Red Bull, clearly the team to beat going into 2012, took the driver's and constructor's titles the last two years. The question is, could it defend them for the hat trick this season, or would a new frontrunner step up? The circus rolled in to Sepang, Malaysia this weekend for the second round of the 2012 Formula One World Championship. And it was a thriller. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
After a season in which Red Bull – Sebastian Vettel, specifically – secured practically every pole, it is 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton who is emerging as 2012's qualifying master, taking his second pole position in a row. Teammate Jenson Button placed alongside him in second, followed by F1's elder statesman and most successful driver, Michael Schumacher, landing his Mercedes in third. Mark Webber put Red Bull in fourth, with Sebastian Vettel in sixth to sandwich returning champ Kimi Raikkonen in fifth. (An unscheduled gearbox change, however, slapped Kimi with a five-place grid penalty.) His Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean qualified seventh, followed by Nico Rosberg in eighth for Mercedes, two-time champ Fernando Alonso managing only ninth for Ferrari (with teammate Felipe Massa down in twelfth) and Sergio Perez taking tenth for Sauber.
Come race Sunday, however, Kuala Lumpur was beset by rain that showered down on the Sepang track off and on, making tire strategy an even bigger factor than usual as parts of the track stayed wetter than others. Off the line the McLaren duo held their positions as Grosjean snuck his Lotus up from seventh to third, just before Webber passed him and Schumacher to take up position behind Hamilton and Button. In the shake-up, Grosjean tapped the back of Schumacher's Mercedes, sending both spinning out only to recover and rejoin further afield. There they found that Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen, who had been penalized to the back of the qualifying grid, had made his way up to 15th place, while Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi advanced from 17th to 9th.
It was Kobayashi's teammate, however, who impressed the most. The young Sergio Perez was the first to head into the pits for the full wet tire package on lap 2, a solid strategy for the Swiss team that would serve it well over the course of the race. Likewise, back-marker HRT's decision to start both of its drivers on wet tires instead of intermediates helped driver Narain Karthikeyan advance to tenth place as everyone else went in to swap rubber.
The rain, however, got so bad that by lap 7 officials were waving the red flag. The race continued under safety car for a couple of laps but was then brought to a halt by lap 9. Once the rain abated and every team had (by order of the marshals) switched to the full wet tires, the safety car led the pack back onto the circuit and gave way on lap 13 for the restart, at which point the lion's share of the field dove into the pits to switch back to intermediates.
And when they did, they left Sergio Perez in the lead – a position that few expected the Mexican rookie (viewed largely as a pay driver to bring in much-needed sponsorship to the Sauber team) to hold onto. And sure enough, Fernando Alonso soon took it away from him, but Sergio's tenacity in pursuing the two-time champion in the Ferrari proved one of the biggest surprises in a race filled with tumult. Perez stayed close to Alonso for the ensuing laps, the two Ferrari-powered Spanish speakers pulling away from Hamilton and the rest of the pack.
On lap 24, Sebastian Vettel took fourth from Rosberg, soon to be followed by Raikkonen, recovering from his grid penalty. Erstwhile frontrunners Button and Massa, meanwhile, were having more trouble as they languished toward the back of the field.
Up at the front, meanwhile, Alonso and Perez traded fastest laps as the Sauber whittled down the Ferrari's lead. Perez even looked poised to pass Alonso on lap 50 when he caught a curb and ran wide. His teammate, however, was having worse luck; Kobayashi was forced out of the race.
The final laps saw some close action as STR's rookie, Jean-Eric Vergne, fought to hold off Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Williams' Pastor Maldonado until the latter was forced to retire into the garage with a plume of smoke emanating from his car.
Across the line after 56 hectic laps, Fernando Alonso took the checkered flag to propel himself into the drivers' standings lead at this early point in the season. The bigger surprise, however, was the impressive performance from Sergio Perez, who took a well-earned second place for Sauber – the team's best result since the BMW days when Robert Kubica won at Montreal in 2008 and the best result it has ever achieved as an independent outfit.
Over fourteen seconds later, Lewis Hamilton crossed the line in third, followed by Mark Webber in fourth, with Kimi Raikkonen taking a solid fifth ahead of Senna, di Resta, Hulkenberg and Schumacher. Vettel, Button and Massa – former race winners all with three championships between them – all failed to finish in the points after a hectic race in the South Pacific nation. Watch this space on April 15 for our recap of the Chinese Grand Prix from Shanghai.