F1: Vettel stays ahead as troubles hit rivals

Okay class, let’s recap what we learned from the first race of the season at Australia: Red Bull (or at least Sebastian Vettel) is in a class of his own; only McLaren are anywhere close, and it was all thanks to Lewis Hamilton with Jenson Button already looking like the second-string driver; the rest of the field aren’t even in sight, especially a disappointing Ferrari and a Renault team feeling the loss of Robert Kubica’s leadership; the adjustable rear wing/drag reduction system (DRS) is a dud; KERS makes no difference; and overtaking is still a strikingly rare occurrence in Formula 1. That just about does it – the season review for 2011 all written and correct.

Except then we had Malaysia, and it turned out that the summary is not entirely accurate. Or to be it another way: Sepang saw some very interesting developments and surprises indeed.

Heidfeld beats Hamilton around the outsidePictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Yes, Vettel is still the cream of the crop, able to cruise to a victory like no one else in F1 at the moment. But qualifying showed that McLaren are tearing lumps out of Red Bull’s advantage, and Lewis Hamilton very nearly bumped Vettel from pole position. When it came to the race itself, if only Lewis hadn’t been beaten into the first turn by the Renault of Nick Heidfeld then the race could have had a very different shape to it – and potentially a different leader by the midpoint of the afternoon.

Now, wait a minute – did you spot the startling little fact I sneaked through in that last sentence? In case your shocked mind refused to absorb it, I’ll say it again: Nick Heidfeld beat Lewis Hamilton into the first corner and stole second place. This is not a drill, nor a mistake, although it will certainly have caused consternation in the McLaren camp, since the last thing anyone expected was Renault suddenly finding any pace. And yet Heidfeld (starting from sixth) and team mate Vitaly Petrov (starting from eighth) steamed down the outside line into turn 1, first going four-wide with the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa who had had to weave either side around the bogged-down Red Bull of Mark Webber on the grid; and then as the first corner approached, the Renaults out-braked the Ferraris and slipped alongside the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button. Heidfeld was two-wide with Hamilton, and the two banged wheels, but Heidfeld was able to hold on to the outside line long enough for them to turn into the left hander turn 2, and suddenly Nick had the upper hand in the battle and Lewis had to yield and settle for third place. He must have been staring at the unfamiliar JPS paint job on the Renault’s rear wing trying to work out exactly who it was and what had just happened.

Vettel leads Heidfeld and Hamilton at the end of lap 1

Unfortunately for the race itself, Heidfeld’s success was to the race’s detriment, because he was no match for Vettel and instead simply kept Hamilton bottled up behind him as the Red Bull’s lead grew and grew over the first stint of the afternoon.

But the other Red Bull, that of Mark Webber, was not faring so well. The car had needed its KERS batteries replaced in parc fermé prior to the race, but the team had already determined that the system had failed completely as Webber cruised around for his warm-up lap. That was the reason his car bogged down at the start (Vettel’s KERS was working fine at this point and indeed the young world champion credited KERS with being essential to getting away in the lead and to winning the race): not only did Webber not have the extra 80 horsepower to call upon, he was also lugging the dead-weight of the installed system around with him. This meant that going down the long Sepang straights, he was a sitting duck for other nominally slower cars; but once the tables were turned and he was behind someone else, then he could instead kick in the DRS boost and get past them that way. It left Webber exchanging positions like mad with Kamui Kobayashi during the early laps, and once the two finally parted (after Webber was revealed as being on a four-stop strategy, seemingly still having problems with Pirelli tyre wear), Kobayashi went on to have similar battles with the likes of Michael Schumacher who doubtless didn’t appreciate having the young Japanese pup snapping all round his heels for much of the afternoon.

Schumacher and Kobayashi doing battle

But all this action certainly displayed how effective the DRS actually can be, in contrast to Melbourne where it had been a damp squib: there was no arguing that it allowed fast cars to get up alongside the car in front and have a chance (but not a foregone conclusion) of getting through, which is exactly what it’s designed to do. It wasn’t so performance-distorting that it allowed Hamilton to dispatch Heidfeld, but it gave us more successful and close overtaking moves in one afternoon than we’ve typically seen all year in recent F1 seasons. Unexpectedly, DRS emerged from Sepang as a grade A hit for the sport – although you can still argue it’s too complex and gimmicky to appeal to lay-fans of the sport.

A more low-tech way of mixing up races has always been to add a little rain, and there were certainly some dark clouds circling overhead for much of the afternoon. For the most part the rain held off, offering just some light drops for a period of 20 minutes that – while it possibly made the track slippery in places and contributed to a few minor un-offs and incidents – didn’t have a major impact on proceedings. It’s just as well, because it doesn’t just ‘rain’ in Sepeng – once it starts, it’s more like the proverbial Biblical event, with the safety car needing to be replaced by Noah’s latest sports-model ark to have a chance of keeping on the circuit.

