Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix

Another weekend, another Formula 1 entry! The teams have moved to the Sepang International Circuit outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the second race of the 2013 Formula 1 season. Some of the teams, especially Red Bull and Mercedes, have been struggling with the Pirelli tyres this weekend, and Mercedes has even said that they want Pirelli to go back to the 2012 season tyres. But seriously, if you can’t handle the tyres, deal with it: The tyres are a part of the game, and all the teams use the same tyres. McLaren is also struggling at the start of the season, and they had one of their worst first races of a season last weekend in Melbourne. Unlike Mercedes, McLaren is not blaming the tyres, but has flat out admitted that they have a shitty car and that they didn’t realize it before the first race weekend. McLaren is not panicking yet, but rumours have it they have been toying with the thought of going back to the 2012 car.

Compared to last week’s qualifying session, the qualifying on the Sepang circuit was rather uneventful. Adrian Sutil (Force India) has been away from Formula 1 for a year, but is now back. And he is flying, at least compared to how he did last time he tried his luck in a Formula 1 car. He did a good race in Melbourne, and blew everyone away in Q1. One guy who didn’t blow anyway away was Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), who ended Q1 on P15, a very unusual position for him. But fortunately for Vettel, Q1 is all about finishing P16 or better to avoid elimination.

At the start of Q1, there was no chance of rain, but at Sepang you never know. 8 minutes into Q1, the skies start to look pretty grim over the long straight opposite the start/finish line and with 8 minutes left in Q2 it started to pour. Paul di Resta (Force India) was caught off guard, spun around and was eliminated from the session. Vettel, on the other hand, managed to wiggle is way from Q2 to Q3, finishing P9.

In Q3, the rain continued, and DRS was disabled. With a lucky tyre decision from Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel managed to secure pole position, with Felipe Massa (Ferrari) and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) on P2 and P3 respectively. The Ferraris are usually very quick during the start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both cars are ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull into the first corner. Last week’s winner, Kimi Räikkönen (Lotus), qualified P7, but got a three place grid penalty for impeding Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) during qualifying. In my opinion, a totally idiotic penalty since there really wasn’t anywhere for poor Räikkönen to go. If this sets the standard for impeding penalties this season, we’ll see a lot of them.

Today is race day, the track is partly wet, too wet for slicks and all the teams are starting on intermediates. The track temperature is 25 degrees, a massive 20 degrees less than the maximum temperature this weekend and that might be a good ting for Mercedes and Red Bull as it will reduce tyre wear. Now the question is - like it always is at Sepang - will the rain come?

But the rain never came to Sepang this year. Instead, Formula 1 once again proved that it doesn’t need rain to create drama. It all started in one of the first corners where Fernando Alonso touched with Sebastian Vettel and damaged his front wing. For reasons unknown, Alonso was not called into the pits after the first lap, but continued down the start/finish straight where on lap 2, where his front wing broke lose and got stuck under his car, effectively lifting the front wheels off the ground. With no front wheel grip, the driver is now the passenger, but luckily for Alonso he got stuck in a gravel pit instead of hitting the barriers. It was a very close call and I have no idea why he didn’t pit. A sad end to Alonso’s 200th grand prix.

Even though Alonso decided not to use the pits today, many of the other drivers made sure there was a lot of entertainment in the pit area: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) drove into the McLaren pits on his first pitstop, but they were kind enough to just wave him through to the correct pit box. Jean-Éric Vergne (Toro Rosso) and Charles Pic (Caterham) bumped together in the pits after an unsafe release by Toro Rosso - Vergne, on his way out of the box, hit Pic who turned to enter the box in front. Vergne’s front wing got damaged and he had to be pulled back for a fron wing replacement. Force India also had a terrible day in the pits, having major problems with the wheel nut on the left front tyre on both of their cars, which eventually resulted in both cars having to retire from the race. Jenson Button (McLaren) also had a mishap in the pits when he was released too early by the guy with the lollipop. The right front wheel was not properly secured and Jenson had to be pushed back to get it fixed. This is not the first time that the McLaren pit crew has screwed up in a similar fashion; last year Jenson lost one of his rear tyres after a pit stop.

Out on the track, the two teams that had complained the most about the 2013 Pirelli tires eventually found themselves well ahead of the pack. On lap 44 we witnessed the start of what might turn out to be one of the most dramatic tales of internal team politics in years. Mark Webber (Red Bull) exited the pits after his last pit stop of the race and managed to squeeze ahead of Sebastian Vettel (reigning champion and also driving for Red Bull). The two fought fiercely for P1 through all of lap 44 and most of lap 45 before Vettel managed to get past Webber. That, in itself, is not very dramatic, but it turned out that Vettel had blatantly ignored a “multi 21”, a Red Bull team order to turn down his engine and “hold stations”. In other words, he was not allowed by the team to overtake Webber, but still did.

In the end, Vettel finished P1, ahead of Webber, who did not look happy getting out of his car. To be honest, I don’t think anyone was happy with Vettel, except for himself, as he claimed he had misunderstood the team order and the only thing he could do was to apologise. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to misunderstand a team order like that, especially considering all the Red Bull radio chatter during the fight for P1 and after Vettel overtook Webber.

Yes, you won the race, Vettel, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if this is bad karma that will come back and bite you in the ass soon enough. While we’re talking about karma: One man who collected quite a lot of good karma today was Nico Rosberg (Mercedes). He also got team orders from Mercedes to coast behind his team mate Hamilton in front of him, even though Rosberg was far faster than Hamilton. This effectively robbed Rosberg of a podium finish and basically removes all doubt that he is the secondary driver at Mercedes, with Hamilton being the star. This naturally grains Rosberg’s gears: He’s been with Mercedes since 2010, while Hamilton joined the team this season after leaving McLaren. Mercedes owns Rosberg big for not pulling a Vettel, but I’ve got a feeling this is not the last time this season that Hamilton will be prioritized over poor Rosberg.

How will the Vettel/Webber/Red Bull saga end? We’ll see, but I’m pretty sure it’ll sour the Webber-Vettel relationship and without doubt the public opinion of Vettel. I think Red Bull should be very happy that the other driver here was Mark Webber, one of the most sympathetic and pragmatic drivers in Formula 1. Andrew Benson, chief BBC F1 writer, has an article online that puts a little light on the aftermath of the incident. It will be interesting to see if Vettel will be spared of any team reprimands for ignoring team orders. He shouldn’t, be he probably will.

Oh, yeah, and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) failed to finish in Malaysia as well. This time he got stuck in a gravel pit on lap 47. Maybe next time, Maldonado. Maybe next time.

Update: The internet has dug up some interesting information about Mark Webber and team orders. As it turns out, he disobeyed a similar team order from the pit wall not to overtake Sebastian Vettel during the race at Silverstone in 2011. Webber ignored his team, just like Vettel did today, the only difference is that Webber didn’t manage to overtake his team mate. So in terms of obeying team orders, it looks like Mark Webber is in no position to be grumpy. Source.

“Of course I ignored the team because I wanted to try and get a place. Seb was doing his best, I was doing my best. I wasn’t going to crash with anyone.” - Mark Webber, after having received team orders from Red Bull not to overtake Sebastian Vettel at Silverstone, 2011.


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