The contest in Malaysia began with a familiar trio of challengers up front. Vettel, Hamilton, and Webber repeated their starting positions from Australia, and what a start it was. Going into turn 1, Vettel had the lead with Hamilton challenging when suddenly both Renault Lotus swept around the crowd and Heidfeld made an astonishing move from 6th to 2nd place. While both Renaults came off the line in fantastic form, Red Bull teammate Mark Webber slipped from third to ninth behind Schumacher.
Although Red Bull debuted its KERS system during qualifying, the energy recovery system failed to operate correctly during the race. The team orders to Vettel were to NOT use KERS at all after Webber's system failed prior to the start of the race. The complication did not slow down Vettel, as evidenced by his 6.3-second lead into lap 9.
Pit stops began by lap 10 and seemed to never stop. Vettel stayed on the soft tires, as did Hamilton, for another fifteen laps. It was a strategy that worked well, given the rain that was predicted made only a spotty appearance. Hamilton had to switch to primes in lap 25 after he apparently flat-spotted a set of softs during qualifying. He was never able to stage much of a challenge on the primes. Vettel pitted again as well, staying with the softs which were performing a second to a second-and-a-half faster than the primes. Button switched to primes in lap 39. Alonso and Vettel pitted again in lap 42, and Webber for the fourth time in lap 44. Hamilton requested a final pit stop in lap 52, which dropped him from fourth to seventh.
Contact between Alonso and Hamilton damaged Alonso's front wing requiring he pit again for a new nose. Stewards later penalized both drivers 20 seconds for the incident, pushing Hamilton from a seventh-place finish to eighth. Stewards wield new powers this season, and after two race-results changes due to
post race penalties, officials need to take a fresh look at how those powers are being exercised.
Massa and Webber battled it out for fifth position in lap 50, with Webber winning the duel in a beautiful pass to the outside through turns one and two. Heidfeld used KERS to overtake Hamilton for third in lap 51. In fact, DRS was employed more often this weekend than Melbourne, as expected, and with decent results. The FIA decided to allow just one DRS passing zone, from turn 15 to turn 1. Along with Heidfeld, both Webber and Vettel used the moveable wing system to their advantages.
By far the most dramatic moment of the race came when Petrov took flight at turn 8 with two laps remaining. He went off track and hit a high spot in the grass, launching him into the air. The landing was so hard the steering column broke free. Petrov later commented that rubber marbles on the track may have contributed to the crash by causing understeer. Marbles were clearly visible on every turn, piling up as the race went on, as evidence of the impact the heat had on the Pirelli rubber.
The race was exciting to watch with drama from front to back, but with the near-constant pit stops, 63 in all, keeping track of positions proved challenging, and at times downright confusing. The rule changes have brought new excitement to Formula 1 this season and I think the sport will be the better for it. However, after watching the race at Sepang, I now know to keep my notepad close-by to jot down just who is where in which position and why.