Saturday, April 30, 2011

Vettel's rivals given hope in Malaysia

There was a point, shortly before half distance, when the Malaysian Grand Prix appeared to be turning into a microcosm of exactly what the 2011 Formula 1 season was expected to be.

The eventual winner Sebastian Vettel was leading in his Red Bull, from Lewis Hamilton's McLaren and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari. Hamilton was closing on Vettel, Alonso was closing on Hamilton and, not far behind them, Jenson Button in the second McLaren was keeping pace.

Four great drivers in the three top teams were all in contention, and it looked for all the world like a continuation of the fights that made last year into an all-time classic.

In the end, that fantastic battle for the lead ebbed away, but the race still went some way towards cooling fears that Red Bull are going to walk away with this championship.

In the end, Vettel may have driven to another relatively comfortable victory, but just like in Australia two weeks ago the Red Bull was not obviously that much faster than a McLaren or, this time, a Ferrari in the race.

And, surprisingly, Vettel had nowhere near the advantage in qualifying that he had in Melbourne. The battle for pole position was genuinely close between him and Hamilton - despite Sepang being exactly the sort of track that should emphasise the Red Bull's aerodynamic excellence, even if the car has a power handicap down Sepang's long straights.

The world champion was hampered during the race by a faltering Kers system. It seems it was not working when he was coming under pressure from his pursuers, and came back again a little later, when he pulled away again, before the team decided to stop using it altogether once the challenge from Hamilton had faded.

It may be that Red Bull have not yet had to show their full hand in a race - or that for reasons related to the new Pirelli tyres they are not able to.

Either way, the McLarens and Ferraris were much closer than many feared heading into this race. After Australia, you could have been forgiven for thinking 2011 was going to develop as a repeat of Michael Schumacher's dominant years in 2002 and 2004. After Malaysia, the prospects for an exciting season look considerably stronger.

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The race ebbed and flowed throughout its duration, providing a fascinating and gripping spectacle.

Vettel's afternoon was made easier than it might have been by Nick Heidfeld's lightning start in the Renault, which catapulted the German veteran into second place ahead of Hamilton.

There was therefore no chance to see a direct comparison between Vettel and Hamilton in the early laps - and that allowed Vettel to quickly build an advantage that meant he was in control mode as early as the first of his three pit stops.

Mid-race, Hamilton was Vettel's main threat, but as he dropped back, losing grip from his Pirelli tyres faster than his rivals, Button came increasingly into the picture.

The 2009 world champion struggled in the early stages after making a mistake on set-up going into the race. But once that was rectified by adding more front downforce at his pit stops, Button edged ever forward, and as Hamilton fell back with tyre problems, the older McLaren man emerged in second place.

In the closing laps, Button made a go of closing on Vettel, only to effectively be told by his engineer to settle for second because the team did not know whether his tyres would last.

Had things worked out differently, Button may have been forced to spend those closing laps watching his mirrors for a challenge by Alonso. As it was, the Spaniard wrecked what was looking like a certain podium when he misjudged a passing attempt on Hamilton with 10 laps to go.

With his moveable rear wing not working, Alonso was forced to look for other places to pass Hamilton than the end of the pit straight. He had a great run on the McLaren out of Turn Three, but he got too close before pulling out to try for the inside into Turn Four and he clipped his front wing against his old rival's right rear tyre.

That meant a stop for a new front wing, and a finish behind team-mate Felipe Massa in sixth place, which he retained despite a 20-second penalty for hitting Hamilton. It was a costly mistake, but if Alonso did not sound too down in his post-race interview, that was almost certainly because Ferrari certainly did not go into the race expecting to be challenging a McLaren for a place on the podium.

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The team were utterly dejected on Friday, when Alonso was 1.5 seconds off the pace, and not much more optimistic after qualifying on Saturday. But in race conditions the Ferrari looked pretty competitive.

With a massive internal inquiry going on at Maranello about these confusing signals, and the promise of significant upgrades to come, one suspects Alonso may well be a major contender again.

The same is undoubtedly true of Hamilton, even if he did not look like he believed it himself after the race. Starting the day expecting to fight for victory, he finished seventh after struggling increasingly with tyre wear as the race developed. And that was before a 20-second penalty for weaving while defending from Alonso cost him another place.

Hamilton's penalty was not for the collision itself - it was for an incident two minutes earlier, which was when he was defending his position from Alonso down the pit straight the previous lap.

If you watch the video closely, Hamilton does slightly change the trajectory of his car a number of times as the two men are heading towards the first corner.

He is heading to his left, towards the outside of the track, then he goes right a touch, then back left again. They are not big moves, but they are moves. And the stewards decided he had crossed the line and broken the rule that forbids drivers from making more than one change of line to defend a position.

It was, it has to be said, a marginal decision but it should be pointed out that Hamilton has been in trouble for this sort of thing before - in last year's Malaysia race, as it happens. Then, he was given a warning flag for unsportsmanlike driving while defending from Renault's Vitaly Petrov - and received heavy criticism from fellow drivers in the aftermath of the race.

This incident was not as dramatic as that, but Hamilton has nevertheless become the first man to be punished under new rules this season that give race stewards broader powers in such situations.

Hamilton was dejected after the race, obviously frustrated, and appearing to blame the team for stopping him too early for tyres throughout the race.

But the late stop with four laps to go that dropped him down from fourth place was his own decision, according to team boss Martin Whitmarsh. The team felt he could have stayed out - although Whitmarsh was quick to add that the driver has to be trusted in such situations.

Before the season, there was talk that Hamilton's more exuberant style compared to Button could lead him into problems with this year's Pirelli tyres, which have been deliberately designed to degrade relatively quickly. Hamilton has been quick to reject such suggestions, but was this an example of that? And, if so, how much of an impact on Hamilton's hopes will it have this season?

That is just one of the questions to which the Chinese Grand Prix next weekend may provide more answers. Among the others, the merits of the moveable rear wing, or DRS as F1 rather unhelpfully officially calls it, will remain under the spotlight.

At times during Sunday's race in Malaysia, it appeared to be working exactly as planned - it was putting drivers in a position to try to pass, but they were still having to work for it. At others, it appeared to be making things a little too easy. It will doubtless continue to provide a talking point throughout the season.

More pressingly, for those pursuing Vettel, there is the urgent need to turn promise into concrete results.

After two races, Vettel's position in the championship already looks comfortable. Two consecutive victories, with different drivers alongside him on the podium, have put Vettel into a commanding 24-point lead in the championship - after two races, he is already nearly a win clear of his closest pursuer, Button.

Unlike last year, Vettel has made the most of the fastest car in the first two races of the season. Like last year, Red Bull have had problems - this time, with the Kers system - but the German has won both races anyway, whereas at this stage in 2010, he had only a fourth place to his name.

Strong as the Red Bull is, it has weaknesses and it appears as if it is beatable, as long as a rival gets everything right. But they need to start doing that soon, or the already large gap Vettel has built up in the championship will begin to look unbridgeable.


Raymond Sommer Vincenzo Sospiri Stephen South Mike Sparken Scott Speed Mike Spence Alan Stacey

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