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March 25, 2013

Malaysian GP: Felipe fights back to fifth, Fernando’s unlucky 200th


Felipe Massa fought back strongly after slipping down the order from his front row start position, to bring home valuable points for fifth place. Fernando Alonso's 200th Grand Prix is not one he will care to remember, as it lasted only just over a lap, before ending in the gravel. Sebastian Vettel headed home a Red Bull Racing one-two ahead of Mark Webber. Completing the podium was Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes.

Inevitably here in Sepang, the rain appeared minutes before the cars were due to leave the shelter of the garages, so the Intermediate and Extreme rain tyres were prepared, as the rain intensified. It was heavy in parts and several cars went off the track on their way to the grid, which resembled a strange Garden Party as all the teams erected temporary tents over their cars. With 15 minutes to the start, the rain began to ease, turning to a light drizzle, as team strategists faced the traditional Malaysian puzzle.



Along with the other 20 drivers, Felipe and Fernando opted to start on the Intermediates. It seemed the best choice as the cars threw up plumes of spray on the parade lap. As the lights went out, Vettel led from pole, Fernando got ahead of Felipe, but Webber in the other Red Bull nearly passed the Spanish Ferrari driver, as Felipe dropped to fifth behind Hamilton in the Mercedes, ahead of Nico Rosberg.

Trouble struck on lap 2: Fernando had fought hard to get ahead of Vettel, but the two men touched and this had caused damage to the nose on the Spaniard's F138. On the pit wall, the thinking was to leave him out for a lap or two longer to deal with the damage, in order to change the front wing at the same time as the switch to slicks, which was imminent. But the part failed, consigning Alonso to the gravel trap on the outside of Turn 1. He signalled for the marshals to push him back on track but in vain. Meanwhile, Button in the McLaren had moved up to fourth ahead of Rosberg, with Felipe, having had a difficult opening lap, now sixth. The top three was made up of Vettel, Webber and Hamilton, but Rosberg had managed to get back in front of Button for fourth. With four laps gone, Felipe was 2
seconds behind Button.

Lap 5 and Vettel was the first to pit for slicks, followed by Felipe, who thus dropped to eighth. The track seemed very wet in sector 1. On lap 6, Sutil, Ricciardo Raikkonen, Di Resta, Maldonaldo, Van De Garde, Bianchi, Bottas all came in for slicks. Lap 7 and it was Webber, Hamilton, Button, Hulkenberg, Vergne, Perez, Pic. Hamilton made the classic "new team" mistake and at first stopped in the McLaren pit, instead of Mercedes! With the field now all on slicks, the order on lap 9 was Webber, Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg, Button, Hulkenberg, Felipe in seventh, 4 seconds down on the German Sauber driver and 22.6 behind the race leader. Behind the Brazilian, Perez, Grosjean and Raikkonen completed the top ten, all of whom were on the Medium tyre. The order hardly changed, with the most exciting battle at this point being Raikkonen's attack in the Lotus on Perez's McLaren for ninth spot.

The second pit stops started on lap 19, with Webber and Ricciardo. Felipe was closer to Hulkenberg in the Sauber, but eighth placed Grosjean in the Lotus was closing on the Ferrari. In fact these two came in together on lap 20 for new tyres - the Brazilian was now on the Hard Pirellis - and left pit lane in the same order. Di Resta also pitted the Force India at this time. Hamilton and Button both came in on lap 21, as did Hulkenberg and Raikkonen. Felipe was in a battle for seventh, behind Sutil in the Force India and ahead of Grosjean and Hulkenberg. Lap 22, Vettel and Rosberg, lying first and second came down pit lane, followed by Perez from sixth. Sutil had a very long stop and Felipe was sixth, 9.2 behind Button. At the front, Webber was coming under attack from his second placed team-mate, with the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg still behind the Red Bulls fighting among themselves. Button was fifth, 8.9 ahead of Felipe.

On lap 30 of 56, Hamilton was the first to three-stop, coming from fourth, followed in by race leader Webber and third placed Rosberg. Felipe was still sixth, with Hamilton five seconds ahead of him. Vettel pitted from the lead on lap 32, coming out fourth, just centimetres in front of Rosberg. Felipe made his third stop next time round, while Button now found himself temporarily leading, but on fresher tyres, Webber was able to pass him on lap 34, as Hulkenberg and Raikkonen came out of pit lane wheel to wheel after their third stops. Button then brought the McLaren into the pits but stopped the car in the middle of the pit lane with a loose wheel and had to be pushed back to the garage.

With 20 laps to go, Felipe had fought his way up to a lonely fifth, a long way off fourth placed Rosberg and around 7 ahead of Grosjean. While Webber had a 3.6 cushion over Hamilton, the Mercedes man had Vettel and Rosberg breathing down his neck. It became a Red Bull one-two at the front, as the reigning world champion got past Hamilton on lap 38. The English Mercedes driver was the first to four stop on lap 41, followed next time by Vettel and then Rosberg. Webber made his stop on 43 and just managed to get out ahead of his team-mate with the two Red Bulls running wheel to wheel for a while. Felipe was still posting good lap times and was now 6.5 behind the battling Mercedes. Hard to believe Vettel and Webber were team-mates as they fought tooth and nail for the lead, the German eventually getting ahead on lap 46. Felipe made his fourth and final pit stop on lap 48 which dropped him to eighth, right behind the Perez-Raikkonen battle and it didn't take long for the Brazilian to dispense with the McLaren and the Lotus to get back up to sixth. On fresh rubber he was flying and with two laps to go he made his final move, passing Grosjean for fifth. Nico Rosberg finished between the Ferrari man and the podium trio.

