Perhaps, before we go any further, we should offer an explanation to those not versed in Sebastian Vettel’s habits. He names his racing cars, you see. The Toro Rosso he steered to victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix was Julie. Promoted to Red Bull for 2009, he drove Kate into a heavy crash during the Australian race, replacing her with the sleeker, more aggressive lines of Kate’s Dirty Sister. In 2010 there was Luscious Liz, followed by Randy Mandy and now, due to what is apparently a very tightly-packaged rear end, Kinky Kylie.

The following links, one of a car and one of another Kylie who is alleged to be somewhat adventurous, are provided for comparative purposes only.

While he may occasionally come across as somewhat arrogant and colossally smug, it’s hard not to like Vettel. It’s probably just as well, because he’s rapidly developing the habit of winning Grands Prix too. Pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang suggested that the reigning world champion might fancy a crack at top honours this time out as well, but with a pair of resurgent McLarens and a hungry team mate lurking directly behind, could the German take his 2nd victory of the new season? Factor in Red Bull’s hitherto unreliable KERS system, the first chance to see the Drag Reduction System in action on a long straight and the fragile Pirelli tyres and you stood as much chance of predicting the race using form and performance as you did with a Magic 8-Ball.

At the start, all signs pointed to ‘Yes’ for Vettel, who led away commandingly on the long run down to the first right-hander. Behind him, the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton made reasonable getaways while the other Red Bull of Mark Webber dropped anchor. Webbo had made a sluggish start and then found his KERS system choosing the exact same moment to develop a character, engaging a safety mode and refusing to work. 9th into the first turn, Mark would lose another place before the lap was out. Ahead of him were such rocket-boosted starters as Michael Schumacher and the two Renaults, Vitaly Petrov sneaking into 5th while Nick Heidfeld overtook everyone except Vettel in a masterful piece of work around the outside of turn 1.

Schumacher briefly split the Ferraris midway through the opening tour but by its end, Vettel led from Heidfeld, Hamilton, Button, Petrov, Massa, Alonso, Schumacher, Kobayashi and Webber. It’s not known exactly how hard the Australian laughed at this, but doubtless the hilarity only grew upon the discovery that while he could pass Kobayashi’s Sauber at will during the opening stint, he could not stay ahead of the Japanese driver. Kamui is always overtaking someone, no matter what the circumstances, but he seemed to be particularly enjoying the triple benefit conferred upon him by KERS, DRS and tyres that appeared not to disintegrate after 25 seconds.

Vettel was under no particular pressure at the front but Heidfeld was remaining in reasonably close touch, never more than around 7 seconds back through the opening phase of the race. One suspected that Hamilton might have got somewhat closer than that but the Englishman was never truly in position to mount an attack on the Renault driver ahead. Heidfeld was finding excellent traction on corner exit, enough to pull out a gap over the following McLaren that no amount of button-pushing could effectively bridge. 3rd was still better than nowhere, which was where Williams found themselves when Rubens Barrichello’s hydraulics packed in. He was already a lap down after being punted by a Force India at the end of the first lap, driving an entire circuit on 3 wheels having missed the pit entrance. With Pastor Maldonado already sidelined by a misfire, Rubinho’s retirement capped a miserable afternoon for the team from Grove.

Life became a little darker for Heidfeld and Massa at the first round of pit stops, both men receiving slow service and losing ground, with Heidfeld tucking in behind the McLarens and the upwardly mobile Alonso. As if to emphasise his new-found pace, Fernando came booming up the inside of Button at the first corner to snag 3rd place. Hamilton emerged from the pits directly behind the long-running Petrov but made the most of his fresh tyre advantage to sneak by within a lap, losing little ground to the leader. None of this was really troubling Vettel or Webber, with one man cruising at the front while the other remained at the lower end of the points places, plotting a 4-stop strategy against the 3 employed by the leaders. Deprived of Webber to attack, Kobayashi was having a royal set-to with Schumacher instead, the Mercedes having ran a long first stint. The plan was to stall the opening pit stop for as long as possible, in the hope that a recent outbreak of very mild drizzle might become the more typical Malaysian thunderstorm and let Schumi pick his moment to switch to wet tyres.

