Take the totally dominant Vettel out of the equation – yes, the Red Bull man made it two wins from two races this year – and on the first “real” race track of the season, all the changes introduced this year definitely seemed to provide an exciting afternoon’s entertainment for the fans in the stands and those watching at home on the TV.
And before you say Malaysia is always exciting because the Sepang track usually turns into a boating lake courtesy of the traditional thunderstorm, there were only a few feeble drops of rainfall all day.
As expected, higher tyre degradation made for more pit stops, with a total of 59 visits being made down pit lane today. In fact, the number of pit stops played a significant part in the fact that, having started 12th and 13th on the grid, Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari ended up 13th and 14th at the end of the 56 laps.
Buemi made three, one of which was for a stop-go penalty, after he double pressed the pit lane speed limiter on his way to his first scheduled stop, which deactivated it causing him to get done for speeding. Therefore, that was one stop too many, while for Alguersuari, it was a case of one too few, because although he only pitted twice to change tyres, with hindsight, his struggle with tyre degradation means that a three stopper would have been a better strategy for him. Both men made good starts, moving up a place and Jaime got past Séb on the opening lap so that they were running eleventh and twelfth, until on lap 8, the Swiss driver retook his place off the Spaniard. By lap 14, Seb had climbed as high as sixth before pitting next time round and that’s when his troubles began, two laps before Jaime stopped for fresh rubber. A final stop for tyres for Seb on lap 32, dropped him to 16th and he eventually made up three places as others ran into trouble or pitted ahead of him. Jaime simply struggled for pace and was happy just to bring the car home one spot behind his team-mate.
At the front, the race came to life immediately the lights went out, as Nick Heidfeld stormed through from sixth to second in the Renault, behind pole man Vettel, followed by Hamilton and Button and then Petrov in fifth spot ahead of the two Ferrari men, with Massa having got ahead of Alonso. From third on the grid, Webber in the other Red Bull had dropped all the way to ninth. Webber versus Kobayashi and Buemi v Alguersuari were the main battles in the opening stages, with the Australian being the first to start changing tyres on lap 10. Most of the three stoppers came in around now, with Massa suffering a bad stop that dropped him down the order. Alonso began to pick up the pace, passing Button for fourth on lap 16, as Jaime pitted and then Kobayashi for third. After 20 laps, Vettel still lead, but it was not looking quite as easy as qualifying might have suggested, as Hamilton seemed to be able to manage the gap and two laps later the second run of pit stops began.
Around lap 30, Vettel was told not to use his KERS as it had a problem but he still had a lead of almost 4 seconds over Hamilton, Button, Alonso and Webber. By the time Vettel made his final stop on lap 41, Button had got ahead of his team-mate, with Webber fourth ahead of Alonso, Petrov, Heidfeld and Massa. Now, tyre wear was becoming an issue for everyone, as Massa dispatched Petrov, and Alonso seemed bound to pass Hamilton. But the Ferrari DRS was not working, so desperate measures were called for and as the Spaniard tried his all, he clipped the back of the Englishman’s car and had to make an extra stop to change the front wing. It looked as though the order was now settled to the flag, but Webber, who had switched to fresh rubber later than the other front runners had other ideas. From sixth on lap 47, he dealt with Massa and then Hamilton, who eventually had to make an extra stop. The result at the flag was therefore Vettel, Button and Heidfeld on the podium, the German obviously delighted to be back when he had not even expected to race this year. The rest of the points went to Webber fourth, then Massa, Alonso, Hamilton, Kobayashi, Schumacher and Di Resta the final one for tenth place.