Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Red Bull lays down the marker as rivals stutter at Sepang

Red Bull Racing finally overcame their reliability problems from the first two races of the season to take a 1-2 victory at Malaysia, as chief title rivals Ferrari and McLaren had a less than ideal weekend. A rain interrupted Qualifying session on Saturday saw both the Ferraris and both the McLarens fail to get through the first part of Qualifying, Q1. The Red Bulls on the other hand qualified 1st and 3rd on the grid with Mark Webber on pole, and Mercedes' Nico Rosberg separating the Australian from his team-mate Sebastian Vettel.

Being the monsoon season in Malaysia, it was to be expected that there will be lots of rain throughout the weekend. The big question was the timing of the rain, and how that would affect the proceedings. Saturday's Qualifying session started under heavy downpour, although the weather forecast was showing that the rain should ease off relatively soon. Most of the teams, including Red Bull, went out on the track straight away at the beginning of Qualifying on the intermediate tyres to set a benchmark lap time. Only Ferrari and McLaren stayed in the pits, looking at the weather radar, and expecting to do a faster lap towards the end of Q1 on drier conditions. However, going completely against the forecasts, the heavens opened up even more towards the end of Q1 and that meant that by the time Ferrari and McLaren did go out on to the track to set a lap time, they were forced to use the extreme wet tyres instead of the intermediates. With conditions worsening, lap times set with the extreme wets were never going to be as quick as the ones set on intermediates. So the teams that went out for their runs early in Q1 all got through to the next part of Qualifying, at the expense of two of the traditional front-runners, Ferrari and McLaren. So Button and Hamilton qualified 17th and 20th for McLaren, while Alonso and Massa qualified 19th and 21st on the grid for Ferrari. So the scene was perfectly set for a great race, with four of the fastest cars on the grid having to start from the back and then fighting through the pack, and that was before taking the threat of rain into account.

Race day was looking dry and sunny, but being the monsoon season in Malaysia, one could never rule out rain completely. However, as the cars set off on the formation lap, it was bright and sunny with clear blue skies. Sauber's Pedro de la Rosa hit back luck even before starting the race as his Ferrari engine let go on the formation lap, and the spaniard failed to start the race. His fellow Spaniard, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, broke his clutch on the formation lap and that means the double World Champion had the prospect of fighting an entire race with a broken gearbox. Driving a manual transmission car with a broken clutch is still relatively possible, but with the paddle-shift transmission systems of the Formula 1 cars, it is nigh on impossible. So it was a miracle in itself that, with no clutch, Alonso managed to get off the grid for the start of the race.

Apart from Jenson Button, almost all of the other cars at the back of the field started on the harder prime tyres. Button started on the softer option tyres, but it proved a bit costly as he had to pit very early (on lap 10) to change to the harder compound after struggling with tyre degradation. His team-mate Lewis Hamilton had a very good start and overtook 6 cars by taking the inside line into turn 1 on the opening lap. Ferrari's Felipe Massa was right on Hamilton's tail, and despite the McLaren's clear top speed advantage, the Ferrari has hanging in there. Alonso lost a couple of positions at the start, and he was having an excruciating race as he was having to blip the throttle manually everytime during downshifting to forcefully re-engage the gears, but the Spaniard was still keeping up with his team-mate.

Up front, Sebastian Vettel had a great start from 3rd place and he overtook Nico Rosberg straight away off the grid and then team-mate Mark Webber by taking the inside line into turn 1. From then on, Vettel and Webber both cruised to the Chequered Flag as Red Bull took a comfortable 1-2 victory led by the German.

Meanwhile, as Hamilton was making the charge through the field at the early part of the race, he had a tough fight with Renault's Vitaly Petrov who had started from 11th. The McLaren's top speed advantage allowed Hamilton to overtake Petrov on the main straight, but the young Russian then tried to tuck in behind Hamilton's rear wing to try and catch the slipstream, which aides in straight-line speed. To prevent this, Hamilton weaved from left to right to left several times on the main straight going flat out, with Petrov following close behind. As the rulebook says that a driver is only allowed such a defensive move once, Hamilton was later warned by the stewards for his conduct. The Briton eventually finished the race in 6th place. Ferrari's Felipe Massa, after starting from 21st on the grid, drove very well and even overtook reigning World Champion Jenson Button near the end to finish in 6th place, with Button in 7th.

Behind them, Fernando Alonso perhaps had the drive of his life and proved once again why he is simply in a different league when compared to most other drivers. Fighting with that broken gearbox with no clutch, the Spaniard was having to work two or three times as hard just to keep the car going, but he still managed to post the 2nd fastest lap of the race and was attacking McLaren's Button for 8th place near the end before his tortured engine finally let go on the penultimate lap. It was heart-breaking to see Alonso retire just two laps from the end after such an amazing drive, but to put it into perspective, imagine what he could have done if he had a perfect car that day! Possibly apart from Michael Schumacher, I personally do not think there is any other driver on the grid who could have fought with that broken car the way Alonso did. Here is hoping that Ferrari does not face too many other reliability problems over the rest of the season.

Talking of Michael Schumacher, the seven times World Champion was forced to retire from the race on lap 9 with a loose wheel nut on his left rear wheel. 3 races into the season of the legendary German's comeback, he has been beaten every time so far by his much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg. However, we must remember that staying away from competitive sport for 3 years and then making a return is not an easy job, and Schumacher has been gradually improving his pace race by race. It will be interesting to see where the situation stands at Mercedes at about half-way through the season.

Despite the mix-up in Qualifying and Alonso's retirement in the race, Ferrari still sit on top in the Constructors' Championship, but with McLaren and Red Bull close behind. Felipe Massa leads the Drivers' World Championship with 39 points, with team mate Fernando Alonso in 2nd with 35 points. Vettel, Button, Rosberg, Hamilton and Kubica are all close behind.

We now head off to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix, the 4th race of the season and the last of the early fly-away races. It will be very interesting to see which team and driver can take the early advantage back into Europe. Until next time, drive safely everyone!