Sunday, 5 April 2009

Back to back wins for Button in atrocious conditions

The weather forecasters did warn of heavy rain throughout the weekend, but luckily the Friday practice sessions and the third practice session followed by the Qualifying session on Saturday went without any intervention from the weather gods. Although that would not be the case for the Race on Sunday. The race started under dry conditions with the sun shining bright and air temperature in mid-30s. But as the cars went round the track for their pre-race warm up lap, it was evident that thick dark clouds were building up and the teams were expecting heavy showers within about ten to fifteen minutes.

So the race started normally. Jenson Button on pole had a poor start which saw Nico Rosberg, who was running very light on fuel, take advantage of Button's mistake and immediately take the race lead starting from fourth position. Jarno Trulli held his place in second for the first few laps. Timo Glock in the other Toyota starting the race in third, fell back quite a few places in turn 1, which saw Renault's Fernando Alonso move up to third ahead of Button. Although starting with a heavy car, Alonso soon fell back to the mid field as Button easily overtook him. Robert Kubica immediately dropped out and retired even before completing the first lap owing to engine troubles.

In the mid-field, there was heavy competition between Webber, Raikkonen, Barrichello and Alonso. With the heaviest fuel load and not a particularly quick car, Alonso was the slowest of them and before long the Red Bull, Ferrari and the Brawn have overtaken him. Particularly noticeable at this stage was Mark Webber in his Red Bull-Renault. He had a lot of pace along with Raikkonen in the Ferrari who was looking pretty quick as well. Both of them were pulling away from the mid-field pretty fast, with Barrichello not far behind. At the back both Hamilton and Massa started with very heavy fuel loads, so they were gradually making up their position through the grid. But Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, started on a very light fuel load and was absolutely flying. Although because of light fuel, he had to make a pretty early pit stop which saw him go down to the back of the grid. By lap 20, many of the cars have already made their first pit stops and all of them were still running with the softer option tyres. The only exception was the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, who decided to make a gamble and went out with the extreme wet weather tyres. This gamble back fired, because although it did start to rain about that time, it was only a slight drizzle and the track was not wet enough for the extreme wet tyres. So he lost a lot of lap time and was now in fourteenth position down from fourth, which he achieved early on thanks to his great start off the line and his longer first stint while everybody else in front of him made their first pit stops before him.

By the time the rain did start to come down slightly heavier, Kimi has already destroyed his tyres because those extreme wet tyres degrade terribly quickly if the track is not wet enough. This is the time when pretty much everybody started going back to the pits to change to the extreme wet tyres, including Kimi. Now the only exception was Toyota's Timo Glock, who was the only one in the field to choose the intermediate tyres. This gamble actually paid off because as everyone else found out soon after, that it was now raining but the track still wasn't enough for the extreme wet tyres. So while everyone else was struggling for grip, Timo Glock who have moved down to about eight position by then was really pushing hard as his intermediate tyres were absolutely perfect for the track conditions then. Before long, he was attacking then race leader Jenson Button for the lead.

Inspired by Glock's performance, Button made a third pit stop to change to the intermediate tyres. With the brand intermediates on, Button easily pulled away from the rest of the field and before long, has set up a big gap from second place Nico Rosberg. Most of the cars at this time made another pit stop to change to the intermediates, and as the rain came down heavier, that was followed by another round of pit stops for the extreme wet tyres.

BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld who started the race in tenth and with a heavy fuel load, made great use of his extra fuel and only made one pit stop to change to the extreme wet tyres, while the rest of the field made three or four pit stops. This meant that by lap 31, Heidfeld was in second position just ahead of fellow German Timo Glock in the Toyota. But by then the heavens have really opened up and it was raining in biblical proportions. The cars were just aquaplaning and were struggling to stay on the track even at low speeds of about 20 miles an hour! The safety car came out at the beginning of lap 32 and at the end of the lap, the race was red-flagged or in other words, suspended. All the cars then lined up on the grid in whatever position they were in and the teams were just awaiting word from the FIA as to what would be the fate of the race. It was already pretty late in the evening in Sepang and with the torrential downpour, visibility was almost next to zero. The rules state that if a race is to be re-started from red flag conditions, race control has to give the teams a minimum of ten minutes to prepare the cars again before the race re-starts. Keeping this is mind, by the time the rain has subsided, it was already almost an hour and 52 minutes since the race had started which meant that there was no more time left for restarting the race without going over the maximum two hour time limit set for a race. So it is at this stage that race control, led by Race Director Charlie Whiting, announced that the race would not be re-started. Because of the fact that at least three-quarters of the race have not been completed before the red flag came out, the FIA would only award the teams half of the points of what they would have usually got. The finishing order was taken from the one at the end of lap 31, which was the final completed lap before the safety car came out. This saw Button finish as the winner with five points instead of ten, ahead of Nick Heidfeld, Timo Glock, Trulli, Barrichello, Webber, Hamilton and Rosberg completing the top eight scoring positions.

So there it is, the second race of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship being red flagged, and the first one since the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring and the first one to be red flagged and not have re-started since the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. Jenson Button in his Brawn-Mercedes is yet to see the Chequered Flag without the safety car in front of him. Next week at the International Court of Appeal in Paris, the diffuser row hearing will take place where the judges will give a ruling on whether the rear diffusers on the Brawns, Toyotas and the Williams are illegal or not. Also, the McLaren 'lie-gate' saga is not over yet, as the FIA have stated they are still to decide whether they should be taking any more actions against Lewis Hamilton and McLaren. So plenty more happening in the world of Formula 1 within the next two weeks, after which we go to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix.

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