Humidity, hunger and heartbreak were the takeaways from the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix. A proper track with a wider variety of straights and corners than the street circuit in Australia, the second race of the season was expected to be a better test of the performance of the 11 teams on the grid. It was also supposed to be a more accurate test of the Pirelli tires, the bits of rubber at the four corners of the car still at the top of the performance agenda for all the top teams except for McLaren, which even larger issues with its new car to deal with.
Then it rained. Then it rained some more. Then it rained so hard just before the race that numerous drivers slid off the track on the parade lap. Then came the race, and then came the figurative tears and ones of the crocodile variety as well.
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Sebastian Vettel had taken pole position in a wet final qualifying session in his Infiniti Red Bull, followed by Felipe Massa again outqualifying his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso. Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas grabbed fourth, followed by Mark Webber in the other Infiniti Red Bull, then the other Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, the first Lotus of Kimi Räikkönen in seventh, Jenson Button in the first McLaren behind him, the again-impressive Adrian Sutil in the Force India and Sergio Perez in the second McLaren making the top ten.
The pre-race shower left the first sector wet so everyone started on intermediate tires, there being enough water at Turn 3 to send several drivers into the gravel on the formation lap.
When the lights went green Vettel held his lead, Alonso immediately leapfrogging Massa but then gliding into Vettel under braking for Turn 1 and damaging his front wing. Alonso didn't pit for repairs and he was out of the race at the first corner on the Lap 2 when his wing gave up and folded under his car, sending him into the gravel trap. Further back, drivers like Button, Perez and Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso had gained positions and were trying to keep them against drivers like, Rosberg, Grosjean in the second Lotus and Hülkenberg in the other Force India.
Vettel didn't streak away with the lead but he was did have a three seconds on second place by the fifth lap. With lap times falling he was the first man in the pit for slicks, but Turn 3 was still wet enough that he started going backward, losing three places in the first sector once he emerged from the pits. Other drivers probably wished their first pit stops had gone so well: Hamilton's memories got the best of him and stopped in the McLaren pit box instead of Mercedes, the Force Indias got stacked up while the crews tried to deal with a funky wheel nut on Sutil's car, and Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso was sent off into the Caterham of Charles Pic and both had to head right back to the pits for new wings.
Webber emerged on top, having put in some good laps before pitting while Vettel struggled a couple of seconds behind him, with Hamilton, Rosberg, Button, Hülkenberg, Massa, Perez, Grosjean and Räikkönen. The Australian GP race winner was down the order after having had several trips off the track at Turn 13. All of the others were faster than the two leading Infiniti Red Bulls when in clear air until Webber turned it on and the field spread out.
Webber started the next round of stops among the leaders and Vettel cranked up the pace, the pack coming together again as laid down hot laps getting ready to pit, but Webber got the lead again when Vettel pitted from first. The only major change was Hülkenberg dropping way down because of a slow pit stop at Sauber, while di Resta and Sutil had another round of atrociously long stops because of a problem with their cars' captive wheel nut system. Both Force Indias would eventually leave the race for safety reasons.
On the same lap that di Resta retired, Vettel – three seconds behind Webber – was told to save his tires and stay on the "same strategy as the previous stint." Webber slowed down, presumably also having been told to turn it down, but Vettel wouldn't quit and was soon all over Webber's rear wing. Over the next laps his team gave him the same order to slow down in various ways, but he wouldn't, and then asked the team to "Get Mark out of the way, he's too slow."
The next round of stops had Vettel coming out behind Webber and Hamilton, and Button retiring when one of his wheels wasn't put on the car properly. Hamilton was told to save fuel so he could neither attack Webber nor keep Vettel behind. At the next round of stops the slow Mercedes pace meant it was Webber and Vettel up front, then Hamilton and Rosberg.
That's when Vettel continued to ignore every one of the numerous directives not to fight his teammate, with team principal Christian Horner giving up the coded messages and going straight to, "Come on Seb, this is slly." That didn't work, and Vettel used his DRS to pass Webber on the front straight and then pulling out a gap on Webber. Rosberg was trying to get around Hamilton for good and told team principal Ross Brawn, "I can go much faster, just let me drive past," but was continually told to hold station because Hamilton had been ordered to save fuel – we're not sure why Rosberg was sacrificed to Hamilton's strategy.
And that's the way the race ended, Vettel crossing the line 4.2 seconds ahead of an unhappy Webber, Hamilton just ahead of an unhappy Rosberg, Massa, Grosjean finishing ahead of teammate Räikkönen, Hülkenberg, Perez getting two points for an unhappy McLaren and Vergne putting a point on the board for Toro Rosso in tenth.
It was one of the least enthused podiums you've ever seen with Vettel attempting, but unable, to offer a coherent excuse for ignoring team orders that didn't involve him admitting, "I was faster and I wanted the win so I ignored the team and fought to get it." In the post-race room Webber asked Vettel repeatedly "Multi 21, Seb?" – that's the code to maintain positions – the same way Caesar questioned Brutus, and was characteristically curt and biting during the podium interview saying Vettel took matters into his own hands and that he'd be protected from any repercussions. Hamilton was unwilling to celebrate because he openly stated that he felt Rosberg should have been on the podium. Off the podium, Rosberg told Ross Brawn, "Remember this one."
It wasn't the race we expected, in so many ways. But just like last year we so far have two winners in two races, and there's no reason China can't see a third. We'll see you in three weeks.