Before the race, the teams had been unanimous in their verdict on the weather. It wouldn’t rain for the 30 minutes after the start, unless it rained in the 10 minutes after the start, which it might but wouldn’t. This rain would be light, unless it was heavy, in which case it would either settle in for the afternoon or pass by after a few moments, assuming it came at all. In the event, it spat for 5 minutes and then cleared off, giving Schumacher and Nico Rosberg a long run on worn rear tyres for no gain. It also gave the veteran Jarno Trulli no excuse whatsoever for sailing into the kitty litter on a thoroughly locked-up set of cold tyres straight after his first stop. It was a real shame for Lotus, who had Heikki Kovalainen nibbling at the heels of Force India, Mercedes and Toro Rosso for the entire distance.

At the front, Hamilton was chipping away at Vettel but being caught by Alonso, who wasn’t getting away from Button, who wasn’t so far up the road from Heidfeld. It was all simmering away nicely in the battle for victory, with things getting hotter inside the Red Bull camp when Vettel was instructed not to use his KERS. This news was relayed to the German by radio, being passed on to the McLaren drivers as soon as it was broadcast on TV. Shortly after this, it transpired that Sebastian hadn’t properly heard the original communication, thus being the last of the front running drivers to know that his power boost wasn’t working. His response, which must have perplexed and deflated his pursuers in equal measure, was to begin pulling away from the chasing pack without any apparent effort.

After their heroic tyre preservation exercise in Australia, Sauber were at it again with Kobayashi’s car, which was clearly setting a course for 2 stops rather than 3. Sergio Perez may have been doing the same thing, but on lap 24 we were deprived of the opportunity to find out by a piece of debris from a Toro Rosso, which hit the bottom of the Mexican’s car, set off the fire extinguisher and disabled the electrics. How the collection of a small piece of debris could have had such drastic, race-ending consequences has yet to be fully established. It did, though, which was a shame for all concerned since the Sauber looks like a tidy little racing car. Kobayashi was still using his to engage in an after-you-no-after-you battle with Schumi over 8th place, the Red Baron leading the Mercedes charge while Rosberg tried and failed to recover from a poor start. It’s easy to dismiss Schumacher as a faded hero and have Rosberg as the ascending three-pointed star, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that apart from those DRS-induced struggles at the very end of Q2, the old stager was in front of the young buck for the entire Malaysian weekend.

The leaders made their 2nd pit visit of the afternoon, with most sticking to the soft tyres while McLaren went for a set of hards each. This transformed the afternoons of both drivers, with Hamilton looking instantly out of sorts on the harder compound while Button suddenly came on song. His rubber was adhering to the racetrack in a most satisfactory fashion, breeding the sort of confidence that takes a man ahead of Alonso’s Ferrari and allows him to close in on Lewis up ahead. Vettel was preparing to check out for the afternoon but would soon find Jenson’s new-found pace worthy of consideration instead. In the background, Alonso and Heidfeld kept a watching brief each while Webber, heroically battling back to the sharp end, interfered with Massa. Petrov was close enough to profit should either of those two make an error, with the Kobayashi-Schumacher scrap still rumbling on behind and Paul di Resta running quietly, unobtrusively and very quickly in 11th for Force India, set for another points finish should those ahead trip over themselves.

Everything settled down until the 3rd stops, when Hamilton was not at all amused to find that Button had managed to pull ahead of him during the pit sequence. Worse than that, Lewis wasn’t getting on with his latest set of hard tyres, so while Button set sail for Vettel, he had to give greater consideration to the looming threat of Alonso. Down the front straight they came, with Lewis changing his line twice but driving in broadly the same direction throughout. The rules stipulate that you can defend your position by changing lines once, the post-race steward’s enquiry determined that Lewis had breached that particular rule and a 20 second penalty was the result. At no point was Alonso close enough to pass and at no stage was his progress impeded, due in part to a broken DRS system that refused to activate, but rules are rules, no matter how inconsistently you apply them.

