Controversy Rules the Day in Sepang

There have been races won amidst controversy and while the ramifications are always large and varying, one thing always remains the same: controversy is not going anywhere.

Aside from being a genuinely exciting race with weather, tire and fuel uncertainty, the race was mired in controversy. The final finishing order was not entirely surprising, what with the Red Bull Mercedes and the lone Ferrari drivers coming out on top. They way these positions were decided, however, will be the topic of discussion until we head to China in three weeks’ time.

The wet conditions at the start of the race made possible the first controversy of the day. Fighting Sebastian Vettel for the lead into the first corner, Fernando Alonso broke his front wing on the back of the German’s car.  Fernando did a good job to keet the car on track for the rest of the lap, but strangely, he did not go to the pits at the end of the first lap, instead deciding to continue with a front wing which was clearly about to come off.  And so it did. On the run down the main straight on the second lap, the front wing on Fernando’s car came off, sending him into the gravel. This was a very strange and rare mistake by the Spaniard and one which does not shed him in good light. Maybe the pressure from Felipe Massa is starting to get to him. More surprising was the fact that the Ferrari pit crew were waiting in the pit lane for Fernando at the end of the first lap.  One wonders how many mistakes Ferrari will tolerate this season now that their car is genuinely quick.

As the rain subsided and the rack dried out, gambles on the slick tires were soon to be made. Reigning champion, Sebastian Vettel was the first to take the plunge on the slick tires and proved they were the right tire to be on, despite a few mid-corner wobbles.  With everyone now on slick tires, it was Mark Webber who lead the field. After a great start, one in which he did not lose any places, from 5th on the grid, Mark made steady progress to the front of the field. It was clear by now that the dry weather pace deficit the Red Bull team experienced in Australia was gone.

Felipe Massa got caught out in the opening few laps, falling down the order to the lower end of the points table, while Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button shone in the wet conditions to move up to 6th and 5th place, respectively. With the track drying, though, their pace deficit would begin to show.

Raikkonen an Grosjean made similarly poor starts like Massa, with both of the Lotus drivers out of the points in the opening laps of the race. Their pace in the wet was not where they wanted it to be.

Once the order had settled down in the dry weather, the race was on to the finish.  The Red Bulls and Mercedes were fairly evenly matched on pace with Jenson Button doing a valiant job to keep the top four in his sight. It was looking, however, to be a race won by the Red Bulls, with both Mark and sebastian swapping places in the lead throughout the middle part of the race. As their battle continued, Sebastian became increasingly annoyed by the pace of Marks car, prompting the German to contact the team to tell his teammate to move out of the way. They denied this request, thus setting the scene for the controversy about which this article is titled.

The battle for the lesser points in the race was a fraught one, with nearly every driver in the field enjoying stints in the top-10 at some point or another. The Force Indias endured terrible afternoons, however, as Sutil’s second pitstop went awry. There was a problem fitting the new tire to the rim of the car. The helpless mechanics repeatedly twisted the wheel nut on the wheel, but to no avail.  A problem associated with the actual fitting of the wheel onto the rim prompted the team to call in Paul di Resta into the pits as well, where they ended up retiring his car as well. It was a disappointing day for the Force India team, at a track where they historically do so well.

With the midfield enduring problems of their own, the leaders enjoyed their own isolated battles for supremacy.  With Mark Webber still leading, and thus still annoying Vettel, tensions started to rise. Sebastian hounded Mark lap after tire-chewing lap until he finally got close enough to make it stick. The German made a rather alarming move to the inside of the track on the main straight, almost touching the pit wall.  Mark stayed alongside of him, though, but in the end came out of the battle in second place. Scary reproductions of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix must have been playing in the minds of all the Red Bull team members.  Amidst all this heart pounding racing, the radio messages between Christian Horner and Sebastian Vettel grew heated.  “Code 21, Code 21” said the team principal.  This combination of letters and numbers has a significant meaning in the Red Bull camp: Hold your position. With this message very clearly laid out, Sebastian promptly ignored it by the lead of the race and never looking back.

A similar situation at Mercedes was also occurring. Nico Rosberg, driving superbly, was clearly faster than his new teammate. What seemed like a stalemate battle later turned out to be team orders locking the drivers’ positions. In the best finishing order the Mercedes team has ever found itself in, Ross Brawn was understandably anxious about the possibility of his drivers fighting for position. Ross Brawn had a battle of words with his German driver telling him that this positions was important and that they need not ruin the result with an unnecessary battle for position. Indeed, by this time in the race, the two Mercedes drivers were  well clear of 5th placed Romain Grosjean, thus justifying these team orders. Nico reluctantly obeyed his boss and finished the race just half a second shy of a podium finish.

The emotions following the end of the race were awkward to say the least. Mark was understandably furious with Sebastian, as a guaranteed race win was ruined by his stubbornness.  It was a very poor showing from Sebastian who admitted he regretted making the move the second it was done.  At Mercedes, the dealings with the tension were much more tame. Rosberg conceded that he understood the logic in Brawn’s decision and that he vows to work harder to get on the podium. Even Lewis Hamilton admitted that Nico deserved to be on the podium in his place.

The ramifications of this race may prove far more significant than we anticipate in its immediate aftermath. The fact remains, though, that Sebastian won’t forget this race for the rest of his career.

Race Results:

The Malaysian Grand Prix
Sepang, Malaysia;
56 laps; 310.408km;
Weather: .

Classified:

Pos  Driver               Team                    Time/Gap
 1.  Sebastian Vettel     Red Bull-Renault    1h38m56.681s
 2.  Mark Webber          Red Bull-Renault        + 4.298s
 3.  Lewis Hamilton       Mercedes               + 12.181s
 4.  Nico Rosberg         Mercedes               + 12.640s
 5.  Felipe Massa         Ferrari                + 25.648s
 6.  Romain Grosjean      Lotus-Renault          + 35.564s
 7.  Kimi Raikkonen       Lotus-Renault          + 48.479s
 8.  Nico Hulkenberg      Sauber-Ferrari         + 53.044s
 9.  Sergio Perez         McLaren-Mercedes     + 1m12.357s
10.  Jean-Eric Vergne     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1m27.124s
11.  Valtteri Bottas      Williams-Renault     + 1m28.610s
12.  Esteban Gutierrez    Sauber-Ferrari           + 1 lap
13.  Jules Bianchi        Marussia-Cosworth        + 1 lap
14.  Charles Pic          Caterham-Renault         + 1 lap
15.  Giedo van der Garde  Caterham-Renault         + 1 lap
16.  Max Chilton          Marussia-Cosworth       + 2 laps
17.  Jenson Button        McLaren-Mercedes        + 3 laps
18.  Daniel Ricciardo     Toro Rosso-Ferrari      + 5 laps
Fastest lap: Perez, 1m39.199s

Not classified/retirements:

Driver            Team                  On lap
Pastor Maldonado  Williams-Renault      45
Adrian Sutil      Force India-Mercedes  27
Paul di Resta     Force India-Mercedes  22
Fernando Alonso   Ferrari               1

 

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