Sebastian Vettel led team mate Mark Webber home to what should have been a celebratory Red Bull 1-2 in Sepang on Sunday, but the success was sullied by a post-race argument between the two drivers. All through the race the radio messages between Vettel and Red Bull’s team management told as much of the story as the on-track action.
Webber led much of the race after a timely switch to dry tyres following the use of intermediates on a wet surface in the opening laps. Vettel complained for much of the time he was following Webber, and continually asked his team to tell him to move over.
As far as the Australian was concerned, he had the race in the bag and Vettel was bound by team orders to follow him home as they conserved tyres and fuel. But Vettel launched a huge attack to take the lead on the 46th lap, and pulled away after a brutal bout of side-by-side running which enthralled the crowd.
Eventually, Vettel was able to pull away to a triumph which equalled Sir Jackie Stewart’s 27 wins. Later Vettel claimed to have realised only when they removed their helmets in parc ferme that he had made a mistake in overtaking Webber, but he had been warned on that 46th lap by team boss Christian Horner that he had a lot of explaining to do after the race. Vettel apologised to Webber and admitted that he had got it wrong, but the Australian was unimpressed.
Further back, Lewis Hamilton said he didn’t feel that he deserved his first podium finish for Mercedes, as team mate Nico Rosberg was repeatedly instructed by team boss Ross Brawn not to pass him as they both had to turn their engines to maximum fuel-saving mode. Rosberg honoured that instruction, but Hamilton said that he felt his team mate had driven a more intelligent race, as he himself had given in to his natural competitive instincts to take the fight to the Red Bulls and as a result had taken more out of his car.
It was a disastrous day for Ferrari, as Fernando Alonso ran into the back of Vettel in the second corner after the start, and then crashed going into Turn 1 on the second lap after gambling that a damaged front wing would hold out until his first pit stop.
Front row man Felipe Massa lacked the pace to stay with the leaders, but took a solid fifth ahead of the duelling Lotus’s of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, which lacked the speed they had shown in Australia. The black and gold cars, however, were able to get to the finish with only three pits stops to their rivals’ four.
Nico Hulkenberg fought hard throughout to take eighth for Sauber, with Sergio Perez claiming another two points for McLaren ahead of the feisty Jean-Eric Vergne in his Toro Rosso.
The other hard luck story of the day concerned Perez’s team mate Jenson Button, who ran in a respectable fifth place for much of the race, led briefly during the third round of pit stops, but then had a disastrous pit stop of his own when the right-front wheel was improperly secured. He climbed back to 12th, before being called in to retire with imminent mechanical problems late in the race.
Force India also had a horrible time. A delay in changing the wheels on Adrian Sutil’s car seriously held up team mate Paul di Resta, who pitted at the same time to switch from intermediates. The Scot then fought back mightily and was on target for points when he suffered a similar problem at his next pit stop. Sutil later had a recurrence, and both cars were eventually withdrawn.
Valtteri Bottas was 11th for Williams in a race in which team mate Pastor Maldonado had one off-track adventure which broke his front wing and later stopped out on the circuit, while Esteban Gutierrez took 12th for Sauber from Jules Bianchi’s splendidly-driven Marussia and the Caterhams of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde. Pic was hit by Vergne during a mix-up in the pit lane, when Toro Rosso made an unsafe release, and both required new noses. Toro Rosso were later fined for the incident.
Max Chilton was the final finisher for Marussia in 16th place, as Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo joined Alonso, Di Resta, Sutil, Maldonado and Button on the non-finishers list.
The controversial result catapults the repentant Vettel into the lead in the drivers’ world championship with 40 points from Raikkonen on 31, Webber on 26, Hamilton on 25 and Massa on 22, while Red Bull have a comfortable lead in the constructors’ stakes with 66 points from Ferrari and Lotus on 40, and Mercedes on 37.