Ferrari arrived in Malaysia in a right mess in 2012. Their new car was hopelessly off the pace and it’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature made it a hard beast to tame. In the opening round of the season in Australia, Felipe Massa had qualified down in 16th place. Love him or loath him, Fernando Alonso has shown a remarkable ability to make silk purse’s out of sow’s ears down the years, and his ability to drag the best out of any car put at his disposal saw him a second faster than Massa in qualifying, but even that was only good enough for a lowly 12th on the grid. 5th in the race for Alonso with Massa crashing out meant doom and gloom prevailed at Maranello, and in Malaysia, the weakness of their car was exposed again in qualifying, with Alonso and Massa only managing 9th and 12th, with the lead Ferrari well over a second off the pace, the Ferrari looking singularly unimpressive – a midfield car at best in the early stages of the championship, with Alonso only 1 spot ahead of Sergio Perez in the Ferrari powered Sauber.
And so to the race. McLaren had locked out the front row with Lewis Hamilton ahead of Jenson Button. Michael Schumacher had rolled back the year’s with a fine performance to line up 3rd for Mercedes and Alonso’s Ferrari was well down, with both McLaren’s, Mercedes, Red Bull’s and Lotus qualifying ahead of him. On race day it was wet, with rain falling as the race got underway. At the start the McLarens led away comfortably, with Romain Grosjean in his Lotus making a flying start from 6th on the grid, squeezing between the two Red Bulls on the run down to the first corner, and swooping around Michael Schumacher on the outside of Turn 1 to take third place. The Red Bulls followed in 5th and 6th, with Alonso, 8th at the start due to a grid penalty for Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen, up to 7th after passing a slow starting Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes down to Turn 1, and was followed through by Sergio Perez in 8th. Conditions were tricky, and after a magnificent move by Mark Webber to drag his Reb Bull around Schumacher and Grosjean on the outside of Turn 3 to take third, Grosjean and Schumacher bumped each other into a spin and down the field coming out of Turn 4, and with the rain starting to get heavier, the choice of starting on inter’s suddenly looked to be less of a certainty, although parts of the circuit remained dry – so who would gamble on coming in? Only the backmarker HRT cars opted to start on full wets, with everyone else choosing inters. Sergio Perez made the call to come in for full wets at the end of lap one, as the advantage see-sawed between the inter and the full wet over the length of the circuit. The rain continued to fall, and more and more drivers started to come in for the full wets, Grosjean spun into retirement on his inters on lap 4 as his Lotus mechanics waited in the pits with wets ready, a lap too late for the Frenchman. Everyone was coming in for wets now, and Perez early move to wets proved oved to be the correct call, as the order when the stops played out saw Hamilton leading Button, but Perez having leapfrogged up to third ahead of Webber fourth and Alonso fifth. Conditions continued to deteriorate, with Perez lucky to hold station after first sliding deep into Turn 9 before flying off the track at Turn 12, Perez managing to keep it together and get back on track ahead of Webber. The safety car would be out soon followed by a red flag a few laps later as thunder and lightning shook the track. The field then waited for the weather to improve before restarting under the safety car for a few laps, the whole field now on full wets as they dried out the track. As they restarted, Vettel lined up in sixth with Jean Eric Vergne (the only runner not on wet tyres when the safety car came out) up to 7th for Toro Rosso. The main winner of the tyre lottery was Narain Karthikeyan, who’s HRT had climbed to an unbelievable 8th position before the safety car emerged, and would restart in 10th place, having been passed by Massa and Rosberg’s Mercedes after they came out on their wet tyres before the race was stopped.
