Sunday, 24 March 2013

Malaysian Grand Prix: Team mate conflict and pit lane catastrophe

Enthralling from the outset, the Malaysian Grand Prix became more and more bizarre as it evolved.  Underpinning the race was stirring wheel to wheel racing, later entwined with twisted tales of team mate conflict and pit lane catastrophe. 

As the lights were extinguished over a damp track and the cars sprang into action on their intermediate tyres, good starts were made by the drivers on the front few rows of the grid.  Fernando Alonso, having weaved his way round the outside of Sebastian Vettel at turn 1 to put himself on the racing line for Turn 2, became startled at the position and speed at which he now found the German, resulting in damage to his  front wing.  After another sterling start, Massa slipped down to sixth after the aforementioned scuffle.  Almost making contact with Alonso, he backed off a little to be passed by Webber, who had made an unusually positive start, followed by Hamilton and Button.  As they swept their way further round the opening lap, Alonso was pushing hard, overtaking Mark Webber despite sporting a precarious front wing.  Believing he could stay out until it was time to replace the intermediates with slicks, Alonso passed the entrance of the pit lane to start another lap, one that was halted by contact with Mark Webber, ripping the wing from the car and sending the Spaniard careering into the gravel.  The race now had a Red Bull one- two situation that would become more elaborate as the race unfolded. 

Alonso's 200th race ended in disappointment.  Photo:

Having been given a three place grid penalty for blocking Nico Rosberg during qualifying, Kimi Raikkonen made a poor start which was taken advantage of Hulkenberg making a strong start from twelfth.  By lap six, Hulkenberg had  put his Sauber into seventh position. 

Lap five saw Vettel visit the pits for his first set of slicks.  A move that was followed by the rest of the field as a stream of cars followed suit causing problems in the pit lane.  A momentary loss of memory saw Lewis Hamilton pull into his old McLaren box much to the surprise of the pit crew.  An auto pilot mistake that caused him to lose a precious six seconds that could have put him in contention for the lead.   A collision between Jean Eric Vergne and Charles Pic in the pits resulted in a new front wing and a $10,000 fine for Toro Rosso for unsafe release.  The pit lane woes continued in the Force India garage with a problem securing the left rear tyre on Adrian Sutil’s car. 
The decision to leave Webber out a lap later than most of the field proved a smart move which propelled him ahead of his team mate.  After exiting the pits he put in a few storming laps on his fresh hard tyres.  Just behind the Red Bulls the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were making advances on the leaders, with Hamilton taking chunks out of Webber’s lead and Rosberg being told not to focus on nurturing the tyres.  In contrast to this aggressive action being taken by Mercedes, Webber was given a coded message telling him to look after the tyres because he will endure no assault from Vettel behind him, a request that gave the silver cars the opportunity to stalk the leaders more closely. 

For the second consecutive race, Maldonado made an unforced error rumbling through the gravel and across the grass.   To remedy his car after its adventure, he came in for a front wing demoting him to twenty first position.  He later retired on lap 49 with a KERS issue. 

Early on, championship leader Kimi Raikkonen spent a long time staring at the back of Perez’s McLaren, before use of DRS enabled him to get past on lap 16.  The stability and flexibility seen in the Lotus in Australia was a distant memory as The Finn looked uncomfortable all day.  On lap 35 he was overtaken in a close encounter by Hulkenberg in the pit lane. On lap 39, scrapping for ninth position,  Kimi could be heard complaining over the radio that he was being squeezed off the track by Hulkenberg. Two laps later he passed the German down the pit straight into turns two and three. He finished seventh, the position he qualified in before receiving the grid penalty.

Kimi was unable to repeat Melbourne performance.  Photo: 

Lying just behind the four frontrunners was Jenson Button in fifth, giving us a glimpse of the improvement McLaren are making.  However this improved performance was halted by a mistake during his pit stop on lap 36, when the front right tyre was not secured properly.  Having driven a few yards towards the exit, and not being able to reverse in the pit lane, he was hauled back to the box to ensure the job was done properly.  His hopes for points were dashed as he left the pits to rejoin in fourteenth, later retiring with two laps to go.   

Force India’s stunning start to the weekend dissipated from memory as another problem during a pit stop failed to secure the left front tyre on Paul di Resta’s car.  This left him to filter back onto the track in last position, a lap down.  Beginning their trip to Malaysia with such high hopes, the team later had to endure a crashing low in the form of a double retirement.

Nearing the midway point of the race saw the team mate battles heat up.  Having stayed out a lap longer than Webber, and hoping a fast in lap would help him overtake the Australian,  Vettel showed disappointment at having to remain behind.  Team radio aired, “Same strategy as previous stint, three second gap, saving the tyres.”  Thinking about the Constructors Championship on the Red Bull pit wall, decisions had been made to ensure a safe one – two result.  With Mark struggling on medium tyres however, the three times world champion’s desire to go faster couldn’t be controlled.  “He is too slow, get him out of the way.” Like an uncontrollable beast that won’t be tamed, Vettel was unable to accept the teams wish for him to concede the victory.  After exiting the pit lane following a stop on lap 44, Webber found himself embroiled in an almighty contest with his team mate that continued round to turn five.  The assault was repeated a lap later when he was finally overcome. Nerves ripped to shreds on the pit wall anticipating possible bloodshed, team radio messages were used to attempt to control the situation.   “Come on Seb, this is silly.”

Racing wheel to wheel.  Photo:
Meanwhile the Mercedes drivers were having their own squabbles.  After their earlier messages intimating the need to push the Red Bulls, Mercedes now risked running out of fuel if they continued the level of pace.  Lewis, running just ahead of Rosberg was told to conserve fuel, with Nico being told to back off.  As with the Red Bull battle, team radio revealed all as Rosberg stated,  “ I can go faster than him, let me past.”   Clearly unhappy as he pulled in at the end of the race, he said,  “ Will remember this one.”

Adrian Newey was chosen to collect the constructor’s trophy and as he and the drivers gathered to await their podium appearance, the tension and animosity was palpable.  With the team telling Vettel over the radio at the end of the race, “Look’s like you wanted it bad enough, there will be some explaining to do,” words exchanged between Newey and Vettel were strained.  A lack of eye contact was evident as Mark Webber joined them and proceeded to show his displeasure at Seb’s blatant defiance of the team’s decision. 

Tension on the podium.  Photo:

 With simmering vexation and wrath evident, coupled with Lewis Hamilton’s unease at taking third place from a faster team mate, the podium ceremony was more like a funeral than a celebration.  Malaysia 2013 will go down as an epic race, but not necessarily for the right reasons. 

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