The 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix will certainly be one to remember, as the race was stopped early due to heavy rainfall. Only half points were awarded as the race had not reached its mandatory three-quarters distance needed for full points. And once again, it is Jenson Button who walks away with the maximum available, taking his second consecutive victory from Nick Heidfeld and Timo Glock. It wasn’t easy though, and many teams will be asking a lot of questions in the next fortnight.
From pole position on a dry Sepang circuit, Jenson Button should have had the perfect getaway and lead the pack through T1. Unfortunately, the Brawn driver likes to give himself a challenge and as the lights went out on the gantry overlooking the grid, Nico Rosberg hooked everything up and came charging up to the front. Moving over to the right of the track, the Williams driver squeezed himself through the inside of Button and thundered off into the lead.
The move by Rosberg going into the first corner put Jenson Button out of position on the outside and both Timo Glock and a fast starting Fernando Alonso sneaked by, demoting Button to fourth and just ahead of his team mate. The first lap blues weren’t exclusively experienced by Button though, as Heikki Kovalainen once again became the first of the retirees. In an attempt to move around the outside of team mate Lewis Hamilton, Heikki lost control of his McLaren and the Mercedes-powered machine whipped around and deposited the Finn in the gravel.
Once the first lap was over, the drivers settled into a rhythm but there was still plenty of passes on the track. Fernando Alonso was heavy, which made his start even more impressive, and soon enough the Spaniard found tail of frustrated Formula One drivers forming behind him. Rubens Barrichello managed a fairly straight-forward pass on L4, but it would be a while before anyone else could find the pace or confidence to make a similar move.
Sebastien Buemi made the first stop of anyone on L3, the Scuderia Toro Rosso pilot coming in for a new nose. Starting from the back, it is likely that the Swiss driver got caught up in a minor scuff on the opening tour of Sepang. Also experiencing trouble on L3 was Robert Kubica. On the formation lap, the Pole radioed his team to say that there was a strange noise coming from the engine. At the start, Kubica was slow to get away, prompting the marshals to wave yellow flags and warn other drivers. Everybody behind was seen darting left and right to avoid the stalling BMW. Kubica managed to get the car going, but was seen a few minutes later parking it up, flames licking the rear of the bodywork.
At the front, Rosberg was enjoying the moment and started to edge out a lead over those following. The fastest lap went Nico’s way on L4, but by L8 Barrichello had stolen back for Brawn, but on L10 it returned to the Williams driver. Sebastian Vettel, who started out of sequence thanks to a penalty received in Melbourne, was on a light fuel strategy and was desperate to move up the field. The German came up on the rear of Nick Heidfeld’s BMW and started to attack.
Although Vettel tried to pass on a number of occasions, a mistake from Heidfeld eventually meant that Sebastian could cruise through, Lewis Hamilton following closely behind. The tail behind Alonso began to grow and Vettel and Hamilton made there way back through the midfield to join the rear of the train. Following the Renault were Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber, Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
On L11, Raikkonen made his move on Alonso and it stuck. On the same lap, Webber found himself having to defend his position from a recovering Glock while simultaneously looking for a way pass the fat Renault ahead of of him. The Australian Red Bull driver made his move the following lap at T13, but just as Webber thought he was safely through, Alonso was able to comeback at the similarly powered machine. Although the cars share engines, the factory motor has a KERS attached to it. Webber had supreme grip through the corners thanks to his Newey-designed chassis, but Alonso had the raw grunt down the straights thanks to his battery boost.
And so it went. Webber ducked around the Renault through the corners, Alonso pushed his right foot down and pressed the button on the steering wheel with his thumb and repassed. On L13, Webber finally made it stick and was able to get away from Alonso. Although this sequence of pass/repass does demonstrate the difference KERS has made. And of course, the difference a decent chassis makes. I wonder if Renault will really want to share the KERS with Red Bull knowing now just how good the RB5 actually is?
By L15, the pitstop window was open and most drivers were on a similar strategy. They all started on the soft compound, which unlike the super-soft in Melbourne last weekend, does hold on for about 15 laps. Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock, Adrian Sutil, Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli all paid their teams a visit between L14 and L17. And all said their goodbyes with soft rubber on.
On L18 though, Ferrari did something a little different. The clouds were gathering overhead, and everybody was expecting rain at some point during the race. The circuit was still bone dry, but the flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder meant that precipitation was imminent. Although not actually raining, the Scuderia brought Kimi Raikkonen in, screwed on a set of full wet weather tyres and sent him out again. Not intermediates. Full wet weather tyres. It was a huge gamble.
The following lap, after Raikkonen had adjusted himself to the different grip now available to him, Martin Brundle had the following to say while commentating for the BBC:
Raikkonen is understeering like a cross-channel ferry. What have Ferrari done, I don’t understand it. Martin Brundle.
At this point of the race, Jenson Button had been setting blistering pace in the Brawn. In fact, the fastest lap of the race came just prior to the Briton’s first pitstop as Button knew he had to make up as much time as possible before stopping. This happened on L20, and Jenson left the pits on soft rubber. Rubens Barrichello came in the following lap and put on the same compound of tyre. Although Rubens struggled to find first gear, the Brazilian eventually managed to leave the box without losing too much time. And despite Kimi sliding his Ferrari around Sepang like Bambi on ice, Sebastien Bourdais decided to do the same and pitted for full wets.
