F1: Round 3 – Sepang, Malaysia – April 4

All those pundits who were saying that Red Bull’s season was already effectively over after two failure-ridden outings in Bahrain and Australia got a big wake up call and slap across the face from Malaysia. Red Bull came out fighting, and it was a sight to see – before they disappeared off out of sight into the distance, that is. After some problematic practice sessions, it seemed that the team had got rid of its mechanical gremlins early this weekend, and it made all the difference. Both Red Bulls were peerless, in a different class from anyone else out there, and it instantly puts them right back in to championship contention.

The only question was: which of the Red Bull boys would be on the top spot of the podium, and which the slightly frustrated runner-up? As polesitter, it was Mark Webber’s race to take by the scruff of its neck – and he didn’t manage it.

Instead it was Sebastian Vettel who got the better start from immediately behind in third place, sweeping across the width of the track to cut off Nico Rosberg and discourage any attacks from anyone further back. Almost as an afterthought, Vettel found himself on the inside line into turn 1, while Webber – seemingly thinking that Vettel was protecting him from attack as some sort of faithful rear gunner – drifted wide. Vettel needed no second invitation, took the corner and fended off any counter attacks. The deed was done.

The only threat to Vettel’s victory all afternoon was in the stewards’ room after the event when he was hauled up for overtaking back marker Jarno Trulli under waved yellows: the stewards accepted his explanation that he had slowed up a lot, but that Trulli had simply slowed even more to insist that he pass, the misunderstanding resulting in the change of position even as yellow flag conditions were respected.

The top five at the end of lap 1, then, were Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil. And that’s exactly the way they finished, too. With the trademark Malaysian rain stubbornly refusing to come out to play, there were worrying signs that F1 was slipping back to the static processional state of affairs that emerged in Bahrain and which was obfuscated by the rain in Melbourne. Fortunately the rain had put in a dramatic and decisive appearance in qualifying instead, and the race benefited from the effects of it with McLaren and Ferrari stuck way down the grid and consequently accounting for much of the interest and excitement as they set about their damage limitation exercises.

Lewis Hamilton, as ever, was the source of much of the entertainment. He made up seven places on the first lap alone, finding the inside line down to turn one completely open and unexploited. Felipe Massa, starting from the other side of the grid, saw the same opportunity as well and swerved across to slip in right behind him to make up as much ground in Hamilton’s wake – smart work by the Brazilian.

Hamilton was briefly ahead of Sebastien Buemi on the first lap but lost the position again and had to line up the Toro Rosso a second time, managing a cooly effective move on lap 2. Massa, on the other hand, couldn’t pull off the same kind of assault and found himself stuck behind Buemi even as Hamilton marched on to pick off Jaime Alguersuari going into turn 1 of lap 3.

Hamilton’s next victim was Kamui Kobayashi in the turn 1 and 2 complex of corners in lap 4, which put him up behind rookie Vitaly Petrov. The Russian should have been another easy scalp for the former world champion, but he in fact proved a difficult nut to crack. Despite offering Hamilton a couple of chances to get past, Petrov fought back each time to reclaim tenth place. Hamilton finally got the job done going into lap 8, but Petrov clung on to the back of the McLaren and threatened to slipstream himself back ahead going into turn 1. All Hamilton could do was weave to try and jettison the Russian from his slipstream, but Petrov matched him completely. By the skin of his teeth, Hamilton made the move stick – but he got a subsequent warning from the stewards for the weaving, even though it hadn’t been for blocking purposes.

Hamilton’s progress up the running order was helped by some retirements ahead of him, including Michael Schumacher who pulled over suspecting suspension problems only to find that his left rear wheel nut had gone astray and the wheel was about to literally drop off. In seventh, Tonio Liuzzi also started to slow as Hamilton came up to the back of the Force India, touring to the pits with throttle problems.

With no rain forecast, teams were electing to pit early for new tyres from lap 12 and that removed more cars from Hamilton’s path. He found himself as high as second place at one point before his own pit stop put him down to seventh place, right behind Adrian Sutil and emerging back on track wheel-to-wheel with his McLaren team mate Jenson Button. The world champion had been having a quite afternoon up till then: finding himself stuck behind the Ferrari duo of Massa and Fernando Alonso, Button had been the first to come in for a tyre change, a move that had quietly earned him track position over the Ferraris but which gave him problems in the later stages of the race with tyre wear meaning he was unable to prevent Massa from overtaking him on lap 44.