That meant pit stops were a fallback to mixing up the positions. Webber was first in on lap 11 at the start of that horrible (but presumably essential) four-stop strategy, while Hamilton was one of the first of those on a three-stopper when he came in on lap 12. He had one lap before Heidfeld came in, and he put it to good use by pulling off fast times that meant he was ahead of Heidfeld after the Renault came in next time around; Jenson Button came in at the same time as Heidfeld and was given a great service by McLaren that put him out ahead of

Now Hamilton could concentrate on seeing if there was anything he could do about that huge lead of Vettel’s, forlorn hope that it was. Except it wasn’t: Hamilton was taking huge chunks out of Vettel’s lead with every lap. This battle wasn’t over yet, and when Red Bull broadcast instructions to Vettel over the team radio that he was not to use KERS anymore for the remainder of the race (something McLaren learned by listening to the BBC television feed, apparently) suddenly the team knew that this thing wasn’t done yet. In fact the last person in the world to hear about Vettel’s problem was Seb himself, who apparently missed the significance of the first broadcast and needed it relaying again a few moments later.

But as eager as McLaren were for Hamilton to get up there and do battle for the lead, they were also worried about the state of his tyres. He was back in pit lane on lap 24 and had to take the harder tyres, but he stuttered away from the pit box and the slight delay meant he came out right behind Vitaly Petrov who threatened to hold him up much as his Renault team mate had done in the early laps; however, Hamilton dispatched him with a great move around Petrov on turn 5 and looked set to resume hunting down Vettel, who had also pitted in the meantime and come out on the softer tyres but facing his own traffic problems of a duelling Nick Heidfeld and Felipe Massa. Things evened out and ultimately made little difference to the battle, and Hamilton was under 4s away from the leader, with Button some way back in third ahead of Alonso, Webber, Heidfeld, Massa and Kobayashi at the halfway point.

But in fact, a corner had been turned: Vettel was now fast again and was setting the fastest laps, pulling out more of a lead over Hamilton who seemed to be struggling on this set of tyres and losing time even to Button behind him. By lap 36, Vettel had doubled his lead to 8.8s, and Hamilton would have been relieved to come in shortly afterwards for this third and final stop – except that the team had to stick with the harder compound to make the remaining 18 lap distance to the chequered flag, and worse still had a fumble on the front left wheel change that cost Lewis valuable tenths.

By contrast, Jenson Button’s pit stop a lap later was a proverbial stonker – and he was back out in front of his team mate and flying. Hamilton’s surge for the race win was well and truly over, and now he wasn’t even going to be second. In fact, he was now going so slowly that the cars behind him were eating their way through what had appeared an impossibly big gap at such a rate that there was no chance of him not losing still more positions before the end. And first up to try his luck passing the McLaren was Lewis’ old rival, Fernando Alonso.

Alonso was right up to the back of Hamilton by lap 44, but Ferrari had bad news for their man: the DRS adjustable rear wing had failed, depriving him of the biggest weapon he had in his arsenal for overtaking the McLaren. Fernando was already not in the best of moods – he’d been heard earlier curtly telling his race engineer not to send him any more information by radio, a motorsports term for “you’re talking too much, shut up and stay out of my head” – and he’s not known for his patience at the best of times, so when Hamilton started some blatant blocking moves, Alonso started to see read and decided to harass and hassle his old enemy out of the way.

Except- whoops! – he misjudged it, and late-braked all the way into a collision with the rear of the McLaren. It was a dumb move that left him with a crunched rear wing that forced him into the pits for a new nose next time around; Hamilton was able to continue, the contact seemingly not having punctured his rear tyres, but his pace was now to shockingly poor that he went on to be easy prey for an overtaking move by Nick Heidefeld for third on lap 52, then Mark Webber got past on lap 53 when Hamilton ran off the track entirely. McLaren had to declare defeat on stretching his final set of tyres to the end and pitted Lewis on lap 53, causing him to fall to seventh place by the chequered flag.

Button, Vettel and Heidfeld make an unexpected podium

Hamilton would lose another place post-race when handed a 20s penalty for blocking Alonso, and Alonso was also penalised 20s for causing an avoidable accident although in his case the gaps in the times meant he kept sixth place. The only other driver to be penalised on Sunday was Sebastien Buemi, who was given a strangely severe 10s stop-and-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane rather than the more usual drive-thru. “I had the impression that the pitlane speed limiter had not been engaged,” explained Bueumi. “I immediately pressed it again, which deactivated it, so I sped in the pit lane.”

Vitaly Petrov inadvertently provided the race with its most spectacular moment. After that formation start with team mate Heidfeld off the starting grid which put him up in fifth place behind Jenson Button, Petrov has blotted his copybook by running wide at turn 14 on lap 6 which lost him all of the places he’d gained and dropped him to ninth. He then had a fairly quiet race up until lap 54, when he ran wide at turn 8 and attempted to return to the track without taking his foot off the accelerator. Unfortunately the uneven runoff area wasn’t intended for off-roading, and Petrov bounced into a dip and was then launched into the air before crunching back onto the track with an impact that broke the steering column mount in his hands. The car skidded off and came to a rest against a 150m marker board.