A lap later, with Hamilton still doing a passable impression of a sitting duck, the Spaniard lined up to pass his best friend on the flat-out exit of turn 4. In doing so, he misjudged the distance between the front of his Ferrari and the back of the McLaren, clipping Hamilton’s rear as he moved to pass. It was a simple misjudgement, a straightforward racing accident which did slight damage to the McLaren’s floor and more substantial damage to the Ferrari’s front wing. A pit stop to fit a new nose was penalty enough for Alonso, who really didn’t need to have 20 seconds added to his race time but got them anyway. If a slight clip during a botched overtake is worthy of a penalty for ‘causing an avoidable collision’, the stewards might have wished to penalise Pastor Maldonado twice in the opening laps too, while also censuring Sebastien Buemi for what amounted to a wheel-to-wheel shove on Perez through the tight turn 9 hairpin in the early going. They didn’t.

Hamilton soldiered on but he was easy meat for Heidfeld, Quick Nick on course for Renault’s 2nd straight podium finish. Webber, doing remarkable things after his 4th stop, would surely have taken Lewis too, but the McLaren speared off the road through the double-apex 7 and 8 right hander and gifted Mark the position before we ever got to find out. Lewis rejoined, pitted for another set of boots (his 4th, an unscheduled visit due to what the 2008 world champion felt was an excessively early 1st stop), came home a disgruntled 7th and cheered up not one jot upon the post-race discovery that his penalty had left him classified 8th instead.

It would have been still worse for Hamilton had it not been for a late incident involving one of the Renaults. NASA are winding down the Space Shuttle program, with Atlantis scheduled to make the final flight this coming June, and word has clearly made it as far as Russia. What better way to boost awareness of their contribution to the space race than by sending a racing driver into orbit, Vitaly? Petrov did his best to oblige, taking the Hamilton line through 7 and 8 but rejoining the track a little later, ploughing through a grass verge lined with rain gullies in preparation for the standard sub-tropical downpours. He struck one of those gullies with his throttle foot held firmly down, at which point his Renault’s nose pointed firmly upwards and launched into a parabolic flight of the kerbing, landing on the track with enough force to pull the steering column clean out of the rack. With the steering wheel in his lap, Petrov had no alternative but to plough straight ahead into a rudderless retirement.

It wasn’t all grim news for the Regie, though, with Heidfeld having just enough left in his tyres to withstand a late assault from Webber and claim 3rd place. It’s tempting to wonder what Robert Kubica would be doing with the same car, but better for all concerned to enjoy what is, which is pleasant enough, rather than speculating on what might have been. If Jenson Button had started anything like as well as he finished, 2nd might have been 1st. He didn’t, so it wasn’t. Sebastian Vettel’s 5th win from the last 6 races was comfortable, but here again is cause for those behind him to focus on what happened rather than wondering about other possibilities: had Seb’s car worked properly for the entire distance, ‘comfortable’ could just as easily have been ‘crushing’.

Race Results

2011 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang International Circuit, 56 laps of 3.44 miles each

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1hr37:39.382
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +3.261
3. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +25.075
4. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +26.384
5. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +36.958
6. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +57.248*
7. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +1:07.239
8. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +1:09.957*
9. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +1:24.896
10. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1:31.563

11. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1:41.379
12. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1 lap
13. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
14. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso). +1 lap
15. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +1 lap
16. Timo Glock (Virgin), +2 laps
17. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +4 laps, accident, completed over 90% of race distance

Not classified:

18. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), +9 laps, safety reasons, car unstable at the rear
19. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +13 laps, ignition switch turned off when car hit kerb
20. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +24 laps, clutch failure
21. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +32 laps, car disabled by debris
22. Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +33 laps, hydraulic failure
23. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), + 41 laps, precuationary stop, high engine water temperatures
24. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), + 47 laps, misfire

* Includes penalty of 20 seconds

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