Malaysian GP: Showers see surprising front runners

Fernando Alonso has sensationally moved to the top of the world championship standings after claiming a superb victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The Ferrari driver needed a downpour at the Sepang International Circuit to have a chance of being competitive in the second round of the world championship but his prayers were answered immediately before the race. The shower gave him the opportunity to showcase his skills and overcome the handicap of a struggling Ferrari.

After a winter of testing and an opening race of the season that has left Ferrari all at sea it was fitting that Sunday’s race around a track that resembled a lake for large portions allowed Alonso to claim his first victory since last year’s British Grand Prix, and crucially kick start his campaign in 2012. In qualifying the Ferrari was almost one second off the pace of the McLaren’s but in race conditions which placed a much greater deal of importance on the driver rather than the car the Spaniard showed once again why he is regularly rated as the sport’s best.

In hot and humid weather the Malaysian race is always liable to be affected by thunderstorms and when they rolled over the track approximately ten minutes before the start Alonso knew that this was his only chance to win for a third time at the South East Asian venue. Interestingly the winner in Malaysia has won the title for the last four years but it was clear that thoughts such as this were far from Alonso’s mind after the race.

When asked about how surprising it was to win the Spaniard’s honesty shone through as he said:

“Yeah, [it was] a big surprise today with the win,” commented the double world champion. “We were not competitive in Australia, we were not competitive here and our goal for this first race is to score as many points as possible. But today we did 25 so it’s an unbelievable result. It’s a tough time for us at the moment but this Sunday we will remember.”

For much of the weekend Alonso languished in the midfield runners but when it mattered, just as in Australia, he found a herculean performance that not only gave him the title lead but also some breathing space in the coming weeks for Ferrari to start developing their car.

The Prancing Horse has looked like a “stumbling stallion” so far in 2012 but this win gives Alonso the title lead and means that when the European starts there is a great chance that he can start to mount a realistic championship challenge without having to rely on bad weather to give him a opportunity of being competitive.

The battle at the front was the most surprising since Sebastian Vettel claimed victory for Toro Rosso at Monza four years ago. Alonso had to fight to the very end to hold off the challenge of Sergio Perez.

The Mexican, driving for Sauber, is contracted to Ferrari as a young driver and with Felipe Massa under intense pressure to up his performance this race could prove instrumental with a move to Maranello in the near future. Perez qualified ninth but it was quick thinking on the Sauber pitwall that put him into position to challenge for the victory.

Perez was the first runner to pit for the extreme wet weather tyre at the start of the race and used the advantage to move seamlessly through the field when the cars ahead of him were forced to change to similar rubber. When the pitstops were completed the youngster found himself in third position behind the McLarens when the race was red flagged because of the dangerous conditions.

In the closing stages we saw once again that Perez has an amazing ability to race with badly degrading tyres. Last season, in his rookie campaign, he consistently made one stop less than the field as he coaxed extra life from his tyres. In Malaysia when the track dried in the closing of the race he was one of the last runners to change to slicks.

It was an inspired decision and it gave him a distinct speed advantage over Alonso in the final laps. A late off track excursion put paid to his challenge for the victory but he showed once again that he has the speed to be a very competitive driver in the future.

For Sauber the race marked a high point since their return to privateer status following BMW’s withdrawal from the sport. The Swiss squad are still chasing their first Grand Prix victory but having already amassed 30 points, just 14 points less than their 2011 haul, in the opening two races they are making terrific progress in their efforts to stabilise the team and progress back their position on the grid as BMW.

For McLaren this race showed just how much progress they have made over the winter. Whereas last year they would have been praying for rain, last weekend their speed advantage had them looking to the skies and hoping that wind would move the clouds away from the track.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button started on the front row of the grid for the second race in succession but a third place finish was the best they could achieve after a tumultuous race that saw Button clash with a HRT and finish 11th.

For Hamilton though it was important to bring the car home with a respectable points total and move onto the Chinese Grand Prix with a solid start to the season. It seemed that the former champion spent much of last year in the headlines for accidents so to come through this race unscathed will surely give him a confidence boost as he looks to reassert himself as the McLaren team leader.

The Englishman has taken pole position at both races so far in 2012 and his qualifying efforts show that his speed is as impressive as ever. If he can rediscover the balance between speed and consistency in the races that he showed in his early career he will be a dangerous championship contender such is the qualifying advantage that McLaren are enjoying at present.

The race pace between the leading teams is still an unknown and while Malaysia was supposed to provide answers to the question of the competitive position of the leading teams the weather meant that we will have to wait three weeks, until the Chinese Grand Prix, for a clearer picture to emerge.

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