But the Ferraris were having an odd day. Massa’s inability to follow Hamilton past Buemui in the opening laps cost him and Alonso (immediately behind) dear for the rest of the race. There was no point in talking Massa into letting his team mate past, either, because Alonso had huge problems with his clutch from the start, resulting in his struggling to shift gears in a way that was crunchingly painful for all within earshot. Small wonder, then, that the Ferrari engine (which has problems with overheating in sweltering conditions such as those found in Malaysia) finally gave up the ghost and came to a smokey end two laps from the finish while battling for position with Button.

Considering Formula 1 has been under attack for not having enough overtaking, there were some excellent moves throughout the field today. Jamie Alguersuari, not a driver who has really caught the eye to this point, pulled off a lovely decisive move on Petrov (who had himself been so impressive against Hamilton earlier in the race) on lap 22, and then topped it with a sensational move on Nico Hulkenberg for tenth place on lap 32, taking the Williams round the outside of turn 5.

A few laps later and Sebastien Buemi was having a great battle against Rubens Barrichello (who had stalled on the starting grid and been lucky to avoid causing a catastrophic pile-up as the cars streamed away around him). Buemi finally made his move stick on lap 43 to take 12th place, which was bumped up to 11th after Alonso’s late retirement – but still frustratingly just outside the points.

Buemi’s team mate Alguersuari did manage to claim 2pts for Toro Rosso, however, so it was a good day for the team. Hulkenberg also secured a point, but it was a disappointing day for Williams after featuring so strongly in practice and qualifying: the race pace once again was mysteriously missing.

It was mixed for Force India (retirement for Liuzzi, but a superb fifth for Sutil who managed to hold off Hamilton for lap after lap) and Merecdes (Rosberg third, but Schumacher out after nine laps). Virgin will be delighted for Lucas di Grassi who made it to the end, even though the issues with the too-small fuel tank forced them to lean off the car to almost absurd lengths; no such problem for team mate Timo Glock after contact with Jarno Trulli.

Despite that impact and some rear end damage comprising his pace, Trulli made it to the end of the race on what it Lotus’ home race, albeit five laps down; while Heikki Kovalainen also made it to the end, although too many laps down to be classified following a lengthy pit stop for hydraulics repair work. Still, a good test session for the team, and far better than Sauber who had a nightmare of a day – Pedro de la Rosa’s car breaking down on the formation lap and Kobayashi grinding to a halt on lap nine. In both cases the engines failed due to problems with the pneumatic system.

But no such problems for Red Bull. Today was the day that Vettel and Webber declared their hand in the 2010 championship, and their rivals had better take heed.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                  Gap
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault
 2.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      + 4.8s
 3.  Rosberg      Mercedes              + 13.5s
 4.  Kubica       Renault               + 18.5s
 5.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  + 21.0s
 6.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      + 23.4s
 7.  Massa        Ferrari               + 27.0s
 8.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      + 37.9s
 9.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    + 1m10.6s
10.  Hulkenberg   Williams              + 1m13.3s
11.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    + 1m18.9s
12.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     + 1 lap
13.  Alonso       Ferrari               + 2 laps
14.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth       + 3 laps
15.  Chandhok     Hispania-Cosworth     + 3 laps
16.  Senna        Hispania-Cosworth     + 4 laps
17.  Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth        + 5 laps

Not classified/retirements:

     Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth        46 laps
     Petrov       Renault               32 laps
     Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  12 laps
     Schumacher   Mercedes              9 laps
     Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        8 laps
     Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       2 laps
     De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        0 laps

Fastest lap: Webber 1m37.054s 

World Championship standings after round 3

What a difference a race makes: finally delivering on their potential puts Red Bull right into contention in both championships. With 9pts covering the top seven drivers and 15pts covering the top three teams, things are refreshingly close.

Drivers:                 Constructors:
 1.  Massa         39    1.  Ferrari               76
 2.  Vettel        37    2.  McLaren-Mercedes      66
 3.  Alonso        37    3.  Red Bull-Renault      61
 4.  Button        35    4.  Mercedes              44
 5.  Rosberg       35    5.  Renault               30
 6.  Hamilton      31    6.  Force India-Mercedes  18
 7.  Kubica        30    7.  Williams-Cosworth      6
 8.  Webber        24    8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     2
 9.  Sutil         10
10.  Schumacher     9
11.  Liuzzi         8
12.  Barrichello    5
13.  Alguersuari    2
14.  Hulkenberg     1

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