Weather Is Less a Factor at Malaysian GP Than Reliability, Ego Issues
The second race of the 2013 Formula One season was not defined by the weather and tires, as pre-race commentators initially speculated, but instead by car reliability and driver ego that may ultimately cast rain clouds between teammates as the season progresses.
Race start found all drivers shod with the intermediate wet tires, and earlier concerns about rainfall were dissipated shortly before the starting lights went out. The track would be damp to start, but the clouds above Kuala Lumpur would soon blow away, revealing a hot Malaysian sun that would quickly dry the track. The drivers would have a few quick laps to run with the wets, but would have to pit early on in the race to switch to dry tires.
Sebastian Vettel was able to keep his position in first as the race began, although Fernando Alonso, one of the frontrunners to win the GP, clipped Vettel in Turn 2, in turn damaging Alonso’s front wing. Sparks showered the track as he struggled through the first lap, but instead of pitting to get the wing fixed, Alonso, under Ferrari’s orders, soldiered on to a second lap. Almost immediately, the rest of the wing shattered, lifting the bright red F138 straight off the ground and careening off the track. Alonso’s failure was to be the first of many in an increasingly tense day.
Lap 6 saw Vettel as the first to pit, switching to the medium tires that were supposed to be the preferred set for the day (although Mercedes seemed to prefer the hard compounds). Over the next few laps, all racers followed suit to be rid of the wet tires that were becoming increasingly unusable for the rapidly drying track. Lap 7 saw Force India pull both of its drivers to shed their wets, causing Paul Di Resta to wait as teammate Adrian Sutil received the pit crew first. Problems were exacerbated by faulty wheel nuts that kept both cars in the pits for an extraordinary amount of time.
The problems with the wheels eventually caused both Di Resta and Sutil to retire several laps later (24 and 29, respectively). By lap 28, Hamilton had may his way into third, behind Vettel in second and Webber leading. The positioning would foreshadow race end, although the top 3 order would be slightly shifted. By Lap 34, Jenson Button would lead due to only pitting twice, but it was a lead not meant to last.
Button would pit in Lap 36, but one of the crew members tripped the green traffic light before the front right wheel had been properly affixed, leading McLaren’s better half to stay grounded in the pit lane for nearly two minutes. By then, any chance of a strong finish had evaporated; he would gain a few positions to 12th before retiring in the penultimate lap due to crippling tire vibration.
The final four had been established by Lap 44, with both Red Bulls leading the pack and both Mercedes trailing. At this point, the battles would be between teammates; Vettel and Webber squabbled for first place, while Team Mercedes was able to reel in Nico Rosberg, who at this point resided behind teammate Hamilton, against his insistence that he could catch up to the Red Bulls. It was clear from communications with Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn that the team was more focused on finishing the race in the places established than spending a dwindling fuel supply to catch up to Red Bull, who at this point enjoyed a substantial lead.
Against Red Bull’s wishes, Vettel overtook Webber late in the race to secure first; this may prove to drive a wedge between Red Bull’s drivers as the year goes on. In fact, the winner’s podium consisted of Vettel, Webber, and Hamilton, and all three appeared to sport varying degrees of unhappiness. It was easily the saddest group of men holding trophies in recent memory. The post-race press conference was similarly frosty.
The pregame show was characteristically focused on weather and the tires. The intermediate wets require a moderate amount of water to preserve the tread; if the track is too wet, the tires won’t displace enough water to keep the cars stable, while a drying track would rip them to shreds. The Malaysian Grand Prix introduces a unique set of problems with regard to its weather. Lying just north of the Equator, the country enjoys a tropical climate and by the time the GP rolls around at the end of March, humidity and heat force drivers to undergo extensive training to meet the physical demands of the weather.
The heat may have taken a toll on the drivers and their teams, as this race in particular seemed to show a high level of disorganization and weariness all around. After pitting at Lap 7, Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne was waved out of the pits as Caterham’s Charles Pic was pulling in in front of him. The collision caused both car’s front noses to be replaced, along with a $10,000 fine for TR after the race. Lap 8 saw Lewis Hamilton amusingly pulling into McLaren’s pit lane for before he realized where he was and continued on to home base at Mercedes. Toward the end of the race, Pastor Maldonado of Williams flew off the track for the second time and was forced to retire.