SEPANG, Malaysia, March 24 – Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel pulled off a daring overtaking manoeuvre against Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber to snatch victory in a pulsating Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The German ace went wheel-to-wheel with his stablemate late in the race, earning a stern rebuke from team principal Christian Horner, before emerging in front and taking his 27th race win.
Former world title-holder Lewis Hamilton was third, claiming his first podium spot for new team Mercedes, after his frustrated stablemate Nico Rosberg was ordered not to overtake as they duelled in the closing stages.
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa finished fifth, stealing the limelight from Fernando Alonso after the two-time world champion went out on the second lap with a collapsed front wing.
France’s Romain Grosjean was sixth, outshining his team-mate and last week’s winner Kimi Raikkonen in seventh.
Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Jean-Eric Vergne rounded out the top 10 while McLaren’s Jenson Button was a late retirement.
The recriminations and repercussions went on long after the chequered flag with Webber inferring Vettel had ignored team orders but that he would be ‘protected’ by the team.
He said: ‘The first part of the grand prix went very well for us and in the end we got the right strategy. It was just controlling the race and getting everything in place for the back end of the race.
‘After the last stop I was told the race was over and turned the engine down. Seb made his own decision today. We know he is a quick peddler but I was disappointed with the outcome of today’s race.’
At least Hamilton had the good grace to admit Rosberg should have been on the podium give the pace advantage his teammate had enjoyed.
‘If I am honest Nico should be standing here, he had better pace,’ he said. ‘I was fuel-saving for a long, long time. But the guys did a great job and I brought it home. I can’t say it is the best feeling being up here but racing is racing.’
In a race where the rain is usually a decisive factor, it was the white hot racing on a dry track which was responsible for the thrilling climax.
The usual shower came around forty minutes prior to red lights out. But despite conditions clearing for the start, the whole field needed intermediates for the opening laps.
Such tricky conditions can catch out even the best of them and after getting the drop on team-mate Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso was on the gearbox of pole man Sebastian Vettel.
But the Spaniard could not keep control of his Ferrari and twice tagged the back of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing.
Remarkably, Alonso stayed out for a second lap despite the wonky wing, and as his speed got up to the 200mph mark down the main straight it let go, momentarily pitching his Ferrari into the air, before he slewed into the gravel trap and out of the race.
Vettel was the first into the pits at the end of lap five to put on slicks, but the switch was premature as he tumbled through the order, finishing the following lap in seventh place behind McLaren’s Sergio Perez.
But the mistake by Red Bull was not a patch on the clanger by Hamilton. Mercedes appeared to have got the call to bring Hamilton in at the end of lap seven bang on, but amazingly Hamilton pulled into the McLaren box before being waved down the pit lane by the mechanics of his former team.
The blunder cost Hamilton in the region of six seconds and the chance of emerging from the first wave of stops in the lead.
Instead it was Mark Webber, who also pitted at the end of lap seven, who emerged in front after the first wave of stops – the Australian benefiting form Hamilton’s embarrassment and Vettel’s premature visit to the garage.
As matters shook down at the head of the field, Jenson Button – who blundered in similar circumstance to Hamilton at the Chinese Grand Prix two years ago – was maintaining the fifth place he had made up on the opening having started seventh on the grid.
Webber was back in at the end of lap 19 as Pirelli’s fragile rubber gave out and was quickly followed by Hamilton, who found the right garage this time, followed by Vettel and Rosberg.
The top three remained Webber, Vettel, Hamilton once the field sorted itself out, although the reigning world champion opted for the softer compound tyre.
But while the second round of stops was plain sailing for the leaders, any hope of Force India building on their good start to the season evaporated in the pits.
Adrian Sutil had already suffered a tardy first stop but when teammate Paul di Resta visited his pit for the second time disaster struck as the team struggled to remove his front left wheel. A hammer was employed to try and fix the issue, but after finally getting the tyre on, Resta was soon back in the garage to retire his car.
Sutil suffered exactly the same problem, and after dropping to last place, the decision was taken to retire the German’s Force India, the first time both their cars have retired since the Japanese Grand Prix in 2010.
Meanwhile, at the front, Vettel was letting his frustration at being stuck behind Webber on softer tyres get the better of him. Speaking into his radio, as Hamilton closed up behind, Vettel moaned: ‘Mark is too slow, get him out of the way.’
Told to be patient, Vettel was handed the chance to do something about his team-mate as he assumed the lead when Webber and Nico Rosberg pitted for a third time, one lap after Hamilton.
But the decision to stay out an extra lap looked to have proved costly as both Webber and Hamilton swept past Vettel as he emerged from the pits following a slightly tardy stop.
And as Hamilton set about chasing down Webber, remarkably, given McLaren’s woes, Button briefly found himself leading the race until disaster struck.
Visiting the pits for the third time, and looking on for a decent points finish, Button fell foul of McLaren’s blundering pit crew yet again. Just as in Silverstone two years’ ago, McLaren released Button without his front-right wheel properly attached, forcing him to grind to a halt in the pit lane.
McLaren mechanics frantically raced to Buttons car and pushed it back to the garage, but despite finally sending him out with four wheels in his wagon, the damage had been done as he returned to the track way down in 14th
The news for Hamilton was not much better as, having burned excess petrol to stay in touch with the Red Bull, the 2008 world champion was told to save petrol. The lack of pace made him a sitting duck to Vettel who regained second place into Turn One at the start of lap 39.
In danger of being passed by Rosberg, Hamilton dived into the pits for a fourth and final time. The move kept him just ahead of his team-mate.
The final stops also set up a titanic struggle between Webber and Vettel for first place. Having pitted one-lap later than Vettel, Webber returned to the track a whisker ahead of his team-mate.
A superb battle royale of wheel to wheel racing ensued as Hamilton and Rosberg briefly exchanged places further down the track.
The heart in the mouth action reached its climax with 12 laps to go, prompting the Red Bull team principle to warn Vettel not to be silly. Vettel, however was in no mood to give any quarter to his teammate, and when he finally muscled his way past there was no way back for Webber, who responded with a raised middle finger.
Hamilton had far more to worry about form Rosberg to maintain third place as the chequered flag drew ever closer, the German less than a second behind and in DRS range.
Like Vettel, Rosberg came onto the team radio to state: ‘I am so much faster, let me get past.’ ‘Negative’ was the response from Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn.
Back onto the radio came Rosberg: ‘Tell him to speed up a bit, he’s too slow.’ Brawn replied tersely: ‘Please drop back a bit Nico, there is a big gap behind and I want to bring both these cars home.’
The order was accepted as Vettel crossed the line to win accompanied by the message he would have some explaining to do.
Brawn was left with some explaining to do to a disgruntled Rosberg. ‘We’ll discuss the last bit later,’ said the boss. ‘Remember this one,’ replied his driver.
-AFP and DailyMail