While everyone expected today’s Malaysian GP to be all about tires and the weather, it turned out that team orders and the drivers’ ability to follow them, which was the biggest talking point.
A wet start to the Grand Prix meant that the normal regulation stipulating the mandatory use of both compounds of dry tire was overridden. Teams were faced with a tricky dilemma, as the first part of the Sepang circuit was very wet, with the middle and last sectors drying up quickly in the first couple of laps.
Alonso’s race was over at the beginning of lap two, following a collision with the back of Vettel’s car on the first lap, partially damaging his front wing. With the wing clearly hanging off, the team gambled on leaving Alonso out for another lap in the hope they could sneak into the window of being able to change to slick tires at the same time as replacing the nose and therefore saving an extra pitstop.
Shortly after going past the pits towards the end of the straight, the wing, hanging on with only one of it’s two mounting pillars, failed completely and stuck under the car. Fernando was lucky to avoid a big collision as the front wheels lifted off the ground, leaving him without brakes or steering at around 180 mph.
As the track dried, all cars moved to slick tires and the differing strategies between hard and medium compounds began to play out. With most opting for the softer medium compound, Mark Webber stayed out a lap later than his team mate and went onto the hard tire out in front. He looked to be in a good position, with the potential to stay out longer on the more durable orange banded compound and putting in some very fast times compared to the medium compound shod cars.
In a slightly surprising move, he actually pitted sooner than Vettel and as the World Champion emerged later from his own stop, the pair were only meters apart.
Vettel on mediums and Webber on hards, the two fought like arch enemies, rather than teammates, very nearly ending both of their races early. With the team having told the pair, in no uncertain terms, to hold positions, turn down their engines and look after the tires, Vettel took his own decision to fight and pass his team mate, eventually taking the lead and the race. A big move, which has left him in hot water with his bosses and his teammate.
Behind the squabbling Red Bulls, Mercedes had similar issues with Nico Rosberg desperately pleading with his team to allow him passed the ‘fuel saving’ Lewis Hamilton. Conversely to Vettel though, when Rosberg was told to hold position and bring the cars home, he did what he was told and followed Lewis home for a solid third and fourth for the team.
Further down the field the development race in pitstop technology cost Force India and McLaren their races as both Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta, who were looking strong, retired as their new captive wheel nut system failed to allow the Force India to change tires.
Jenson Button, also in a surprisingly good position following improvements to his MP4-28, was hampered by a similar error as his car left its pitstop box before the right front wheel was properly attached.
The overriding factor in terms of outright pace was again the Pirellis and their characteristics in different conditions. Last week’s pacesetter, Kimi Raikkonen, today struggled on an abrasive track and higher temperatures, whereas the Red Bulls, who struggled to make tires last in Australia, managed to use them well and maintain good pace. Those that learn quickly how to manage tire temperatures and use them most efficiently will have the biggest advantage as the season progresses.
Next up China, where the teams will have had a chance to regroup and some will hope to bring more updates for the next Grand Prix.
Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.