Sebastian Vettel came, saw and conquered! But that’s not exactly the true story of the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix. Yes, Vettel did score a much deserved win, but at one point of the race, not many knew who would win! Mixed tyre strategies, KERS and DRS related issues and of course the non-arrival of the much expected rain, all made for an interesting Malaysian GP in Sepang.
Adrian Sutil and Rubens Barrichello had a first lap incident which compromised not only their positions on-track, but also their race strategies. In the days of Bridgestone, one could’ve taken a first lap incident with a pinch of salt, bolted on the hard compound and pretty much run to the end of the race. However, with the highly-degrading Pirelli tyres, a first lap incident pretty much compromises your tyre allocations for the race, which directly affects your tyre strategy.
The best starter in Sepang has to be Lotus Renault GP’s Nick Heidfeld. The German driver went around the outside of almost everybody else and rounded the first corner battling with Lewis Hamilton for the second place. Heidfeld’s start tactic worked as he rounded the second corner in second place, just behind the race leader Sebastian Vettel and in the hot pursuit of Hamilton. The other surprising issue at the start was Mark Webber’s car suffering from KERS problems. The KERS seems to be giving the Red Bull Racing team nightmares and they too are aware that an early solution is needed to keep their pace at the front. I wonder what would’ve been the race result had Sebastian Vettel suffered a similar problem.
The early anticipation of rain saw the teams instruct their drivers to conserve their tyres longer in the front stint. However, the rain was only expected, but failed to arrive and drivers soon had to pit for fresh rubber. This is when most F1 pundits would’ve thrown their hands up and accused Pirelli of ruining the show. Drivers were pitting left, right and centre bolting on different tyre compounds. Most took on the option tyre and a few chose the prime tyre while trying to work different strategies to gather on-track advantage.
Mid-race saw an eager battle between former team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. What made the battle more interesting was that Alonso’s adjustable rear wing (Read: Adjustable or Ambiguous Rear Wing) had an error and that made his overtaking that bit tougher. The resultant failure made sure that Alonso followed Hamilton closely into and at the exit of the corners. Just when Alonso could pull off the move, this front wing clipped Hamilton’s rear, forcing Alonso to make an extra pit stop for a new front wing. The battle was very interesting to follow on-track, but post-race both drivers were penalized 20 seconds for their track behavior – Hamilton for changing lines on the main straight more than once and Alonso for the avoidable collision.
The penalties do seem unfair, but the FIA Stewards need to ensure that they are more consistent in dishing out penalties at race weekends. One thing I do know is that no amount of penalties will deter drivers from going slightly over the edge to either defend or attack position.
The Malaysian Grand Prix had an overdose of tyre stops. Most drivers pitted at least thrice, making it almost impossible to follow more than a couple of drivers and their strategies. What made matters worse was that there were no particular pit stop windows when the drivers pitted. Mark Webber made 4 pit stops and still managed to make up lost ground from his KERS-ridden start. Kamui Kobayashi on the other hand made only 2 stops (only driver in the top ten to do so) and managed to finish 7th. Pit strategies are key to race positions, but hardcore Formula1 fans might be slightly disappointed as it makes strategy predictions that bit tougher.
Tyre degradation was of course the only reason for the multiple pit stops. Lewis Hamilton didn’t surprise a lot of people in the F1 pitlane when he used up his second stint tyres a little too much. His tyres went off and hence he lost a few crucial positions on track, this only meant that Lewis had to pit yet again. On the other hand, his team-mate Jenson Button made the right tyre strategy calls to overtake Hamilton and Alonso on track. What must be noted is that Button made his hard compound tyre last for 19 laps in the race by his silky smooth driving style.
WilliamsF1 faced a double retirement and Sauber’s Sergio Perez had to stop due to the collection of debris in his radiators. Toro Rosso’s failed to show the pace they did in Australia and this worked in Force India’s favour. Their consistent and reliable race pace saw them fight with the Mercedes GP cars. The Force India drivers finished 9th and 10th, Paul di Resta finishing ahead of Adrian Sutil and scoring the team’s lone point in Sepang.
Lotus Renault GP’s Vitaly Petrov had a slightly scary moment when he went off track, hit a bump and was airborne for a few seconds. The impact of landing was too hard on the steering column that came loose and prematurely ended the Russian’s race. Petrov and Heidfeld showed that Renault have the pace to fight at the sharper end of the grid.
HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan had to retire early in the race due to high water temperatures and his team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi almost drove the full race distance. HRT have a long way to go before they become a serious force in the sport, but I won’t be surprised if they overtake Virgin Racing in the next few GPs. Nick Wirth’s CFD-only design cars don’t seem to be doing too well.
Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Malaysia make him the title-favourite and previous records show that the driver winning the first two GPs of the season has gone on to win the World Championship that season. Leaving the GP winner aside, Nick Heidfeld also became only driver to score maximum podiums without scoring a win yet! Having said that, I wish Nick reverses this record and scores his maiden F1 victory in 2011!