Sebastian Vettel set only the sixth-fastest lap of the Malaysian Grand Prix, and finished only 3.2sec ahead of Jenson Button after having to make do without his KERS energy-saving system from the 29th of the 56 laps. But if you think that made it a hard day at the office for the reigning world champion, think again.
Apart from the start, when the Renaults of Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov made stupendous getaways, he had it all his own way in a dramatic, action-packed race that left those behind him in varying degrees of confusion.
"The start was crucial and I thought I had made a pretty good one," Vettel smirked, "then I saw Lewis [Hamilton] lining up behind me and I was surprised all of a sudden in the first corner when I saw something black in my mirrors, the Renaults! That was not a good thing! It was a good job that we had our KERS here, and that it was working then, because otherwise we would have seen a very different race."
As Heidfeld went around the outside to snatch second from Hamilton in some tense wheel-to-wheel racing, Vettel pushed his Red Bull into a lead that proved unassailable. On an afternoon that was less about the usual heat and humidity, everyone was focused on tyre preservation. Once the Pirellis reach the end of their optimal performance, the drop-off is as dramatic as a fall from the top of a cliff.
Hamilton moved ahead of Heidfeld after the first of his three scheduled stops on lap 12 and pushed hard after Vettel while they were both still running the softer compound tyres. At that stage, Button, who had also lost out to Heidfeld and Petrov at the start, was unable to match the leaders' pace even after he had retaken the Russian. That would change, partly because Hamilton only had two sets of soft tyres left for the race after flat-spotting one in qualifying, compared to his rivals' three.
"I'd studied previous races here and it always seemed that the inside line was the best," Button said, "so my aim was to get to the inside as soon as possible. I did that and even had a brief look at Lewis, then I heard this almighty racket as the two Renaults came round on the outside."
While Vettel was once again in a class of his own – with or without the KERS which ceased functioning properly on the 29th lap so that he was instructed by his crew not to use it – Button's run to second place began once the second round of pitstops was over and everyone was on the harder tyre.
"It was a really confusing race, trying to understand the pitstops, and whether it was worth looking after the tyres or not, really tricky," the 2009 world champion said. "With these tyres, as soon as they go, they go, like they're meant to. They just lose their performance.
"Before the race we felt there was not much difference in grip or degradation between the primes [hard] and the options [soft], but in the race I had much better grip in my final stint on the primes. Maybe that was something to do with the balance I had on my car, but it just came alive on them."
He stopped on lap 38 for his harder tyres, and steadily began to eat into Vettel's lead. From 8.8sec on lap 42 it shrank to 6.9sec on 43 before traffic increased it again, but by lap 51 he had it down to 5.7sec. But his crew had advised him to go into tyre conservation mode with the cheerful message: "Jenson you have to try to do 19 laps on a set of primes when nobody has ever done more than 16."
Like the great Alain Prost, Button has a sweet touch, however, and he followed his heart as he kept pushing without taking too much out of his rubber.
"The team said 'back off, look after tyres', but you want to push on and chase the leader. It was very difficult to understand what to do. Sometimes if you try to preserve the tyres you can make the situation worse because the less pace you have through high-speed corners the less down-force you generate, which means the car can slide about and that can damage the tyre. But we understood the tyres a lot more here and our consistency was better through the race and we didn't damage them at all."
In reality, Button was never going to challenge Vettel, who was in cruise mode, but Hamilton was in a world of pain in an increasingly vulnerable third place. First he had a slow stop, then he came under threat from Mark Webber, who'd made a terrible start from third on the grid to run ninth at the end of the opening lap and was using a four-stop strategy to try and salvage something.
Then, when Webber stopped for the last time on lap 43, it was Alonso who came thirsting on to the McLaren's tail. On lap 44 they ran side-by-side through the first three corners with Hamilton refusing to concede to his old team-mate and enemy, then two laps later the Spaniard got a run on the McLaren but clipped its right rear tyre with his left front wing endplate.
As Alonso was forced to pit for a new wing, Heidfeld came pushing up and swept ahead of Hamilton in the first corner on lap 51. A lap later, a wild slide into the rough stuff signalled that Hamilton's tyres were finished, and he slumped to seventh after a fourth pitstop for a third set of hard tyres. That left Webber to get a run at Heidfeld, but the Australian could not dislodge the Renault driver as they fought to the finish.
Later, the stewards summoned Hamilton and Alonso and investigated data to see whether the former had brake tested the latter, precipitating his wing damage. He had not, but they gave Hamilton a 20sec penalty, added to his race time for more than one change of direction in defence of his position, and Alonso 20sec for causing a collision.
The Spaniard kept his sixth place, but Hamilton fell from seventh to eighth behind Kamui Kobayashi.
Right at the end, Michael Schumacher used fresher tyres to slip ahead of Paul di Resta, but the Scottish rookie again drove with great assurance to take the final point, repeating his performance on his debut in Australia a fortnight ago.
It was Vettel who had the biggest smile afterwards, befitting a defending champion with a lead of 24 points over Button. "Fantastic!" he told the team that has already made him a world title holder. "In the heat we kept our heads cool. It's a pleasure to be with you. I'm loving it."
FIA Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Kuala Lumpur: Final Positions (56 Laps): 1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 37min 39.832sec; 2 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:37:43.093; 3 N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 1:38:04.907; 4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:38:06.216; 5 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:38:16.790; 6 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:38:17.080; 7 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:38:29.807; 8 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:38:46.271; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:39:04.728; 10 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:39:11.395; 11 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:39:21.211; 12 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP at 1 Lap; 13 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 14 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 15 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 1 Lap; 16 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 Laps; 17 V Petrov (Rus) Renault at 4 Laps. Not Classified: 18 V Liuzzi (It) HRT-F1 46 laps completed; 19 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing 42 laps; 20 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 31 laps; 21 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 23 laps; 22 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 22 laps; 23 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 14 laps; 24 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 8 laps. World Championship Standings: Drivers: 1 S Vettel 50pts; 2 J Button 26; 3 L Hamilton 24; 4 M Webber 22; 5 F Alonso 20; 6 F Massa 16; 7 N Heidfeld 15; 8 V Petrov 15; 9 S Buemi 4; 10 K Kobayashi 4; 11 A Sutil 2; 12 M Schumacher 2; 13 P di Resta 2. Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 72pts; 2 McLaren 50; 3 Ferrari 36; 4 Renault 30; 5 Scuderia Toro Rosso 4; 6 Sauber-Ferrari 4; 7 Force India 4; 8 Mercedes GP 2Reuse content