Contributor: James Parker, TJ13 on track correspondent
Sebastian Vettel has won the Malaysia Grand Prix in controversial style, as he defied RedBull team orders to hold station in the last 10 laps to overtake teammate Mark Webber and therefore claim his first win of 2013. Mercedes also landed themselves in hot water, during a hot and humid afternoon, where on track events, will dominate the following 3 weeks for all the wrong reasons in the lead up to the Chinese Grand Prix.
For the start of the Grand Prix, conditions, like Qualifying yesterday were incredibly mixed, with the start of the lap drenched in a heavy downpour (turns 3-4) whilst the majority of the circuit was relatively dry. Every driver opted to start on the Pirelli Intermediate compound, before the magic 1min 50 window presented itself during the race to switch to slicks.
Off the line, both Mark Webber (surprisingly) and Fernando Alonso made lightning starts, as the Spaniard found himself leapfrogging his teammate Massa, going around the outside of Turn 1. As the cars swung round for Turn 2, Alonso found himself “rearending” Vettel ever so slightly; causing damage to his front wing and in the chaos he lost out to the opportunist Webber.
At this point Alonso managed to claw 2nd place back, with the front wing now dangling down. It appeared certain he would pit at the end of the lap with the Ferrari mechanics waiting in anticipation. With the track drying however, Ferrari looked to hold out, to coincide the nose change with a stop for slicks as the track appeared to dry rapidly.
That all fell apart though, when at the start of lap 2, Alonso’s front wing disappeared under the Ferrari going into Turn 1, leaving the Spaniard just a passenger and out of the race – a decision I am sure Ferrari lament now.
Vettel gapped the field in all the drama, with the two Mercedes drivers of Hamilton and Rosberg closing following the two RedBulls. Further back a poor start saw Massa settle into 6th, behind a strong showing from the McLaren of Button, who had moved up to a solid 5th.
As the track dried, race leader Vettel made the bold call of bolting on a set of slick tyres, whilst his Webber decided to carry on. As Vettel rejoined he struggled in the traffic getting mugged into Turn 4, by Massa, Hulkenberg, Perez and Grojsean who were fighting in the lower top 10 positions.
It was a move which benefitted the Aussie, as when Webber rejoined 3 laps later, he found that the decision to stay on Inters was correct, coming out ahead of Vettel. The rest of the top 10 stayed pretty much status quo.
Mercedes were showing magnificent pace, even after a rather funny, unfortunate incident which saw Hamilton stop at the McLaren pit garage for his first stop by mistake. The strong lap times caused second place man Vettel, to probe the team, asking if Webber could concede 1st place as he felt he was far faster than his teammate – something which didn’t happen.
Pastor Maldonado’s season turned from bad to worse, as his Williams car was seen exiting the circuit with a KERS problem on lap 14, meaning two retirements from the first two races for the Venezuelan.
The second stops kicked off around lap 20, and it remained “follow the leader” for the top 4. Webber pitted first, switching from the harder compound to the mediums, after a flirtation with the hards in order to help the wear rate on the RedBull. Vettel pitted 2 laps later and rejoined right behind the Aussie once again.
The second stops however, appeared to be a complete disaster for both Force India drivers. Firstly Di Resta came in for his second stop of the day, however was stationary for over a minute in the pit lane as mechanics could simply not attach the front right. A wheel nut or gun issue seemed to be the case, and he rejoined well down the order in 18th.
His teammate, Sutil came in a lap later to suffer the same problems. Both cars eventually retired a lap down, which seemed to sum up the entire Force India weekend – frustration.
For the third round of pitstops, Hamilton decided to once again try something different in leapfrogging the RedBull’s as the top 4 closed to be within 5 seconds of each other. Whilst Mark responded straight away, and rejoined ahead of Hamilton, Vettel once again tried to run longer, and after his 3rd stop had been completed he found himself the meat in a Mercedes sandwich.
That did not stop Vettel however, after earlier frustration, was in no mood for games. Several laps passed and the RedBull man found himself closing in fast on the Briton – at this point starting to struggle for pace due to fuel and tyre woes.
