Kicking off Torque F1’s build-up to this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix is the second in the new Classic Grand Prix feature, which looks at the best races to have occurred at each circuit on the Formula One calendar.
Keeping firmly with tradition for this feature (although seeing as this has only been done once before I’m not sure tradition is the right word) it was the turn of the Malaysian Grand Prix to be put to Twitter for people to vote for their favourite race at the Sepang circuit.
Despite an extremely close run vote, which ended up with a tie between the 2001 and 2012 races, I honourably discounted my vote for 2001 to eliminate bias from the equation, making last year’s race the winner.
Having dominated the opening round of the 2012 season in Australia, McLaren arrived in Sepang as firm favourites for victory in Malaysia. Jenson Button had taken a dominant victory in Melbourne, whilst teammate Lewis Hamilton had finished third having taken pole position on the Saturday.
It was a trend that continued throughout qualifying as Hamilton once again took pole from Button, making it the second all-McLaren front row in as many races. Michael Schumacher qualified his Mercedes third, while the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel rounded out the top five.
Further back, Fernando Alonso started eighth in a Ferrari that was quite clearly not up to the task, whilst Sauber’s Sergio Perez lined up an impressive ninth. Kimi Raikkonen had set the fifth fastest time in qualifying, but was forced to start in tenth after a mandatory five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
The Sepang circuit has a reputation for inclement weather, so it was no surprise to anyone when rain hit the track ten minutes before the start, prompting the teams to begin the race on intermediate tyres. The circuit was deemed safe enough not to require a safety car start, so the field took their grid slots as usual.
And it was a clean start for most, as the McLarens got away well and led into the first corner, with Hamilton leading Button. With the first couple of corners navigated safely, it appeared as though the field were going to complete the first lap without incident.
Those hopes managed to survive as long as the next corner, as Romain Grosjean attempted to pass Schumacher into turn four, but in doing so the Lotus clipped the Mercedes and sent both spinning down the field.
The rain began to intensify and Perez took the first gamble of the race, pitting for full wet tyres at the end of the opening lap. It was a move that was to prove inspired, as he gained a huge amount of time on the frontrunners, who quickly had to follow him in. As a result, when the rest of the field took the plunge for wets, the Sauber driver found himself in third place behind the McLarens.
The track was beginning to become undriveable, as shown by Grosjean spinning off on lap four and into retirement, and before too long the safety car was deployed. With the rain getting worse, the decision was made to stop the race on the ninth lap.
Nearly an hour later, and enter the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix, take two. The safety car led the field around for four laps before it peeled off at the end of lap 13 and the race resumed. Alonso made the best of the restart, passing the Red Bull of Webber around the outside of turn one to take fourth place.
Button was the first to take the plunge and change to intermediates at the end of lap 14, and he was quickly followed by Hamilton and Alonso on the next lap. Hamilton had entered the pit lane as the leader, but an awful pit stop by the McLaren team enabled Alonso to get the jump on his former teammate and then leapfrog Button to take a net second place, a position that many had thought impossible for the Ferrari before the weekend.
But things got even better for Alonso when Perez pitted. With the track still damp, the Sauber had no grip when re-joining the track and his car squirmed whilst desperately trying to find traction. Alonso needed no invitation to take advantage, and on the exit of turn two drove clean past the Mexican to take the lead.
But for everything that had gone right for Alonso, things had just gone disastrously wrong for Button. Attempting to pass the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan into turn nine, the Brit got his braking all wrong and clattered the back of the Indian’s car, damaging his front wing and forcing him to make another pitstop.
With the pitstops over, it was Alonso who had the lead, followed by Perez, Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Vettel. On the damp track, the race began to settle down and the leading Ferrari began to pull away from Perez’s Sauber, with the advantage growing to almost eight seconds.
But as the track dried, Perez got quicker. The Mexican, whose best finish in F1 prior to this race was a seventh place, began to close in on Alonso’s Ferrari, and do so quickly. The Sauber driver began to take huge chunks out of the Spaniard’s lead, and by lap 40 the gap had come down to just 1.3 seconds, with Perez just three tenths of a second away from being able to deploy the DRS and challenge for an incredible lead.
Ferrari realised they needed to react quickly, and did so by bringing in Alonso for dry tyres at the end of that lap. However, Perez decided to stay out for another lap and in doing so, lost several seconds to the Spaniard.
As a relatively inexperienced driver with no history of fighting it out at the front, Perez could have been forgiven for giving up on the chance to win and coasting home for what would have been an incredible second place. But the Sauber man wasn’t finished, and in an exact replica of the laps before the pitstops, began to eat into Alonso’s lead once again.
The gap was 7.7 seconds at the end of lap 44, but Perez’s pace was blinding. He took two seconds out of the Ferrari on the next lap, nine tenths the lap after that, seven tenths the lap after that and the gap to Alonso was being evaporated. By lap 50 it was under a second and the Sauber now had the advantage of the DRS for the first time. With six laps to make a move on a vastly inferior Ferrari, a history win was in sight.
But then it all went wrong. Perez, looking for a good run onto the back straight to enable him to get closer to Alonso before the DRS zone, ran wide at the penultimate corner and slid off the track. Alonso had scampered away, the gap had increased to more than five seconds, and with it had gone any chance of Perez claiming an astonishing victory.
Behind the leaders, Hamilton still held third with Vettel, Webber and Raikkonen behind him. Vettel had run fourth for the whole of the second half of the race, but in his haste to lap Karthikeyan pulled in too fast after lapping the HRT driver, becoming the second frontrunner of the afternoon to collide with the Indian driver and sustaining a puncture in the process. As a result, the world champion had to pit for repairs and dropped out of the points.
Ferrari had been written off by many before the start of the season. Their car had spectacularly failed to perform throughout testing and the first race, and many gave the Scuderia little chance of finishing in the points, yet alone challenging for race wins.
But incredibly, Alonso had delivered an incredible performance in the Sepang rain and came home to take probably the most unlikely victory of his career, followed by the magnificent Perez and Hamilton.
Webber and Raikkonen completed the top five, whilst a highly impressive Bruno Senna took sixth, ahead of Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne, Nico Hulkenberg and Michael Schumacher, who took home the final point. Following their game of Karthikeyan-bashing, Vettel finished 11th and Button a disappointing 14th.
As a result, Alonso left Sepang as the world championship leader, five points ahead of Hamilton, with Button a further five back.
Classification (after 56 laps)
1) Fernando Alonso (Esp) Ferrari
2) Sergio Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari
3) Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
4) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault
5) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault
6) Bruno Senna (Bra) Williams-Renault
7) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes
8) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari
9) Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari
10) Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes
11) Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault
12) Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari
13) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes
14) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
15) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari
16) Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Caterham-Renault
17) Timo Glock (Ger) Marussia-Cosworth
18) Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham-Renault
19) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault
20) Charles Pic (Fra) Marussia-Cosworth
21) Pedro de la Rosa (Esp) HRT-Cosworth
22) Narain Karthikeyan (Ind) HRT-Cosworth
23) Kamui Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber-Ferrari
24) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault