F1: Round 2 – Sepang, Malaysia – 5 April

After all the off-track events for F1 since Australia, it seemed a slender hope that the Malaysian GP could match it for on-track drama. But it did, thanks to the ever-popular special guest star F1 sometimes brings in – the rain. And the rain in Malaysia is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The race started with a sluggish getaway from Jenson Button, who was struggling to stay alongside Jarno Trulli going into the first turn. But both were outdone by a spectacular performance from Nico Rosberg who sailed past them both from the second row of the grid and easily swept into the first turn in the lead thanks to a light fuel load.

Button made a tactical error by trying to go around trulli on the outside of turn 1, which was never going to work and left him vulnerable to also getting overtaken by Fernando Alonso slipping through in Trulli’s wake. Button redeemed himself by overtaking Alonso with a sweeping move on turn 13 of lap 2, and Alsono – with a heavy fuel load – was soon being overtaken by multiple lighter cars in the following laps, starting with Rubens Barrichello, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber.

Heikki Kovalainen lost his McLaren on lap 2 when it became unstable off the racing line and snapped suddenly to the right into the gravel. Robert Kubica was also a quick retirement – he had complained from the formation lap of a deathly sounding engine, and by lap 4 it had become terminal. When he parked up, you could see the flames licking the bodywork.

Sebastian Vettel was one of the movers in the field in the first laps, running the lightest fuel load of all (he came in on lap 15) and hence able to overtake the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nick Heidfeld with ease. However, the gamble on early rain – which would have negated the need for the early pit stop – didn’t work out for the team and when he emerged back on track he was running in 17th place.

But increasingly, the prospect of rain was starting to dominate everyone’s thoughts. There were incredibly dark clouds rolling over the horizon, and the teams’ weather systems were flagging rain in 10 minutes … or 12 … or … The rain was playing coy and refusing to show up on schedule, but it was coming all the same. And it was throwing thunder and lightning around as well – it was going to get very interesting.

The teams hoping that the rain would show up within the first half hour were left disappointed: there was no sign of rain by lap 18 when they came into the pits, and almost everyone resumed on the preferred soft option tyres.

This left Jenson Button in the lead for two laps after Rosberg and Trulli came in; and he put them to the best use possible, putting in two scorching laps which, combined with a short-filled fuel load, put him out on track comfortably ahead of Rosberg to claim the lead once all the pit stops had cycled through. Any dismay at the sluggish start was well and truly banished.

Of course, all this could still be completely upset by the weather if it started to rain now. The black clouds overhead seemed to psyche out Ferrari, who inexplicably put Kimi Raikkonen out on full wets onto a totally dry track on lap 19. If it had poured down at that point then Kimi would have walked away with it: but the rain stubbornly refused to fall and Kimi cooked the wet tyres in a matter of minutes, plummeting down the running order to 14th until he came back in to rectify the situation, Sebastien Bourdais and Giancarlo Fisichella also made the same error.

Shortly after the pit stops, the rain did start to fall – at a most un-Malaysian light rate. The sight of Fernando Alonso putting the Renault off the track at turn 6 on lap 23 was enough to convince the entire field that they really did have to come in and pit rather than be caught out mid-lap in monsoon conditions, and so there was a mad scramble for the pit lane tor wet or intermediate tyres.

The inters were a desperate gamble: if it rained like it usually does at Sepang (and like it had at the start of the morning’s GP2 affair) then the cars were going to fly off the track almost instantly. But the rain wasn’t coming down that badly, and suddenly the inters were looking like a stroke of genius – Timo Glock in particular was scything through the field. The Red Bulls were also performing incredibly well in these tricky, changeable circumstances while the other like the Williams and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren were really quite wretched.

Sure enough, the teams could see the success of Toyota’s intermediates strategy (especially as Glock sailed past his team mate Jarno Trulli who was labouring on the wets) and by lap 28/29 almost everyone was streaming back into the pits for inters themselves and it was now the Brawns that stood out well at this point of the race. Only Nick Heidfeld was left still out there on full wets.

Phew. This was tense, hectic stuff with no one sure what was going to happen next or who would come out on top.