“To be honest I still don’t understand what I did,” Petrov said. “I think I picked up just a little bit of rubber, and as soon as you take one piece of rubber, you have a little bit of understeer … You should be able to come back to the track there, so I just kept going – but then I hit the big bump.” Fortunately Petrov was not injured by the accident – drivers have suffered serious spinal harm in incidents far less eye-popping than this one – but Petrov said that the track owners should look at the run off areas and sort out the bumps for next year before it causes a more serious accident in the future.

It was a bad day indeed for the Williams team. Rubens Barrichello was hit from behind by Adrian Sutil as he turned through the final corner of turn 1 and suffered a left rear puncture as a result; worse, he had to crawl through a full lap to get back to the pit lane for a new set of tyres while Sutil zipped on ahead for a new front wing. Not that it mattered to Barrichello, because he was to make multiple stops before finally retiring on lap 23 with a hydraulic problem, by which time his team mate Pastor Maldonado was already parked up in the garage with a chronic misfire problem.

Both HRT cars also retired during the race, although in their case simply making it into the race and comfortably beating the 107% cut-off was a small triumph in its own right. Narain Karthikeyan retired from the race after 15 laps with high water temperatures and the team did not want him to risk carrying on and damaging the car; Tonio Liuzzi’s car suffered from rear end stability and the team decided he should park up on lap 47 for safety reasons rather than risk seeing him go flying off the circuit.

After his on-track success (and cruel off-track exclusion) in Australia, Sergio Perez returned to the reality of F1 motor racing with retirement on lap 24 when he was hit by debris falling off Sebastian Buemi’s car in front of him, setting off the Sauber’s fire systems and cutting off the electronics as a result. A clutch problem did for Jarno Trulli on lap 32, and Jerome D’Ambrosio’s race ended on lap 43 when the power switch was affected by a hard hit on the kerbs which resulted in the car stopping dead out on track.

Vettel celebrates with the Red Bull crew

But up in front, Sebastian Vettel was once again triumphant – but it was not as clear sailing as Melboune had appeared, and there were times when his Red Bull looked distinctly vulnerable to attack from McLaren. And not just from Hamilton – once he took over in second, Button also did well to cut Vettel’s lead right back in the second half of the race, although he admitted that his race strategy was probably too complex for its own good. “It was a really confusing race in a way, understanding or trying to understand the pitstops and whether it is worth looking after the tyres or not, so pretty tricky,” he admitted afterwards.

As a result, Jenson Button slides into second place in the drivers’ championship and suddenly looks every bit a match again for Lewis Hamilton who is tied on points with Mark Webber who despite another difficult race managed some nice damage limitation to take fourth place.

Renault came out of nowhere to be a real player (pun intended) at Sepang and in particular Nick Heidfeld suddenly becoming every inch the stand-in team leader they so desperately needed after all ater a disappointing time in Australia; and Ferrari would have been a stronger contender if not for Alonso’s red mist moment with Hamilton and a strangely pallid performance from Felipe Massa who increasingly is looking like a driver in the winding down phase of his F1 career. And even though it sounds like incomprehensible alphabet soup to casual fans and bound up in too many technicalities on timing and place of use, KERS and DRS also finally proved their worth at Sepang, hugely enriching the spectacle and giving us more racing and overtaking moments than we could ever have imagined.

If nothing else, Malaysia showed that the 2011 season review has only penned its first introductory lines and there is still a lot of story to tell, and many twists and turns in form and fortune to unfold. And yet for all that, you wouldn’t bet against that season review having the overall headline “Vettel wins second championship” – is there anyone who can stop him taking win afer win in 2011?

Race results

Pos  Driver       Team                  Time
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      1:37:39.832
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +     3.261
 3.  Heidfeld     Renault               +    25.075
 4.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +    26.384
 5.  Massa        Ferrari               +    36.958
 6.  Alonso       Ferrari               +    57.248 *
 7.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        +  1:07.239
 8.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      +  1:09.957 *
 9.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +  1:24.896
10.  Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes  +  1:31.563
11.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +  1:41.379
12.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +     1 lap
13.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
14.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault         +     1 lap
16.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       +    2 laps
17.  Petrov       Renault               +    4 laps

* After 20s penalty applied

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:40.571

Not classified/retirements:
Driver       Team               On lap
Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth       47
D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth    43
Trulli       Lotus-Renault      32
Perez        Sauber-Ferrari     24
Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth  23
Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth       15
Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth   9

World Championship standings after round 2

Drivers                     Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   50   1. Red Bull/Renault      72
 2. Jenson Button      26   2. McLaren/Mercedes      48
 3. Lewis Hamilton     22   3. Ferrari               36
 4. Mark Webber        22   4. Renault               30
 5. Fernando Alonso    20   5. Sauber/Ferrari         6
 6. Felipe Massa       16   6. Toro Rosso/Ferrari     4
 7. Nick Heidfeld      15   7. Force India/Mercedes   4
 8. Vitaly Petrov      15   8. Mercedes               2
 9. Kamui Kobayashi     6
10. Sebastien Buemi     4
11. Adrian Sutil        2
12. Michael Schumacher  2
13. Paul di Resta       2

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