The German sized up Hamilton down the start-finish straight and breezed past in his pursuit of Webber, with Rosberg next in line to capitalise. For Hamilton’s ex team however, the sky was no brighter, as Jenson came in for his 2nd stop whilst trying to secure a brilliant 5th place. But the team made a catastrophic error, as the McLaren man was released too early for the front left wheel to be tightened, and he found himself going down the pitlane with 3 wheels on his wagon – he too retired.
In a bid to try and stop his drop through the field, Hamilton made an early 4th stop back on to a scrubbed set of medium tyres. Ross Brawn was constantly on the radio to remind Lewis to “lift and coast” as he will was extremely marginal on fuel at this point. Rosberg rejoined behind Hamilton once again in 4th, and was quickly closing in again on his teammate.
Upfront, Vettel took the initiative as he made an earlier pitstop, reacting in most part to the Mercedes cars behind him. When Webber rejoined from his 4th stop, the pair were incredibly close going into turn 1, with both Red Bull drivers fighting all the way up to turns 4 and 5.
At this point it was revealed that both drivers were to follow a “multi 21” code by the team which would see them hold station to the chequered flag. However, 2 laps later, and with Mark Webber into “preservation” mode, the engine turned down on the car and preserving his tyres, found himself under attack by Vettel.
Getting the DRS benefit off the pitstraight, Vettel pulled alongside his teammate on the near side, coming up close and personal with pitwall, before the pair continued to squabble for 4 consecutive corners – with the German coming out on top going round the outside of Turn 4.
It was something that Webber appeared to be extremely unhappy about, gesticulating what he thought of Vettel’s move, as it seemed he had disobeyed direct team orders in passing Webber.
Further down the road, and Mercedes were having their own team problems. Hamilton, who was still struggling with fuel worries, was now evidently holding up Rosberg who passed his teammate going into the final turn, before being repassed on the pit straight.
He immediately went on to the radio, explaining that Hamilton was holding him up. Ross Brawn however repeatedly was heard telling Rosberg to hold station, and for both cars not to be risked in a battle on track – something the German was extremely frustrated about, but had the grace to accept and hold station.
All this meant Vettel crossed the finish line to take his first victory of the season, ahead of a very unhappy Webber, who clearly felt he had been cheated out of a certain victory by Vettel. Hamilton, after slowing hugely in the last 5 laps, as planned, was followed home by Rosberg to take 3rd and 4th – a good result for Mercedes.
Further down, Felipe Massa had a rather anonymous afternoon, not showing the promised Ferrari pace, with a late 4th pitstop allowing him to overtake Hulkenberg, Raikkonen and Grosjean for 5th place and another solid haul of points.
For Lotus it appeared to be a missed opportunity, as the team had the pace during the Grand Prix, however found themselves horribly out of position. Raikkonen had a hugely frustrating afternoon, finding himself tucked up behind, firstly Perez and then Hulkenberg for the majority of the Grand Prix – before passing the Sauber driver late on to claim 7th behind his teammate Grosjean.
It was a very promising afternoon for McLaren at times, as they appear to be getting to grips with the new MP4-28 finally. Button stated he felt a podium might not have been out of reach given Mercedes problems late on, and Perez, with a better qualifying could have achieved perhaps better than 9th.
But let’s not forget both rookies Bottas and Bianchi, who had sterling drivers to 11th and 13th respectively for Williams and Marussia. Both managed to conditions beautifully, and capitalised on others mistakes, Bianchi’s stock is definitely rising race by race, and it will be interesting to see if the Marussia driver can claim the teams first points as the season progresses.
But going into the 3 week break before the Chinese Grand Prix, the headlines solely look set to be dominated by the controversy caused by both Mercedes and RedBull. Team orders are very much still part of Formula 1 and I am sure Sebastian Vettel will have a lot of explaining to do, not only to his team, but also Webber. For the Aussie, it looks set to be the final straw for a team in which his relationship with has been stretched to its limit – has it reached breaking point?