[Images: Clive Mason, Paul Gilham, Mark Thompson/Getty | Mark Baker, Raymond Ho, Vincent Thian, Aaron Favila, Eugene Hoshiko/AP]
Saturday's qualifying sessions saw Vettel once again on pole – the same position from which he started the last round and much of last season – with his Red Bull wingman Mark Webber in third to sandwich McLaren's Lewis Hamilton. His team-mate Jenson Button in turn took the staggered fourth, Ferrari
's Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa in fifth and seventh, staggering Renault's Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov in sixth and eighth. Mercedes
GP's Nico Rosberg placed ninth, his senior team-mate Michael Schumacher eleventh behind Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi. STR's Buemi and Alguersuari, Force India's Paul di Resta, Williams' Barrichello, Sauber's Perez, Force India's Sutil, Williams' Maldonado, Lotus' Kovalainen and Trulli, and Virgin's Glock and d'Ambrosio followed suit, HRT's Liuzzi and Karthikeyan this time both making it over the qualifying threshold to round out the grid.
Following the formation lap this morning, the field pulled away to a clean start without any crashes, but not without its surprises. While Vettel stayed at the front, Heidfeld jumped from sixth to second, Massa passed Alonso for sixth while Mark Webber, apparently suffering trouble from his KERS boost, dropped from third to ninth.
By the end of the third lap, Vettel was still leading Heidfeld and Hamilton, Button in fourth, Petrov in fifth, Massa and Alonso in sixth and seventh, Schumacher in eighth, Kobayashi in ninth and Webber in tenth position.
Adrian Sutil and Rubens Barrichello were first to pit, due to a damaged front wing and a punctured tire, respectively. Petrov, still fresh from his dramatic third-place finish in Australia, then ran wide, dropped behind the two Ferraris and let Schumacher draw nearer. The seven-time world champion activated the pass-encouraging Drag Reduction System (DRS) rear wing to close in on the Russian, but didn't manage to get by him by the end of the front straight.
Behind them Mark Webber closed in on Kobayashi and passed him initially, only for the Japanese driver to activate both the DRS and KERS to retake his ninth position.
The first proper round of pits stops started around lap 11 with Webber, who further dropped from tenth to seventeenth – a far cry from the third place in which he started. After the entire field had pitted by lap 18, Vettel was still in the lead, followed by Hamilton (2nd), Alonso (3rd) and Button (4th) who had all passed Heidfeld in the pit-stop shuffle. Webber was back up to 6th, followed by Massa (7th), Petrov (8th), di Resta (9th) and Schumacher (10th). Kobayashi, Buemi, Perez, Glock, Rosberg, Alguersuari, Sutil, Kovalainen, d'Ambrosio, Trulli, Liuzzi and Barrichello followed, with Karthikeyan and Maldonado already out of the race only a third of the way in. Meanwhile Buemi was hit with a ten-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane.
By lap 22 it was apparent that Webber was having issues with the KERS regenerative braking system (which he hadn't used in Melbourne) as Massa easily passed him for sixth place. The Australian went back into the pits for a second stop and dropped down to eleventh position when he rejoined the race. Button followed into the pits two laps later from fourth and rejoined seventh, while Barrichello and Perez both retired on lap 25.
The second round of three expected pit stops began around lap 26 with Vettel pitting from the lead to rejoin fourth. Ten laps later most of the field had taken their second stop and Vettel was again in the lead ahead of Hamilton and Button, Alonso in fourth, Heidfeld fifth, Massa sixth, Webber seventh, Petrov eighth, Kobayashi ninth and di Resta tenth. Schumacher and Rosberg, Sutil, Alguersuari and Buemi, Kovalainen, Glock, d'Ambrosio, and Liuzzi followed. By this point five drivers – Trulli, Perez, Barrichello, Karthikeyan and Maldonado – were already watching from the pit lane.
Heidfeld was running close behind his Renault team-mate Petrov around lap 43 and finally made it past, as did Massa, while closer to the front Alonso was gaining on Hamilton. D'Ambrosio parked his Virgin to become the sixth retirement of the day.
The third and – for most – the final round of pit stops were done by lap 45, Vettel still firmly in the lead, but it was Button who was in front of Hamilton this time, followed by Alonso, Heidfeld, Massa, Petrov, Webber, Kobayashi and di Resta.
Alonso reported problems with his DRS and shortly after grazed the back of Hamilton's McLaren, forcing the Spanish driver to pit again. He dropped from fourth to seventh in the process and cut short his chances for a podium finish once again.
Webber squeezed past Massa for fifth place again on lap 50, as Heidfeld made a surprise move on Hamilton to take third position behind Button and Vettel. Hamilton subsequently ran wide and let Webber past, finally rejoining the track in a devastating eighth place.
The yet more dramatic off-track excursion, however, was Petrov's two laps later. After veering off the tarmac, the young Russian flew high into the air over the curb on re-entry, slammed down hard on the track and snapped his steering column to send his car across the other side of the track and plowing – unhurt, thankfully – into a trackside sign.
Two laps later Vettel crossed the finish line to claim the checkered flag once again. And like the last round, he was followed by a McLaren and a Renault – but instead of Hamilton and Petrov, it was Button and Heidfeld who took the podium finishes. Once more we saw two returning champions standing right where they ought to, but an underdog in black and gold surprising them on the bottom step. Only a couple of months ago Heidfeld was without a ride and Robert Kubica was in excellent shape, but a reversal of fortunes saw the pint-size German claim his thirteenth podium in a career that stretches back to his debut with Prost-Peugeot eleven years ago.
The remaining points were awarded to Webber (who fought valiantly to finish fourth – only one place down on his starting position despite the yo-yo ride along the way), Massa and Alonso (taking fifth and sixth in tandem for Ferrari), Hamilton (who almost held it together for another podium), Kobayashi (who performed admirably for the mid-field Sauber team), Schumacher (who's still apparently having trouble finding his old form again) and Paul di Resta (the DTM champion who's proving his mettle in the big leagues). Sutil, Rosberg, Buemi, Alrguersuari, Kovalainen and Glock all finished, but outside the points while eight drivers failed to complete the race distance.
The results leave Sebastian Vettel with a commanding lead at 50 points to Button's 26 and Hamilton's 24. Webber trails with 22 points, Alonso with 20 and Massa with 16. Heidfeld and Petrov are tied at 15 points each, followed by Buemi and Kobayashi (four apiece), with Sutil, Schumacher and di Resta holding just two points each. The combined results likewise see Red Bull topping the charts at 72 points, McLaren at 50, Ferrari with 36 and Renault with 30 as Toro Rosso, Sauber and Force India trail with four each and Mercedes with two. Join us again next week for the Chinese Grand Prix from Shanghai to see if Red Bull can keep up its winning form against a hungry field of challengers.
Following the race, FIA stewards handed 20-second penalties to both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Both were penalized for their part in the epic battle between the two former world champions, Hamilton for illegally defending his position against Alonso by zig-zagging across the track and Alonso for making contact with Hamilton's car while in pursuit. The penalty drops Hamilton from seventh place in the finishing order to eighth and revokes two championship points from both standings, but since Kamui Kobayashi finish significantly behind, doesn't affect Alonso's.