After a long red flag period and changeable weather conditions, Fernando Alonso took his twenty-eighth career Grand Prix victory in a thrilling race in Sepang.
The double world champion held off the remarkable Sergio Perez to take the chequered flag and with this win, he now leads the world championship despite a difficult start to the season.
But it could have been so different if Perez didn’t make that error in the late stages of the race – running wide in an attempt to catch Alonso.
The Mexican was a revelation in the Malaysian Grand Prix. Setting fastest laps in a bid to catch the leading Ferrari, but that mistake cost the Sauber driver a chance of victory. Despite this set back, Perez should be immensely proud of what he has achieved.
Perez became the first driver from his country to lead a race and finish on the podium since Pedro Rodriguez in 1971.
Lewis Hamilton completed the podium, with his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button outside the points after a disastrous race.
Sebastian Vettel also failed to score due to a clash in traffic, though his Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber claimed fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus and the Williams of Bruno Senna.
Most of the field used intermediates for the start, which took place on a track dry in some parts but extremely wet in others.
The McLarens held their grid formation into Turn 1, as Romain Grosjean and Michael Schumacher battled for third until making contact and both spinning as the Lotus slid into the Mercedes, allowing the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Vettel into third and fourth, ahead of Alonso.
Grosjean would put the Lotus into the gravel for good on lap three.
Already the rain was beginning to increase, and it was at that moment Sauber opted for the masterstroke of putting Perez straight onto extreme wet tyres – a choice nearly everyone would have to follow over the ensuing laps as the circuit became ever-more sodden.
By lap four, Perez was lapping three seconds quicker than the leaders, and that pace meant that by the time everyone had made the switch to wets, the Sauber was up into third position behind the McLarens. Webber, Alonso and Vettel were next up, the Ferrari having split the Red Bulls by taking wets a lap earlier than Vettel.
The storm then increased to the point that a red flag was inevitable, and the field would spend nearly an hour halted on the grid setting up shelter from the rain.
Particularly notable performances at this stage were Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne getting up to seventh by virtue of hanging on with intermediates in the deluge, and Narain Karthikeyan appearing in tenth for HRT having started on wets.
Race control mandated wet tyres for the eventual restart, though by the time four laps behind the safety car had been completed the track was right for intermediates, with Button pitting just as racing resumed.
That allowed him to jump ahead of team-mate Hamilton, who also lost out to Alonso in a slightly slow pitstop. But Button’s race then fell apart as he clipped Karthikeyan while coming back through traffic after his pitstop, forcing him to pit for a new front wing.
Perez stayed out a lap longer than Alonso and Hamilton, and rejoined ahead of them – although the Ferrari immediately overtook the Sauber.
Alonso then began edging away, establishing six-second cushion over Perez, as both dropped the rest of the field.
As the track dried heading into the final stages of the race, Perez charged up behind Alonso, whose tyres were fading faster. Before the Sauber could attack, Alonso came in for dry, slick tyres, and reopened a five-second lead by doing so a lap before his rival.
But on a dry track, the Sauber was much faster than the race leader and started taking a second or more per lap out of Alonso’s lead, closing onto the rear of the Ferrari with seven laps to go – amid radio messages from the team urging him not to jeopardise second place.
Then a mistake coming onto the back straight saw Perez run wide and lose five seconds. The Mexican immediately resumed his charge, but did not have enough laps to pull off a remarkable win.
Hamilton did not have the pace to catch the top two in wet or dry conditions and finished third. Vettel was on course for fourth until clipping Karthikeyan’s HRT in the closing stages – causing a left-rear puncture that dropped the world champion to P11 and handed fourth to Webber.
Raikkonen continued his strong race form on his Formula One return with fifth place for Lotus.
Senna produced an excellent charge to take a career-best finish of sixth for Williams, despite sliding into team-mate Pastor Maldonado on the first lap and breaking his front wing.
Both Force Indias scored, with Paul di Resta seventh and Nico Hulkenberg ninth, split by Vergne’s Toro Rosso.
As for Mercedes, their weekend fell apart in the race again, with Schumacher only able to get back up to tenth after the first-lap clash and an additional tyre stop leaving Nico Rosberg P14, behind the delayed Button – whose recovery drive was stymied by tyre difficulties that saw him make another additional stop.
Maldonado had been on course for the final point as he chased Vergne and Hulkenberg in a tight three-way battle, until an engine problem halted the Williams two laps from the flag.
While one Ferrari took victory ahead of a future protégé, Felipe Massa could only finish P15 after another poor performance.
So a brilliant result for Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. After a difficult start to the season with the F2012, this victory was the perfect way to answer the critics. The Spaniard now leads the world championship after two races.
And yet the star of the race was Sergio Perez. His performance in the Sauber was remarkable. To miss out on taking the overall win due to a driver error was unfortunate. Nevertheless, Perez’s has a bright future in the sport and we could see him in the red car soon.
Malaysian Grand Prix, race result after 56 laps:
1. Alonso Ferrari 2h44:51.812
2. Perez Sauber-Ferrari +2.263
3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes +14.591
4. Webber Red Bull-Renault +17.688
5. Raikkonen Lotus-Renault +29.456
6. Senna Williams-Renault +37.667
7. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes +44.412
8. Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari +46.985
9. Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes +47.892
10. Schumacher Mercedes +49.996
11. Vettel Red Bull-Renault +1:15.527
12. Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1:16.828
13. Rosberg Mercedes +1:18.593
14. Button McLaren-Mercedes +1:19.719
15. Massa Ferrari +1:37.319
16. Petrov Caterham-Renault +1 lap
17. Glock Marussia-Cosworth +1 lap
18. Kovalainen Caterham-Renault +1 lap
19. Maldonado Williams-Renault +2 laps
20. Pic Marussia-Cosworth +2 laps
21. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth +2 laps
22. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes +2 laps
Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:40.722
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 47 laps
Grosjean Lotus-Renault 4 laps
World Championship standings, round 2:
1. Alonso 35
2. Hamilton 30
3. Button 25
4. Webber 24
5. Perez 22
6. Vettel 18
7. Raikkonen 16
8. Senna 8
9. Kobayashi 8
10. Di Resta 7
11. Vergne 4
12. Hulkenberg 2
13. Ricciardo 2
14. Schumacher 1
1. McLaren-Mercedes 55
2. Red Bull-Renault 42
3. Ferrari 35
4. Sauber-Ferrari 30
5. Lotus-Renault 16
6. Force India-Mercedes 9
7. Williams-Renault 8
8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6
9. Mercedes 1
Next race: Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai. April 13-15.