Ayrton Senna. Ferrari pays Alonso $15-million (R100m) a year and on Sunday he surely justified his stipend.
There are three types of F1 driver: drivers who will never win; winners in winning cars; and the racers who pull wins in cars that are nowhere near top-drawer. Alonso tops last-named list, which currently has, at most, three members…
However, if the Ferrari-powered Hispanics were both winners, there were plenty of losers: Hamilton converted pole to third place for the second time in a week after his strategy went wrong for the second time in a week, while team mate Button lost his title lead after tangling with an HRT and dropping out of the points.
“It was pretty eventful race,” Hamilton said. “It was difficult trying to judge the best time to change from extreme wets to intermediates and we were probably a little late on that - that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Still, McLaren retained its constructors’ title lead, so things aren’t too bad, yet – but the team will be hoping Red Bull doesn’t get its act together for, despite a strategy screw-up, Mark Webber finished fourth to keep the reigning Constructors’ champions second on the log, 13 points behind the leaders.
His team mate, reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel, fared worse: he lost his radio. Strong communications are paramount in the constantly changing conditions and he was unable react to his engineers after being hit by a wayward HRT, causing a tyre to explode through overheating. Result: no points from a weekend which slipped from the 24-year-old from Friday onwards.
Another German to lose out was Michael Schumacher who on Saturday posted his highest qualifying slot - third - since returning to F1 in 2010. Tapped on the opening lap by fast-starting Romain Grosjean (Lotus), the seven-times champion spun down the order, thereafter facing a long afternoon as he fought back to 10th, the place given on the penultimate lap when Pastor Maldonado’s Williams cried “enough!” with a plume of smoke.
WORST IN A DECADE
Grosjean’s team mate, returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, proved he has lost none of his track skills despite a two-year stint in World rallying by driving an eventful race to fifth, followed by Bruno Senna (Williams) and Paul di Resta (Force India), who beat Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso). Like Perez, STR’s rookie benefited from a first-lap change of rubber, enabling him to do Nico Hulkenberg in the second Force India for eighth.
While Alonso’s victory relieves heaps of pressure on the team after its overall Melbourne result marked the worst start to a season by the Scuderia for more than a decade – compounded by Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo’s aspirations to run for his country’s highest office next year – the Spaniard called it right when he said his win “changed nothing”.
“Our aim was damage limitation for the early races of the championship but now we find ourselves leading the classification,” he said in the post-race media conference. “Now we absolutely have to improve the performance, starting right away with the races in China and Bahrain.
“We must get back to work immediately to find at least the two or three-tenths that could put us back in the fight for the top places.”
However, for Checo, everything has changed…