Fernando Alonso was an unexpected winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix after holding off an outstanding Sergio Perez in a rain-interrupted race.
After the race was suspended for 50 minutes after just nine laps, the pair moved to the head of the field after making the switch to intermediate tyres. Ferrari driver Alonso initially built up a good lead over Sauber‘s Perez, but as the track dried out the Mexican caught the race leader at a blistering rate.
In the end a mistake in the closing stages would deny the youngster, allowing Alonso to score a vital win that has given him the championship lead – a remarkable feat given Ferrari’s early-season struggles.
The rain hit parts of the Sepang circuit as the race was about to get underway, leading the majority of the field to start on the intermediate tyres.
The McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button led away from the front row of the grid, while behind it was Romain Grosjean who made a flying start to move up into third place at Turn 1. The Lotus driver was soon passed by Mark Webber, and then collided with Michael Schumacher at Turn 4, sending both into a spin.
With very heavy rain in sections of the track, Perez was the first man to pit for wet tyres at the end of the opening lap. Most would join him in changing rubber within the following laps, but Perez’s early stop helped him up into third place behind the two McLarens.
With Button labelling the last sector as “like a lake” on the team radio, the safety car was deployed on lap six. With conditions worsening, the race was red-flagged on lap nine. Behind the McLarens and Perez, Webber held fourth, with Alonso up to fifth in front of Sebastian Vettel. Jean-Eric Vergne held seventh place having remained on intermediates – yet still managed to remain on track too.
The other big story at this point was that Narain Karthikeyan held tenth in his HRT as a result of starting on the full wet tyre. Had the race not been restarted – as was the case in 2009 – the Spanish team would have been the first of the three ‘new’ teams to claim a world championship point. Well, half of one anyway.
The conditions did improve though and so the race restarted under the safety car. The safety car came in on lap 13, and Button followed Bernd Maylander in to make the change back to intermediate tyres.
Hamilton came in a lap later, but had to be held in his pit box so as not to collide with the incoming Ferrari of Felipe Massa. Alonso had also come in just behind Hamilton, but managed to emerge in front not only of Hamilton but also ahead of Button. Button’s race would get worse later on that lap though, as he ran into Karthikeyan at Turn 9, breaking part of his front wing.
Perez stopped a lap later than Alonso and Hamilton and rejoined in front of both, although Alonso immediately got back past to take the lead of the race. The Spaniard built up a seven second cushion over Perez, while those behind failed to keep up.
As the track dried Perez began catching Alonso, whose intermediate tyres were beginning to give up on him. Perez closed the gap down to 1.3 seconds by lap 40, when Alonso took to the pits to fit slick tyres.
Perez stayed out a lap longer and would lose out as a result, rejoining seven seconds behind Alonso. While Alonso had taken the medium compound, Perez had the slower harder compound. But despite this he was clearly quicker than the Ferrari driver and closed right up on him again with just seven laps to go.
But his chances were ruined when he ran wide at Turn 14 going onto the long back straight, after getting on the wet kerb. He fell five seconds behind, and although he had managed to catch Alonso back up by the finish, he ran out of laps with which to get past.
Hamilton finished 15 seconds off the lead in third place. Vettel had been set for third and was chasing down Hamilton until he picked up a puncture after contact with Karthiekyan. Stopping to replace the shredded tyre dropped him down to 11th, as Webber picked up fourth.
Kimi Raikkonen took a strong fifth for Lotus, while Bruno Senna put in an amazing performance after the restart to claim a career-best sixth for Williams, having been at the back of the pack after going off and breaking his front wing on the first lap of the race.
Paul di Resta was seventh for Force India, ahead of Vergne who scored his first F1 points having had tenth place in Australia nabbed from him by di Resta at the line. Nico Hulkenberg finished just behind the Toro Rosso driver in the second Force India, while Schumacher took the final point – the only one scored by Mercedes so far this season.
Pastor Maldonado was running tenth, but just like in Australia his race would fall apart at the end, this time with smoke coming from the Renault engine in his Williams.
Daniel Ricciardo was making up places left, right and centre at one stage but that pace later disappeared and he would have to settle for 12th behind Vettel. Nico Rosberg was 13th after being forced to have a second stint on the inters, as was 14th placed Button, who very uncharacteristically struggled with this tyres in the changeable conditions.
Felipe Massa finished down in 15th, crossing the line only just in front of teammate Alonso and Perez, the man who had already been rumoured to be set to take the Brazilian’s seat before this result.
Alonso holds a five-point lead over Hamilton in the points, with Button a further five behind. Webber and Perez are fourth and fifth, with reigning world champion Vettel languishing down in fifth.
There’s a three-week break for the teams and drivers ahead of the third round of the season, the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on 15th April.