This result means that after two races, Scuderia Ferrari is third in the Constructors' classification, although equal on 40 points with second placed Lotus, while Red Bull now leads. Felipe and Fernando are fifth and sixth respectively in the Drivers' points table.


A missed opportunity
Stefano Domenicali: "Clearly today’s result leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth given the start positions we had secured in qualifying. As soon as Fernando collided with Vettel it was clear that his race would involve fighting his way up the order. At that time, we felt the front wing could hold out and on a track that was progressively drying out, we risked leaving him out. With hindsight, it did not work out, trying to avoid doing two stops in the space of just four laps. As for Felipe, the gap that grew during the opening laps compromised his chances to fight with the leading group of four towards the end. Given the competitive performance level of our rivals, now the important thing is to turn the page: we must put this Sunday behind us and calmly analyse the positive and negative aspects, as we immediately turn our attention to the next race in China."

Fernando Alonso: "Today, unfortunately, we were very unlucky. After making a good start, I touched with Vettel at the second corner: it was a surprise to find him there, almost stopped and I don’t know what speed he was doing. Despite the fact the car was damaged, it didn’t seem to be too bad and, together with the team, we decided to keep going, because if we’d stopped immediately and then again on lap 3 or 4 to fit dry tyres, we would have dropped too far back and definitely lost the chance to finish up the front. It’s easy to criticise this decision, but at the time it seemed like the right one. It was certainly a shame, because here we could have fought with the Red Bulls, but circumstances didn’t help and apart from the wisdom of the decisions we took, bad luck really played its part, when you think how many off-track excursions there were in Australia without any consequence and even here when the cars first went out on track. Now we are already focusing on the coming races in China and Bahrain, where we hope to do better than last year, so that we arrive in Europe with as many points as possible".

Felipe Massa: "Today’s race was really complicated, because starting with a new set of intermediates on a track that was very damp at some points and completely dry at others, prevented me from having a good pace and I lost ground to many other drivers on the first lap. Maybe bringing forward the first stop to fit dry tyres was a slightly risky choice, because the track was still damp and this cost me time. Then on the dry track, the car improved, the tyre degradation wasn’t excessive and I managed to settle into a good pace, but at that point, any hope of finishing on the podium had vanished. I can’t say I’m satisfied with this result, but given all the difficulties I had at the start of the race, I am happy to bring home a good points haul".

Pat Fry: "For both drivers, the initial part of the race affected the final outcome, which is a real shame because the start was very promising. The contact between Alonso and Vettel at the second corner was an unfortunate episode: we knew the front wing was damaged but the car still seemed to be competitive and we decided to run the risk of staying out. We definitely could have played safe and called him in, but that way we would have ended up behind everyone on rain tyres and would have lost even more ground with the next stop to fit dry tyres. With hindsight, we can say the risk wasn’t worthwhile. In the wet, Felipe struggled a bit to find the right balance and that compromised his chances of fighting for a podium position. Once it was dry, his lap times improved: he definitely drove a good race which enabled him to pick up useful points".


Looking past the numbers
Five points just don’t explain it. The difference from the 35 points collected in 2012 to the 40 we have this year is much more, especially in terms of the overall competitive performance of the team and its combination of car and drivers. Last year the haul was largely the fruits of the extraordinary talent of Fernando Alonso, who knew what to do to come away with fifth place in Melbourne before romping away to a sumptuous victory in Sepang – even though he had a car that was clearly worse than many of his opponents. The F2012 certainly proved it was far from competitive in qualifying, with just one appearance in Q3 – the ninth place in Malaysia – to show for four attempts. The performance of the F138 is very different, with an average grid position of 3.5 so far due to one front row, two second rows and one third row – very different from the 12.25 average a year ago.

This year’s 40 points have been shared almost equally between the two drivers. It’s true that Fernando (18 points) paid a heavy price for his zero from yesterday and he has as many as 17 points less than 2012. But this deficit has been more than made up for by Felipe Massa, who has brought home 22 points whereas he was yet to get off the mark last year. The Brazilian has now taken his run of consecutive points finishes to 12 races, maintaining in this year’s two grands prix the constant improvement that characterised his second half of last year.

A united team, two strong and determined drivers, a competitive car: there is still a lot of work to do to get ahead of all the opposition but all the ingredients are there for a fight to the finish for both titles. That is the first verdict of 2013.


Fernando Alonso’s 200 Grands Prix
Whatever the outcome of the race in a few hours time, for Fernando Alonso, the Sepang weekend will be one to remember. The 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix is in fact his two hundredth participation in a Formula 1 Grand Prix. It’s a significant achievement as it stands, but a closer look at the details of the Spaniard’s career since 2001, his debut season, makes it even more impressive.

Two world titles, thirty wins, thirty two second places and twenty five thirds. These are amazing figures when one considers that, in total, Alonso has made it to the podium eighty seven times, which equates to an average that comes within a whisker of forty four percent. To these figures one can add twenty two poles, out of a total of thirty seven front row starts, and nineteen fastest laps.

Equally impressive are the figures that sum up Fernando’s career since he joined Scuderia Ferrari. He has taken part in fifty nine races for the Prancing Horse, getting to the podium in thirty four of them, with an average of almost sixty percent.

These are impressive statistics that sum up a career during which the Spaniard has always had very clear objectives. He made his debut with Minardi in 2001 and after a year out as a test driver, returned to Formula 1 full time in 2003. Today, aged 31, Fernando still has many records to chase and there is every reason to believe that, for a long time to come, he can keep adding to what is already an extraordinary career.

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