Conclusions from the Malaysian GP
The force is with Fernando Alonso as he drives home his special type of brilliance at Sepang while Sergio Perez makes his mark on F1 in style. Pete Gill examines the talking points to come out of the season's second race
Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:24am
Driven Alonso makes his point
As much as anything else, this was a victory for Fernando Alonso's response to his winter of adversity: dignified, resolute, determined. And calm. No tantrums, no accusations, just the repeated insistence that he still believed in his team, still believed in their ability to right a ghastly, malfunctioning wrong. Stay calm he did. And stay calm he duly did when the opportunity for the most unexpected of victories suddenly loomed out of the Malaysian GP gloom.
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Keep calm and just carry on. He's done it before and he'll do it again.
That the Spaniard required a slice of luck along the way is not in argument. Above all else, he needed the rain to cloak the deficiencies of the F2012 and there's no doubt that even Alonso would have been left high in the dry. But opportunism is a skill in its own underestimated right and it required a drive of sustained excellence, transcending the wretched F2012, to turn opportunity into full disguise of Ferrari's opprobrium. There is only one good thing about the new Ferrari and it's the Spaniard who has to sit in its cock-pit.
The great pity will be if Alonso's victory is remembered for the victory that wasn't and the naivety of Sauber's ambiguous - but definitely misjudged - radio message to Sergio Perez shortly before the young Mexican fell off the track in gutwrenching fashion. For what can't go overlooked is that at the critical stage of the race, when Alonso maximised Ferrari's fortune at the first round of pit-stops to build a ten-second lead over McLaren and what proved to be just enough of an advantage to withstand Perez's charge, he was consistently three to five seconds quicker than Felipe Massa lap after sustained lap. Three to five. Massa is not a great, but it takes a great to make him look this ordinary.
"I don't think it changes anything," Alonso, still preaching the virtue of patience, said afterwards. "We are still in a position we don't want to be in."
Yet it's a victory that changes everything and nothing; nothing because the F2012 will still be binned in May and Alonso will still be to required to dig deep for every last ounce of his brilliance to make it pay points before then, and everything because it is on days like this that Alonso's special type of true brilliance is made plain.
In a field of excellence, Lewis Hamilton may still be the quickest, Jenson Button may still be the foremost forerunner and Sebastian Vettel may still be the supreme winner, but it's Alonso who still reigns supreme as the expert driver.
Perez's star is made
Victorious without victory, it matters not a jot in the grand scheme of F1 murky things that Sergio Perez did not win a race that belonged to him. Not a jot because F1 is such a murky business that Perez might have gained more by losing the victory he ought to have secured than he would have garnered with the real thing. There is no better result, after all, than the one which leaves everyone happy - and this was, in case you didn't notice, a second-placed victory which left every interested party more than happy.
For Perez, the reward for a pitch-perfect audition to be Fernando's next understudy is now an inevitability. After the drive of his life at the end of the week of his career, it has become a matter of when rather than if he will replace the hapless Massa and turn red.
The process of promotion from the massed ranks of Ferrari's junior driver programme is already approaching its conclusion; after Malaysia, there can be no going back. That is his victory in the same way that Sauber were victorious with the best result of their independence and Ferrari were victors with the real thing. He has made it into the big time and it's only the time of his arrival that remains to be determined.
Could it be as soon as China? Maybe. The suggestion that change is already imminent has taken hold and the momentum of the Perez bandwagon is building up to an unstoppable force. Having taken opportunistic hold of some breathing space, Ferrari's next strategic decision must be fathoming how they maintain the feel-good factor generated by Alonso's victory and make it last until the birth of the F2012 Mark Two in early May.
In the absence of any other obvious alternatives, bowing to public pressure and making Massa a necessary sacrifice may be the only available answer.
Lewis' modesty is as unbecoming as his Melbourne misery
What a difference precisely the same result can make. Miserable in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton's reaction to third place this Sunday was markedly modest, with his exaggerated praise for "a very good job" by his McLaren team undoubtedly influenced far more by the pointless results of Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel than actual events. It may be stretching towards another exaggeration to suggest that Hamilton, like Perez, ought to have won this Sunday, but there is no question that, as in Melbourne, he lost valuable time and critical position during the pit-stops and that once again his team erred on his behalf.
