F1 Malaysian GP: Slip and Slide

A race that would have been very straight forward for the McLaren if it stayed dry became an instant classic thanks to the changing conditions of the Sepang Circuit. In the end, it wasn’t the Mercedes-powered cars that led the way but the Ferraris that were in front at the end of the race. The first driver across the line was Fernando Alonso but he wasn’t the star of the race. The real hero of the day was Sergio Perez who hounded Alonso home to finish in second.

The race started under changing conditions as the cars all left the grid on intermediate tyres as a result of some pre-race sprinkles. Those sprinkles quickly turned into a monsoon which forced drivers into the pits for full wets. The first onto the wet weather tyres was Sergio Perez in the Sauber (remember that name). Meanwhile, up at the front of the field, Hamilton led away cleanly but it was Romain Grosjean who had the fast start as he jumped from 6th to 3rd. That was short-lived as he collided with Michael Schumacher in turn four while going three-wide with Mark Webber which sent both the Lotus and Mercedes into a spin.

Eventually the rain picked up intensity and forced the release of the safety car (coincidentally at the same time as the BBC commentary crew mentioned that the lights in their commentary booth went out). As the rain continued to pour, the race was red flagged for nearly an hour so the rain could stop and the track could dry. The race resumed behind the safety car which meant that the cars had to restart on full wets. This caused another rush of pit stops for inters in which a slow McLaren stop allowed Fernando Alonso through to the lead. An extra lap on the wets allowed Perez enough of a gap to find second place after the switch to intermediates.

By the halfway point of the race, Alonso’s lead was nearly eight seconds over second-place Perez. However, as time on the intermediate tyres drew on and the track dried out, the balance of power shifted to the Sauber. As Alonso wore through his inters, Perez found extra speed in his as Checo became the fastest car on track and caught Alonso at the rate of over one second per lap at some points. The Scuderia sprang into action as they brought Massa in to test the waters for slick tyres. After finding out that slicks were the way to go, Ferrari brought Alonso in for the medium compound tyres (this weekend’s option, or softer, compound). Perez stayed out an extra lap and saw himself fall from within a second of Alonso to over seven seconds behind after switching onto the hard (prime) tyres.

I thought that Perez’s seven second gap and harder tyres would mean that he’d been locked firmly into 2nd. But he’d kept charging and got the gap back down to almost a second. Then he ran wide at Turn 14 with about seven laps to go which ended the chase. This wasn’t without controversy as a lap before the mistake, Perez was told by the team that they needed the position. I interpreted it as “Don’t do anything stupid to cost yourself a good finish.” Most people interpreted it as “Fernando is faster than you. Do you understand the message?” I would say those people are being ridiculous. I think it was a concentration lapse from Perez as he thought “Don’t spin or crash. Don’t spin or crash.”

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There was a race beyond the one between Alonso and Perez, though a Sauber chasing down a Ferrari driven by a two-time WDC was absolutely epic. Lewis Hamilton had an uneventful day en route to third. Even then he had some help as teammate Jenson Button jumped by him on the switch to inters but sideswiped the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan and needed a new front wing. The extra stop dropped him to a 14th place finish. And extra pit stop for a second set of inters following the red flag was also the downfall of Felipe Massa as he finished 15th.

Mark Webber finished fourth after an uneventful day after getting safely through that first lap three-wide with Grosjean and Schumacher. The German did recover to finish 10th to score Mercedes’ first points of the season. Grosjean retired after spinning the car off in the rain. Webber’s teammate Sebastian Vettel fell out of the point after being tagged by Karthikeyan and suffering a puncture.

Elsewhere in the points, Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth in the Renault in his second straight race finishing higher than his starting spot. Bruno Senna showed that the Williams pace of a week ago wasn’t a total fluke by finishing sixth. Both Force Indias finished in the points with di Resta in 7th and Hulkenberg in 9th. They were split Jean-Eric Vergne who scored his first points in his second race with an 8th place finish.

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By the way, after the checkered flag fell on this race, it was Clifford the Big Red Dog leading the championship. Clifford is the name of Fernando Alonso’s car as bestowed upon it by the hosts of the Midweek Motorsport podcast. Fernando’s win and fifth place in Australia leaves him ahead of Lewis Hamilton by five points. However, Fernando still thinks his car’s a dog. I don’t think his comments will do anything to calm the tifosi’s excitement.

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Speaking of big red things, I’m sure some of you noticed Heikki Kovalainen’s new helmet design on our F1 Power Rankings post. He has a personal sponsor for his helmet this season in Rovio who have chosen Angry Birds branding on Heikki’s melon for the season. That’ll be the source of easy jokes when Kovalainen runs into someone this season. It also  led to a series of Angry Birds and F1 Photoshop mashups like these on Kotaku.

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After mentioning some of the developments with the Concorde Agreement in last week’s F1 race recap, there was lots of progress on the new agreement this week. First, F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone announced that the majority of teams, including Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren, had signed the new Concorde Agreement beginning in 2013. Autosport then did some digging and found that the teams who had signed the Agreement were Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso.

That leaves the unsigned teams as Williams, Caterham, Marussia, HRT and Mercedes AMG. It’s been reported that the four smaller unsigned teams haven’t even been presented terms of the new Concorde Agreement. That’s only a surprise in the case of Williams as Bernie is repeatedly on record as saying he doesn’t think much of the three new teams. Williams being on the outs with Bernie is surprising as it’s the third oldest Formula One team still in the sport.

However, the most surprising team that hasn’t signed the agreement is Mercedes. And when you read some of the terms as reported by Sky Sports, it’s not too surprising. Sky received some leaked documents showing some of the new bonus structure. Included in it are bonuses for teams who have won the Constructors’ Championship since 2000, teams who haven’t changed their name since 2000 and a “Double Championship” bonus for teams who have won consecutive championships since 2008. It’s easy to see why Mercedes isn’t happy with the terms as they changed names from Honda to Brawn to Mercedes in back-to-back-to-back seasons. Bernie will want to keep the manufacturer in the sport but I’m not certain that he’d be willing to help a team who thought they were getting a raw deal.

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Speaking of money, the Korean Grand Prix has received a little bit of financial aid from Formula One Management. The Korean race organizers have negotiated a reduction in their sanctioning fees. The race sanctioning fee has been reduced by 10% from last year’s fee and had the 10% annual fee escalator clause eliminated. The TV licensing fee to FOM’s TV production group was eliminated. Last year, the Korean GP’s organizers paid approximately $55.6 million to FOM in sanctioning and TV fees. This year, they’ll save over $20 million with an estimated fee of $36 million.

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The 2012 Formula One World Championship now gets a three-week break before the next race. That race is the Chinese Grand Prix hosted, as always, by the Shanghai International Circuit. I wonder what the crews think of this back-to-back, three-week break, and back-to-back schedule they have for the first part of the season. I’d imagine it would be easier on everyone involved if you get the first three races done in four weeks (whether it’s race-race-off-race or race-off-race-race) with another week before Bahrain then your three weeks before Spain. With the ever-expanding schedule, F1 will need to examine whether it’s better for the teams to stretch the season with more in-season breaks or compress the season and have a longer break between seasons.

Anyway, the Shanghai track is another of the many Tilke-dromes that F1 goes to this season. After showing their speed in practice and qualifying this weekend, you have to like McLaren and Mercedes. The problem with that prediction is that this weekend’s race would make you want to call Sauber a darkhorse but you can’t say with any confidence how much speed was the driver, the car and the conditions. But with that 1.1 km back straight, the longest straight in F1, this circuit appears to favour the cars with high horsepower like the Mercedes-engined cars.

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