Red Bull Racing has had a hell of an ascension over the past few seasons. It started out as Stewart Grand Prix then changed names to Jaguar Racing before the Austrian energy drink concern swooped in and took over. In the five years since, the team went from a solid mid-fielder (if sometime back-marker) to serious contender. Nobody could have seen it coming, but last season Red Bull finished second in both the constructors' and drivers' championships, coming this close to upsetting Jenson Button and the boys at Brawn GP for both titles.
This season, however, is quickly turning into Red Bull's time to shine. But so far it's only amounted to pole positions. A good place to start, sure, but not enough to claim titles on its own. In the opening two grands prix this season, Red Bull claimed pole at both: Sebastian Vettel leading Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso in Bahrain, repeating the feat in Australia but with team-mate Mark Webber sandwiched between Vettel and Alonso. Neither race translated into victory, however, as the RB6 suffered technical failures both times out. Would the boys at Red Bull make it a hat-trick of poles at Sepang? And more importantly, would they translate their qualifying prowess into race victory? Follow the jump to find out.
Saturday's qualifying session for the 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix was a mixed bag. If you expected to see Red Bull joining the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes GP at the top of the time sheets, well...you may have been only partly surprised. Red Bull indeed took two of the top three positions on the grid, but it was Webber on pole while Vettel started third. Mercedes GP's young star Nico Rosberg – quickly emerging as a force to be reckoned with – started second place between them. But it was Force India, Renault and Williams that took the following positions, while McLaren and Ferrari got stuck way down the order amidst newcomers HRT, Virgin and Lotus.
The shake-up came down to poor timing, as Ferrari and McLaren – the two most successful teams in the sport – failed to set sufficiently fast times before the rain came in and the session was effectively forfeit.
With the stage set, the lights flashed green at Sepang. But no sooner did they accelerate down the straightaway and into the first corner than Vettel squeezed by his wingman to take the lead. Meanwhile Massa (starting in P21) went after Hamilton (P20), and Alonso (P19) blew past Jarno Trulli's Lotus (P18) to challenge Button (P17). Seasoned veteran Rubens Barrichello spun his Williams from P7 on the grid, dropping down to P17, and the rest flew by.
And so the procession began, Vettel and Webber pulling away from the rest of the field, Rosberg left largely to his own devices in third place, and the Ferraris and McLarens trying their darnedest to pick their way past their "inferiors" to get up to the front. That much wouldn't prove easy, however, as some of the mid-fielders and back-markers put up a real fight along the way.
Among the most notable, Renault's Vitaly Petrov managed to fend off Hamilton's advances lap after lap. The former champion eventually managed to get by the Russian rookie, but Petrov stayed glued to Hamilton's tail for a couple more laps. So much so, in fact, that Lewis resorted to weaving back and forth down the straightaway in an attempt to defend his position, a move that earned him a warning from race officials.
Scuderia Toro Rosso's Jamie Alguersuari – having only made his grand prix debut last season – mounted a commendable campaign as well against the front-runners, and would claim his first championship points before the day was over.
Many of Alguersuari's contemporaries – and indeed a few of his accomplished superiors – couldn't manage that much in Malaysia this year. Although nowhere near as many as in damp Australia, seven out of the 24 drivers failed to finish. Virgin's Timo Glock spun out near the start of the race. Sauber's Pedro de la Rosa didn't even start the race, and his team-mate Kamui Kobayashi would join him on the pit wall by lap 9. After fighting a concerted campaign in the opening laps, Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi followed on lap 12. Petrov, after his valiant efforts, petered out by lap 34. Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen eventually finished, but only after spending six laps in the garage undergoing repairs.
Most notably, however, two of the returning world champions on the grid failed to make it to the finish line. If you've been wondering what has become of Michael Schumacher this season, let's just say he hasn't quite been back up to his winning form so far. After finishing sixth in Bahrain and tenth in Melbourne, the seven-time world champion with nothing left to prove was forced to sideline his Mercedes by lap 10 due to an apparent problem with the car's left-rear side, an issue later attributed to a lose wheel nut.
More surprising, however, was the outcome of the race-long battle between the Ferraris and McLarens. After battling his way up the grid, Hamilton climbed all the way up to third place, staying out longer than most of the rest of the field – his defending-champion team-mate Button first among them – before finally pitting for fresh tires and an obligatory switch in compounds. With 56 laps in the race distance, Hamilton didn't pit until lap 31, re-emerging just ahead of his wingman as Vettel had just in front of Hamilton earlier on lap 24. Alonso was the only driver to stay out longer, pitting on lap 37 and rejoining the field ahead of STR's Alguersuari and just behind his team-mate Massa, who was closing in fast on Jenson Button.
With 17 laps to go and everyone already pitted, Vettel was firmly in the lead, his team-mate Webber behind him in second. Rosberg held on to third, with Renault's Robert Kubica in fourth and Force India's Adrian Sutil in fifth, followed by Hamilton, Button, Massa, Alonso and Alguersuari rounding out the top ten.
On fresher rubber than everyone else, Alonso proceeded to fire off one fastest lap after another as he caught up to his team-mate and closed in on the McLarens ahead of them. The real excitement ensued in these closing laps. On lap 44, Massa finally edged past Button to take seventh place. But he would prove unable to catch up with and pass Hamilton in the remaining dozen laps.
Meanwhile Alonso, who had struggled earlier in the race with a troubled transmission that gave him problems downshifting, fought tooth-and-nail to get past the defending champion Button. Every attempt to pass made by Alonso was thwarted by Button until lap 55. Racing past the pits and the start/finish line, Alonso edged Button out on the first corner, only to blow his engine in that second-to-last lap. His position would classify him 13th – ahead of five drivers who actually finished – but crucially out of the points.
At the race's end, Vettel and Webber brought home a well-deserved 1-2 finish for Red Bull, repeating the feat they accomplished no less than four times last year. Nico Rosberg continued, most notably, outshining his world-famous team-mate for the third time in a row, claiming a highly commendable third place podium finish for Mercedes GP and title sponsor Petronas, the Malaysian oil company for whom Sepang is their home race.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel (2nd R) celebrates with teammate and second-place Mark Webber (L) and third-placed Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.
The remaining points went to Renault's Robert Kubica (4th), Force India's Adrian Sutil (5th), McLaren's Lewis Hamilton (6th), Ferrari's Felipe Massa (7th), McLaren's Jenson Button (8th), Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari (9th) and Williams' Nico Hulkenberg (10th).
The results leave the drivers' standings remarkably close in the top seven, with Massa in the lead at 39 points, followed by Alonso and Vettel with 37 apiece, Button and Rosberg at 35 points each, Lewis Hamilton at 31 and Robert Kubica with 30. Webber trails with 24 points, while Schumacher dangles at 10th place in the standings with 9 points. The combined team scores in the constructors' championship leave Ferrari in the lead here as well with 76 points, McLaren following with 66, Red Bull at 61 and Mercerdes with 44.
With the standings so closely stacked and 16 races to go, the titles are still very much up for grabs. Tune in again in two weeks' time for our post-race wrap-up from the Chinese Grand Prix, April 18 from Shanghai.