A race to be proud of
Martin Brundle pays tribute to the skilled driving that defied the treacherous conditions at Sepang and explains why he is convinced there was nothing untoward about that radio message from Sauber...
Last Updated: 02/04/12 3:21pm
The Malaysian Grand Prix was a perfect example of why sport in general and Formula One in particular can be so captivating. It was a race full or surprises and exceptional human performances in the most extreme conditions. The fact that 22 cars survived to the finish, a clear record for this race, underlines the skills we witnessed.
Before the season, there was much talk that Ferrari was in trouble with its 2012 car, and that Sauber were having significant sponsorship issues. The former remains a fact, and the latter likely accurate too, but right now Fernando Alonso leads the Drivers' Championship and Sergio Perez for Sauber is fifth. I'd like to meet the person who bet on that...
It could have been even more thrilling if Perez had won the race, everyone loves an underdog, although ironically even Alonso at the moment could be considered that. It made absolutely no sense that Perez wasn't pitted for slicks on lap 40 with Alonso. Daniel Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso had long demonstrated that they were the tyre of choice and delaying by one lap cost Perez over five seconds. Even if it rained, which was predicted as possible at the time, his heavily worn intermediates would have been of little use anyway.
Still Perez relentlessly closed down Alonso, his choice of hard compound tyre clearly superior to Alonso's medium compound which would normally have been the default in such conditions.
Then came the radio call from the Sauber pit wall to remind Perez how important 18 points were to the team. Of that there can be no doubt. In long seasons usually dominated by Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, for a team embroiled in the brutal midfield battle along with Force India, Lotus, Toro Rosso and Williams, a single haul of points like that are usually season defining and financially hugely rewarding.
Was that message meaning 'don't risk hitting Alonso when you try to pass him' or 'back off'? In any event Perez celebrated the 'good news' by dipping a wheel onto the outside kerb of Turn 13 and was lucky that there is an acre of tarmac run off available there. I had several Tweets asking 'was that on purpose' but if you are yielding it's best done running wide in a slow corner, or better still having untimely tyre, brake, or temperature issues, not clouting a kerb at 150 mph.
Alonso said afterwards that he drove every lap flat out and so it's safe to assume that Sauber were satisfied to finish second to their engine supplier and grab those extremely precious points.
The previous 54 podium spots had been claimed by the famous five of Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton and Button, and so it was nice to see the fresh face of Perez, the first Mexican on the podium since the great Pedro Rodriguez in 1971.
It could so easily have been a victory, but the wily old fox that is Alonso claimed his 28th victory, and third Malaysian GP, to move into fifth spot in the all-time winners list ahead of Sir Jackie Stewart (who started 99 races).
Other standout performances were Kimi Raikkonen who finished fifth while using the Pirelli wets and intermediate tyres for the first time and posting the race fastest lap too.
Jean-Eric Vergne somehow stayed out on inters until the safety car while many others, including Perez, struggled to stay on the road on full wets.
Bruno Senna fully established himself as a credible F1 driver with a stirring drive through the field, including several impressive overtakes around the outside not least with a symbolic pass on Michael Schumacher.
It was a curiously quiet day for McLaren and particularly Red Bull. Lewis Hamilton secured a second consecutive third place but Jenson Button had a day to forget initially triggered by tagging Karthikeyan's HRT.
Sebastian Vettel would collect a puncture slightly carelessly passing the same car later. Mark Webber grabbed a solid fourth in the other Red Bull but the pace was never really there for either team.
Two Force Indias, a Williams, and a Toro Rosso in the points demonstrated that the smaller budget teams can think fast on their feet when the going gets tough.
Michael Schumacher collected the final point when Maldonado's Williams expired in the closing stages but Mercedes Benz are still punishing their tyres way too much in race trim.
We have to politely look the other way until Felipe Massa finds his way in the second Ferrari. If he doesn't do so there will be some uncomfortable decisions to be made, and he may even lead the way on that.
The safety car and subsequent red flag period to let the monsoon conditions subside created 2 hours and 44 minutes of pure tension, although it's always annoying to see a safety car period closely followed by a mad rush into the pits for inters. Similar variable conditions are highly possible next time out in China.