Sunday, March 25, 2012

Malaysian Grand Prix: Red Revival

Today is a day that will surely live on in the hearts of tifosi all over the world for many years to come. Fernando Alonso has emerged as the surprise victor of a chaotic Malaysian Grand Prix that was run in changeable conditions and Sauber’s Sergio Perez has claimed the very first podium finish of his career.

Ferrari started out the weekend with the same form that they displayed in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. After Friday’s two practice sessions, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa could only manage to finish the day in sixth and sixteenth places respectively. Qualifying was a similarly depressing affair, with Massa failing to reach the final qualifying round for the second weekend in a row and Alonso only able to achieve ninth on the grid.

It was a telltale sign that the team is experiencing problems with their radical F2012 when Felipe’s engineer, Rob Smedley, reassured his driver over the team radio after Saturday’s session that he had done a decent job, despite only managing to set a time that was good enough to claim twelfth spot. When the field lined up at the start of the race, both McLaren drivers occupied the first two positions and another silver victory looked to be on the cards.

Thankfully the brutal Malaysian weather had other plans for the duo and after the race was initially red flagged due to a torrential downpour, Alonso ended up in first position after some quick work in the pits from his Ferrari team and some bad luck for Lewis Hamilton. Other potential challengers for the win, such as Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel, suffered minor collisions that put them out of contention for victory.

Alonso led the field for the remainder of the race but not without intense pressure from Sergio Perez. In the final laps, Perez, who had at one point been six seconds adrift of the Spaniard was able to close up right behind the Ferrari. Unfortunately for the little Mexican, it was not to be his day and after making a slight error that caused him to run wide off track, the Sauber driver had to settle for second place. Although they would have preferred the win, the team was ecstatic with the result and Peter Sauber shed tears of joy on the pit wall. Sauber was joined by a very relieved Ferrari crew, who after a week of intense scrutiny in Italy, were able to relax if only for a brief moment.

When he was interviewed after the race a calm and collected Stefano Domenicali insisted that the team has a great deal of work to do before they can truly compete with the front running teams. Although he was still drenched in victory champagne and the team was celebrating all around him, the Ferrari team principal was very aware that if the Maranello squad is to keep their newly acquired lead in the driver’s championship they cannot afford to rest on their laurels.

Aside from Ferrari’s epic win, here are some of the day’s other stories that caught my eye:

1. Massa under pressure. After Fernando Alonso’s hard won fifth place at last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, many tifosi began asking exactly where Massa had been and when we could expect to see his replacement arrive at Ferrari. Despite the intense media scrutiny, Massa maintained that he wasn’t bothered by all of the negative attention and Ferrari decided to ship out a new chassis for him this weekend directly from Maranello as he was sure that the problems of balance that he is said to have experienced in the inaugural race were related to his specific car. “We really think it’s the right thing to do.” The Brazilian stated. “Every time I drove this car, I never had the problems that I had in Australia-I could not drive after the first lap.”

This weekend, Massa has blamed his fifteenth place finish on tyre degredation and after Sergio Perez challenged for the race win against Alonso, he became one of the most-wanted men in the Formula 1 paddock. It is no secret that Perez has close Ferrari links and he is the favourite to take Massa’s seat for the 2013 season. Now there is even more speculation that Perez could jump into an F2012 as early as the next race in China. Stefano Domenicali denied the rumour directly after the race and yet I really can’t see how Massa can carry on this way. I love Felipe and everything that he has achieved for Ferrari in the past. I love his character, his commitment and his passion. Still, all of these things alone are not enough to keep a seat in the competitive world of Formula 1 and Ferrari cannot afford to be overly sentimental during times of desperation.

2. Karthikeyan the cucumber. The HRT team started off the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend by obtaining a dream result by their standards when both of their cars qualified for the race on Sunday. For the habitual back markers, the situation became even better, when an inspired decision to put both cars on wet weather tyres instead of intermediates saw Narain Karthikeyan running in tenth position when the race was red-flagged on lap nine Unfortunately for the Spanish team, points were not on the cards as Pedro de la Rosa suffered issues off the line and Karthikeyan became involved in collisons with several other drivers.

One of Karthikeyan’s collisions involved Sebastian Vettel, who is no stranger to being adversely affected by the sluggish Indian. In the aftermath of the race, the World Champion slammed the HRT driver in an interview with German television. “Some people need to look more where they are going” He explained. “As in real life, there are a few cucumbers on the road.” The FIA agreed with Vettel’s assessment and penalised Karthikeyan twenty seconds after the chequered flag was dropped. Although disappointing, the result should not deter HRT, who can gain some satisfaction from their improved performance this weekend.

3. Kimi’s nap. Those of you who read my blog regularly will already know that I have a fondness for Kimi Raikkonen and his sometimes dim moments. Today, at the very place where the world first became aware of his love of ice cream, Kimi Raikkonen admitted that he was taking it easy during the race. For the Finn, it was his very first time driving on intermediate or wet tyres and rather than race full out to make up positions, Raikkonen instead concentrated on keeping his car on the road. “I didn’t have any experience driving on the inter tyres or the wet tyres.” He stated. “We’d only done one installation lap and it was a bit odd feeling to go in the race directly with tyres we haven’t run. But I just tried to stay behind the others, stay on the circuit and then push harder and harder. In the end it took a few laps for me to pick up the speed when I changed for the drys but after that it was okay.”

Raikkonen ended the day in a solid fifth position and brought his points tally for the season up to 16. In contrast, his unlucky team mate, Romain Grosjean, has failed to score a point despite looking very quick in the Lotus.

4. Formula 1 Gazebos. Did anyone else notice the Gazebos that teams such as McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari erected on the grid when the red flag was waved on lap nine? The colourful tarps sprung up quickly in the torrential rain as team personnel scrambled to protect their precious machinery from the Malaysian downpour. While McLaren and Mercedes had managed to set their mini-fortresses up seemingly instantly, Ferrari took several minutes to figure theirs out. “Ferrari is even slow at erecting gazebos.” Remarked my boyfriend Luca cheekily.

Actually, it really only seems to be the F2012 and Felipe Massa who look slow at Ferrari this year as the team has been fierce in the pits especially. At the Australian Grand Prix, Ferrari had the fastest pit stops of the weekend and today their sound strategic decisions and quick tyre changes enabled Fernando Alonso to take his first win of the season! Good job guys!

Now that the Malaysian Grand Prix is over, the teams will head back home for a short while before travelling to Shanghai where they will start another Grand Prix weekend in three weeks time. Until then Ferrari can hold their heads high once more, knowing that their driver is leading the world championship and work to make up the performance gap to teams like McLaren and Red Bull. If the season’s first two races are any indication as to what the rest of the year will be like, we are certainly in for a thrilling championship.

**Photographs for this post were provided by Gianluca Martini**

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