Malaysian GP: the ol’ Red Bull one-two

Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Red Bull have kick-started F1 2010 firmly into life with a dominant performance in the Malaysian GP in Sepang – with the fastest car in the field reliably surviving the longest race on the calendar and finally propelling its drivers to the top two steps on the podium as the anticipated rain stayed away.

When the lights went out, pole-sitter Webber looked to have made a textbook getaway, but that of team-mate Vettel directly behind him on the grid was even better, and as the Australian unwittingly left the door open into Turn One, the sister Red Bull accepted the offering and darted down the inside to snatch the lead. The two RBRs would go on to duel energetically over the course of the opening lap, with Webber fighting back on the inside of Turn Two only to be rebuffed, and having another ultimately fruitless look into Turn Four.

Behind the two RBRs, Nico Rosberg slotted into third after a slightly tardy start in his Mercedes Grand Prix, with Robert Kubica in the Renault again making up ground into fourth. Force India’s Adrian Sutil slipped a spot to fifth, just ahead of Michael Schumacher in the second Mercedes, while most of the field was forced to jink around the stationary Williams of veteran Rubens Barrichello, the suspected cause of which was an overheating clutch.

Further back, the two McLaren-Mercedes’ and Ferraris were already up to 13th (Lewis Hamilton), 14th (Felipe Massa), 15th (Jenson Button) and 16th (Fernando Alonso), something of a reversal of the quartet’s qualifying positions after Hamilton made a storming start and Massa intelligently followed him through down the inside. There would subsequently be a switch when the Brazilian got out-of-shape and allowed the chasing Button to dive up the inside, only to put the reigning F1 World Champion on the outside line for the following corner and enabling the ever-opportunistic Alonso to sneak through to put the two scarlet machines line-astern.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was clearly not in the mood for messing about and was swiftly on the move, wasting little time in disposing of the two Scuderia Toro Rossos of Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari and the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi to enter the points-scoring positions, as his team-mate and the Ferrari duo remained tucked up behind the STR pairing.

Timo Glock became the race’s first retirement when the young German got it all wrong following fast-starting Lotus rival Jarno Trulli and spun into his former Toyota team-mate, dropping the frustrated Italian to the rear of the order. The home heroes would even the score a handful of laps later, however, as an out-of-control Heikki Kovalainen swiped the other Virgin Racing entry of Lucas Di Grassi and removed part of the Brazilian rookie’s front wing with a somewhat clumsy move down the inside.

As the two Red Bulls continued to ease away out front, Hamilton found his next target a rather tougher proposition, as he took advantage of Renault new boy Vitaly Petrov running wide to pinch P9, only to find the promising young Russian coming right back at him again down the inside into Turn One, paying the price for underestimating his adversary by ceding the position again. The following lap almost saw a replay, only this time the 2008 world champion made the move stick, albeit only after receiving an official warning from the race stewards for weaving excessively across the circuit in order to keep the feisty ‘Vyborg Rocket’ definitively behind him.

Further back, team-mate and compatriot Button similarly gained a place as he passed an unusually passive and inert Alonso into Turn One – with it later becoming apparent that the Spaniard was suffering from a downshift issue in his Ferrari – only to become the first driver to pit on the very next lap, before proceeding to set the fastest lap of the race three tours later.

Kobayashi then became the second retiree of the grand prix to put both Saubers out of the equation given that luckless team-mate Pedro de la Rosa had failed even to make the start with an engine failure on the formation lap, and the Japanese ace would be joined on the sidelines before too much longer by multiple world champion Schumacher, who pulled off 10 laps in with rear suspension failure and the second Force India of Vitantonio Liuzzi.

Up at the sharp end of proceedings, meanwhile, status quo was preserved between the two Red Bulls – separated by 1.3 seconds – with the charging seventh-placed Hamilton the only man capable of matching their pace. With their own pit-stops approaching, Vettel began to turn the screw with a new fastest lap, only for Webber to respond next time around as the pair traded blow-for-blow.

The German pitted first, kissing the grass on the entry to the pit-lane as he pushed very hard indeed in an effort to preserve his advantage, and as he exited again the 22-year-old did so crucially just ahead of Hamilton. Webber, though, was less fortunate, with a problem with the right front wheel gun causing a delay and costing the New South Wales native 1.4 seconds over his team-mate.