McLaren's caution meant Hamilton couldn't better third
First and foremost, of course, Hamilton's lead of the race was lost at his first stop when a combination of misjudged entrance and delayed exit - on account of Ferrari pitting both their drivers simultaneously - meant Alonso returned to the track ahead of both McLarens. One lap later, Perez pitted and returned in front of the McLaren - in effect, and somewhat ironically, benefiting from Massa's roadblock to get the jump on the unfortunate Hamilton.
On a not entirely incidental note, these newly-fashionable simultaneous pit-stops must surely be subject of some chatter in the Shanghai paddock in two weeks' time because it seems a minor absurdity that a car can be held up by another team deliberately parking one of their cars; indeed, it's not beyond question that simultaneous, rolling pit-stops will have to be banned in order to protect the integrity of the 'unsafe release' injunction. It's a complicated matter but it's also simple to see it as ripe for manipulation.
Yet Hamilton's vis-a-vis unfortunate loss ran a little deeper than pedantic nitpicking because, as he belatedly appreciated in the post-race press conference, "on both the stops I probably could have come in a lap earlier." On his second start, he definitely could have with McLaren only pitting their lead car two laps after the Toro Rosso, acting as guinea pig for the rest of the field, had started lighting up the timesheets with purple after taking on slicks. They were overly cautious when they needed to be brave.
Ultimately, Hamilton probably didn't posses the pace to hold on for the win, but with a better strategy from the pitwall, and better work from his pitcrew ("In one of the pit stops I lost a good four or five seconds, just sitting there with some problem with the front right), he would surely have finished in contention for victory rather than fashioning mere modesty.
Bruno beginning to make his own name
The challenge still yet to be overcome by Bruno Senna in his nascent F1 career is putting together a full weekend. After his defeat to Pastor Maldonado - a better driver than previously given little credit for ? - in Saturday's qualifying session at Sepang, that remains the case.
Yet, as observed by Martin Brundle on Sunday night, the race itself hosted his most convincing performance in the sport to date. "For the first time, I believe that Bruno Senna can cut it in F1," summarised Martin as he reflected on the excellence of Senna's sixth place. Note the name game because much like Paul di Resta will be a Brit if he succeeds and a Scot if he does not, Bruno will soon metamorphosis into the name of Senna f he maintains his Sepang level of performance.
The pity for Williams, meanwhile, is that, for the second time in a week, Maldonado was denied a points finish by penultimate lap retirement. This particular misfortune may not have been his fault, but it still adds up to the same nothing thing.
Their considerable consolation, however, is that nobody is mentioning the inexperience of their driver line-up anymore. Rubens who?
A puzzle makes for great racing
Still no answers from Nico Rosberg but at least questions are finally being asked of the low-delivery German in the wake of his second submission to pressure in a week. After beating Michael Schumacher 16-3 in qualifying last term, Rosberg trails his team-mate 0-2 this season and is fortunate than Michael's misfortune on both Sundays has not yet caused any further ripples of notice.
Nonetheless, in a year which none of the many Germans on the grid are yet to enjoy, it's especially bad news if Rosberg is struggling to cope with pressure because pressure is the one thing that Mercedes are gaining on a Sunday.
As opposed to the situation at Ferrari, where one driver can switch on his tyres and make the F2012 reasonably competitive whilst the other cannot and thus ends up over 90 seconds behind in a race effectively 40 laps old, it seems as if neither Rosberg and Schumacher are currently able to switch on the Pirellis in race trim. Though the characteristics of the Mercedes may make their struggle especially profound, their difficulty to fathom out this year's rubber is far from unique. Up and down the pitlane, both teams and drivers are being given unexpected answers from the Pirellis in all types of conditions. One of the very few disappointments this weekend is that we never found out whether Sebastian Vettel's hard-tyre strategy in qualifying would have paid dividends or not.
Yet what this confusion is making plain is that comprehension has now gazumped conservation as the critical tyre issue of 2012. More simply put, it looks like it will be the drivers who are quick to understand the Pirellis who will succeed this year. The broadcast of Jenson Button, a week after keeping his Pirellis in pristine condition in Melbourne, over his car-to-pits radio that he couldn't work his intermediates was - to the benefit of varied and thus particularly exciting racing - public acknowledgement that the enigmatic Pirellis are still locked in a puzzle.