When the safety car finally pulled in at the end of lap 13, Hamilton led the restart comfortably from Perez as Button dived into the pits for inters, while Alonso ran around the outside of Webber at Turn 1 and took third position on the inside into Turn 2. Vettel was briefly past teammate Webber inside Turn 4, but Webber dragged back past him on the run down to Turn 5. There was action all the way down through the bunched up field, and on the next lap Hamilton, Alonso and Webber pitted for inters, which left Sergio Perez leading the race for Sauber from Vettel’s Red Bull! Hamilton had a bad stop, coming out behind Alonso and Button. Coming under pressure from Hamilton, Button ripped off part of his front wing with a clumsy lunge from a long way back on Narain Karthikeyan on lap 15, Button looking like he forgot he was racing the HRT for position as Narain was still out on his full wets, with Hamilton easing past his team mate. The remaining cars in front (including Karthikeyan!) on full wets dived in for inters at the end of lap 15, with Button in for a new front wing, and Perez emerged just in front of Alonso as they dived into Turn 1, with a determined Alonso sensing opportunity and forcing his way past while Perez got his tyres up to temperature. Lewis Hamilton was back up to third following his poor stop. Game on! Alonso began to draw slowly clear of Perez, while Perez was able to maintain a gap back to Hamilton. Rosberg had been fourth, but began to drop down the order, with Vettel breezing past with the aid of DRS into Turn One at the start of lap 23, and Raikkonen and Webber followed by over the following laps as Rosberg’s tyres went off. Up front is was as you were, with Alonso’s lead over Perez going out to 8 seconds by lap 29 with Hamilton a further 7 seconds back, with the action in the midfield as Bruno Senna providing plenty of excitement as he stormed through the field, having dropped it on the opening lap and fallen to the back of the field. Over the next series of laps though Perez started to reel Alonso in, and with Hamilton unable to keep pace it was down to a shootout between the young Mexican in the Ferrari powered Sauber and the two time world champion for Ferrari!
Perez was banging in fast laps and managed to get on Alonso’s tail as they started lap 40, but by then the track had dried sufficiently for drivers to start to try slicks, and the teams were able to see from the cars that pitted early that slicks were indeed the way to go, and Alonso peeled into the pits at the end of the lap. Having had Perez in his mirrors, the Sauber now disappeared, Perez not following the Ferrari into the pits, instead taking the final corner as Sauber stayed conservative and kept Perez out on his inters for one more lap, not wanting to risk disaster should their driver go off the track. The move allowed Alonso breathing space, as Perez would wind up some 7 seconds down on Alonso after he had rejoined and gotten his tyres up to temperature. So with 42 of 56 laps complete Alonso had the edge, but Perez was not giving up. Perez had been fitted with the hard compound tyre by Sauber, with Alonso on the medium, and we were in for a tense finish as Perez started to pump in fastest laps as he chased the Ferrari down all over again. The battle for the driver’s championship was given an interesting twist as Sebastian Vettel dropped out of fourth place with a puncture on lap 47, Vettel sweeping close by Narain Karthikeyan as he lapped him and Narain moved across the track behind him too quickly, bursting Vettel’s left rear with his front wing. Unlike the collision with Button earlier, this time the HRT was being lapped and Karthikeyan was found the guilty party by the stewards. Vettel would finish outside the points. Up front Perez really had the bit between his teeth, and by the start of lap 50 he was right on Alonso’s tail, well within the DRS zone. Perez had his DRS open as they shot down the main straight but wasn’t close enough to make a move into Turn 1. No worry, he had plenty of laps to make a move. But then we heard the Sauber team radio, Checo by careful, we need this position. We need this position! A deliberate call to throw the race in favour of their engine supplier or the plea’s of an impoverished team that could not afford to throw away 18 valuable points for second place and the exposure of the podium? Sauber insist the latter, but either way the call could only have affected Perez concentration, and a few corners later the race was lost as Perez put his wheels on the kerb and then ran wide at Turn 14, handing Alonso a 5 second cushion as they crossed the line to begin lap 51. Perez kept trying, keeping the pressure on Alonso but there was not enough time left, and Alonso prevailed to take the win and provide relief for Ferrari and hope that 2012 would not be yet another wasted year. Hamilton came home in third, with Webber fourth and Raikkonen fifth, and Bruno Senna ending up a charging sixth for Williams after an entertaining drive through the field.