And then the rain started to increase. By lap 31, it was – ironically – Timo Glock and Toyota who were the quickest to read the situation accurately, coming back in for full wets after setting the earlier trend for inters. Within seconds, the rain shifted from “heavy” to “extreme” and there was no question that everyone would have to come in to the pits for full wet tyres. There was lightning and thunder, which several times hit the grandstand and also knocked out the communications systems for several seconds.

Even so, within just a few minutes more the volume of rain was such that the cars were struggling to get through several inches of standing water that reached over the bottom of the cars. Replays showed cars spinning left, right and centre. The safety car was obviously deployed, but it was beyond safety car conditions and the red flag came out on lap 33. The cars crawled (or doggy paddled) around to the start-finish straight to line up on the grid to await further instructions.

And there they sat for 53 minutes. The rain did abate after about half an hour, but the track was still underwater and the light was fading fast thanks to the later-than-usual start time imposed by worldwide TV audience considerations. The drivers clearly did not want to restart, and Kimi Raikkonen made his intentions plain by parking in the garage, changing to civvies and having an ice cream. Moreover, F1’s own rules limiting the Grand Prix to a two hour period kicked in and the race simply ran out of time.

The race was declared with Jenson Button the winner, although there was some last minute confusion with the rest of the positions was the order they lined up on the grid was not the race classification order stipulated for aborted races, which take the order from the previous lap to the last one completed by the race leader. There were some hasty calculations which saw Nick Heidfeld (who had remained on wets from early on and benefited from not getting around to making additional pit stops) raised to second over Timo Glock, and Lewis Hamilton fall from an anticipated 5th to 7th – but at least it was a pleasant change to get the race order revised before the podium celebrations rather than in the following week, as we had at Australia.

Since the race had completed only 33 laps of the scheduled 56, it was far short of the required 75% for full championship points and as a result everyone scored half rations (which is going to make the scores look very odd for the rest of the 2009 season.) Not that this mattered much to Jenson Button, who has still won his second consecutive Grand Prix – which is how the record books will record it. He looked delighted on the podium, and you could see from the photographers’ flashlights just how dark the conditions were as Button, Heidfeld and Glock celebrated. Perhaps the low light conditions explain why Ross Brawn made his only fumble of the day – dropping the champagne bottle!

It’s the first time since Adelaide in 1991 that a race has been stopped by rain prematurely with half points awarded. But if we’re looking to history, perhaps the most significant stat is that in the last 27 years, every driver that has won both of the first two races has gone on to win the championship as well. With Lewis Hamilton’s political problems with the FIA far from over, and Ferrari recording another disastrous non-scoring GP with both car, it’s clear that everything is up in the air and literally anything could happen.

Suddenly those thoughts of Jenson Button, world champion are not as snigger-worthy as they were just nine days ago, are they?

Race classification

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP                1h10:59.092
 2.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              + 22.722
 3.  Glock         Toyota                  + 23.513
 4.  Trulli        Toyota                  + 46.173
 5.  Barrichello   Brawn GP                + 47.360
 6.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        + 52.333
 7.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        + 60.733
 8.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         + 71.576
 9.  Massa         Ferrari                 + 76.932
10.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari      + 102.164
11.  Alonso        Renault                 +  1 lap
12.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +  1 lap
13.  Piquet        Renault                 +  1 lap
14.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +  1 lap
15.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +  1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1 lap
17.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +  1 lap
18.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +  2 lap

Fastest lap: Button, 1:36.641

Not classified/retirements

Driver        Team                      On lap
Kubica        BMW Sauber                26
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes          25

World Championship standings, round 2

Drivers:                    Constructors:
 1.  Button         15         1.  Brawn GP               25
 2.  Trulli         10.5       2.  Toyota                 19.5
 3.  Barrichello    10         3.  Renault                4
 4.  Glock          9          4.  Williams-Toyota        4
 5.  Alonso         4          5.  BMW-Sauber             3
 6.  Rosberg        4          6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     3
 7.  Heidfeld       3          7.  McLaren-Mercedes       1.5
 8.  Buemi          2          8.  Red Bull-Renault       0.5
 9.  Hamilton       1.5
10.  Bourdais       1
11.  Webber         0.5

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