There were no such issues for third-placed Rosberg, with Mercedes achieving the fastest pit-stop of the year to-date at a fraction under four seconds as the team bade to keep its driver ahead of Kubica, Sutil and the flying Hamilton. Button, too, was far from out of the equation, at just 21 seconds adrift of the sister Silver Arrow but with his own stop already completed.

Indeed, when Hamilton finally pitted on lap 31, he rejoined the fray right alongside Button, and only narrowly retained the advantage into Turn One. Further back, Massa’s own stop had leapfrogged the 2008 world championship runner-up ahead of the two Toro Rossos and Williams’ Nico Hülkenberg, leaving Alguersuari to engage himself in a superb battle with Williams’ German rookie, pulling off a supremely brave move all the way around the outside to steal the edge.

The plucky Petrov was the next to bite the dust, pulling off just after half-distance as the GP2 Series graduate’s quest to see an F1 chequered flag continued, while the aggressive Hamilton had closed rapidly onto the back of ex-F3 Euroseries team-mate Sutil for P6, having left team-mate Button trailing in his wheel tracks to the tune of some six seconds, with the latter now finding his hands full with fending off the resurgent Massa coming up fast in his rear view mirrors.

Alonso finally made his sole pit-stop with 19 laps remaining, dropping from fifth place out of front-running contention and a long way behind team-mate Massa – though he would swiftly go on to shift the goalposts again with regard to fastest lap. Up ahead, Hamilton was continuing to hound Sutil for what was now fifth following Alonso’s stop, with the fact that both cars benefit from the same Mercedes-Benz engine not making the British star’s life any easier. Podium-sitter Rosberg and fourth-placed Kubica were tantalisingly not far out of reach either, while behind the quartet, Alonso was homing in on the duelling Button and Massa at the rate of more than two seconds a lap.

With Alonso approaching apace, Massa finally successfully shot down the inside of the McLaren with 12 laps remaining, as the Briton’s early pit-stop and tiring tyres began to hurt him with his lap times the slowest of any of the top dozen runners. As Ferrari number one cleared off, Ferrari number two fancied its chances of following suit – although an attempted move around the outside of Turn One a couple of laps later narrowly failed to come off.

Webber, meanwhile, was whittling away the deficit to race leader Vettel, reducing a gap that had been as high as 5.1 seconds to just over three and keeping the pressure on. Rosberg and Kubica were running fairly solitary races in third and fourth respectively, whilst Sutil had freed himself slightly from Sutil, with Massa speeding up behind him and Button still staving Alonso off for eighth place.

Webber set a new fastest lap again three laps from home, but in truth neither Red Bull was needing to unduly stretch its legs as the laps ticked down, and in fact Vettel eked his advantage out to seven seconds in the closing stages. Behind the dominant RBR duo, Rosberg held on to third for his first podium visit of the campaign and for Mercedes, with Kubica impressing again in fourth, Sutil finally enjoying some good luck in 2010 to take a well-deserved fifth and Hamilton finding himself forced to settle for P6.

Massa wound up seventh – and with it, incredibly, grabbed the world championship lead – while Alonso continued to hound eighth-placed Button all the way until the penultimate lap, when a dive down the inside into Turn One was followed almost immediately afterwards by a plume of smoke, as a cylinder let go in his Ferrari’s engine and sent at least two points billowing away in a blind haze.

The Spaniard’s woes allowed Alguersuari and Hülkenberg to pinch the final points – their first in F1 – in ninth and tenth, with the classified finishers being completed by the second STR of Buemi, the delayed Barrichello, the unfortunate Alonso, Di Grassi handing Virgin its first-ever finish at the highest level, Hispania team-mates karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna and Lotus star Jarno Trulli. Neither Virgin nor Lotus were without their troubles in the closing stages, with Di Grassi slowly running out of fuel and worsening hydraulic issues for Trulli causing the Pescara native to lap some half a minute off his previous pace – but HRT were justifiably delighted with their two-car finish at only the third time of asking.

The main talking-point, however, was that of Red Bull. Luscious Liz delivered, and Vettel’s elation was clear to see as the 22-year-old zig-zagged across the finish line to take the chequered flag and subsequently gave a royal wave on the slowing-down lap. With the man from Heppenheim now equal-second in the drivers’ standings to Alonso – just two points off new leader Massa – a mere nine points blanketing the top seven competitors and Red Bull having closed to only 15 markers off Ferrari in the constructors’ title chase, F1 2010 is shaping up to be a cracker.

As the sport heads next to China – scene of RBR’s breakthrough victory this time last year, and a one-two at that – the championship starts right here!

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