Raikkonen was, by L22, 21s off the pace of the leaders. Each tour of Sepang was losing the Ferrari pilot a third of a minute. The rain started to fall thankfully, but it was too late. Kimi radioed his team to update them on the situation:
My tyres are completely destroyed. Kimi Raikkonen.
In all honesty, I’m surprised the Finn was able to keep that communication as clean and family-friendly as it is.
With the rain though comes pitstops. It wasn’t overly heavy to begin with, but most teams opted for full wets in the anticipation that it will only get heavier as time progresses. However, when Glock made his pitstop, which wasn’t until L26, the German decided on intermediate tyres. It was the right call from the team and driver, as once Glock had put them through a heat cycle, he was blisteringly quick in comparison.
Further back, Mark Webber found himself having another ding-dong with a KERS-assisted car, this time it was the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton. Mark pushed by on L24, but Hamilton just planted the throttle and pressed the button when the pair exited the corners and moved onto the straights. The pair battled their way around Sepang for a couple of laps before Webber managed to make a move stick.
On the same lap, the Red Bull pilot managed to pass Nick Heidfeld and Hamilton radioed his team to complain about his car hitting the limiter in top gear. Timo Glock, who just exited the pitlane after sticking on some intermediate rubber, shot pass the McLaren and the BMW.
Cue the masses to pit once again, this time for intermediate rubber. The race is at about L30 distance.
Seeing and feeling the rain is falling heavier, and with a slew of cars filing out of the pitlane on intermediate tyres, Timo Glock pitted to take on full wet weather tyres. The move made by Toyota was almost in counterpoint to the rest of the field, seemingly on purpose in a sort of rebellion. But that wasn’t the reason. The reason was quite clearly that the Cologne-based team were listening to their driver and ensuring that he was on the right tyre at the right time. Had Timo been able to complete a few laps on the full wets, the chances of him winning Toyota’s first race would have been strong. Unfortunately and officially, Timo didn’t even get a chance to drive one lap on them. Well, not that has been recorded in the final classification, anyway.
On L30, the safety car was sent out. By L31, the track was simply flooded. Drivers were aqua-plaining left, right and centre. Sebastien Bourdais, whose glasses must have been steaming up inside his helmet, shouted into the radio to stop the race. A few seconds later, the red flag was thrown and the drivers were ordered to drive around to the start/finish straight and park up. Not everyone made it back though, and this is where it gets a bit complicated.
Under the regulations, if a race is red flagged, it is simply suspended. If it is stopped before three-quarters distance and it is unable to be restarted, half-points are awarded. If the race can be restarted, a ten minute warning has to be given to allow the teams and drivers to prepare. The race will restart under the control of the safety car and in essence, any race restart would in effect be a rolling start. While waiting on the grid, the drivers cannot leave and go to the garages, although they can vacate their cars and seek cover under umbrellas. The teams are allowed to work on the cars.
On the final lap prior to the red flag, which was actually under safety car control – Alan Van Der Merwe had been sent out in the AMG Mercedes – Sebastien Buemi was seen pointing the wrong way, Giancarlo Fisichella skated across the gravel, Sebastian Vettel appeared to simply stop and Adrian Sutil pitted. Kimi Raikkonen suffered another problem with his KERS, and the Ferrari was rolled off the grid and into the garage. Raikkonen vacated the F60, got changed and ate an ice cream. Although talking to reporters on the grid, the team’s press officer – Luca Colajanni – was unaware of the retirement and said that if they could get the car running without KERS, the FInn would be interested in rejoining.
The drivers were shielded under umbrellas while waiting on the grid and Mark Webber, a senior member of the GPDA, went around and spoke with his fellow competitors, gaining feedback on conditions and procedures. The cars were repositioned in the correct order – many just died as they struggled to get back down the grid, so much was the water flooding the area. Of course, a racing circuit isn’t necessarily cambered like a normal road, so often the water just sits on the surface. As Felipe Massa cruised back around, the Ferrari was creating a bow-wave as water was lifted up and over the front wing end-plates.
After 53 minutes of waiting on the grid, with rapidly fading light and the maximum two hour limit fast approaching, the race was ended. Half points were awarded, and crucially, the finishing order was been rolled back to last completed lap under normal conditions. As complicated as that sounds, it is important to realise that the order the cars filed onto the grid under red flag conditions is not necessarily the order of the race classification. In 2003, Kimi Raikkonen was incorrectly deemed the winner in Brazil in similar circumstances, although after the FIA worked out how to count properly, Giancarlo Fisichella was eventually handed the trophy; the Italian’s first in fact.
So the win means Jenson Button remains at the top of the drivers championship, Nick Heidfeld finally gets BMW’s campaign started and Timo Glock is rewarded six well-deserved points. Lewis Hamilton finally scores, although in a post-race interview his team had not informed him of the roll-back and said they were seeking clarification. Rubens Barrichello netted fifth for Brawn, just behind Jarno Trulli and Nico Rosberg, who raced so wonderfully well, only gets a single point.
The final classification can be viewed here: Malaysia 2009: Race Result.
A live post from the moment the red flag was thrown can be read here: Malaysia 2009: Race Red Flagged.