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F1: Alonso And Ferrari Win At Sepang

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 25 2012

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Ferrari “tifosi” world-wide breathed a collective sigh Sunday, when Fernando Alonso drove the embattled F2012 to victory over a determined Sergio Perez in the rain-marred FIA Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix.

A two-time World Driving Champion, Alonso tapped into every bit of his skill to fend off Perez and his Sauber powered by a customer Ferrari engine in the closing laps around the 15-turn, 3.444-mile Sepang International Circuit. Perez closed to within a half-second of Alonso on Lap 50 of the 56-lapper _ directly under the Ferrari’s rear wing under braking _ before going off-track through a complex of wet turns. That miscue allowed Alonso to stretch his lead to 4.906-seconds en route to his 28th career victory.

Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton of McLaren/Mercedes finished third for the second consecutive race, followed by Mark Webber of Red Bull Racing/Renault, former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus/Renault and Bruno Senna of Williams/Renault.

“Yeah, a big surprise today the win,” said Alonso, who qualified a disappointing eighth on Saturday. “I think we were not competitive in Australia (Round 1 last week), we were not competitive here. Our goal for this race was to score as many points as possible, but today we did the 25 (for the win). So it’s an unbelievable result. Great job from the team. Track-side, I think we maximized the potential we have in our hands at the moment. Good qualifying going into today and then keeping calm in some strange conditions.”

A steady rain that marked the start of the race _ prompting a switch to intermediate Pirelli tires _ soon turned into a downpour. Hamilton and McLaren/Mercedes teammate Jenson Button _ winner of the Australian GP _ wasted little time pitting for full wet tires in a bid to maintain their lead positions. Button pitted on Lap 5 and Hamilton on Lap 6, the latter maintaining the point upon exit. But a red flag Safety Car period that lasted for over an hour starting on Lap 9 added the first of several layers of strategy played out against the weather.

“In the beginning with all the water and switching to the intermediates and switching to the dry tires in the perfect moment with perfect pit stops _ congratulations to the team,” said Alonso, who posted his third Malaysian GP win and first at Sepang since 2007. “Tough times for us at the moment, but this Sunday we will remember.”

That certainly was true for Perez, the Mexican who put together the breakout race of his two-year F1 career. It was a race, Perez said, he could have/should have won.

“I think so, I definitely think so,” said Perez, who started ninth. “I mean, I was catching Fernando towards the end of the race and knew I had to get to him soon because on all the sectors with the high speed I was losing already my front tires. We had a lot of degradation going behind Fernando. And then I run wide on a quick corner, I touched the curb and I lose the (front) wing. It was very difficult, obviously, to get Fernando but I think today the win was possible.”

As it was, Perez gave Sauber its first podium since Robert Kubica of Poland in the 2008 Italian GP. Perez also is the first Mexican to podium in an F1 race since national hero Pedro Rodriguez in the 1971 Dutch Grand Prix. Perez’s previous best F1 finish was seventh in both the 2011 British and Australian grand prixs.

“I have to say the team has done an incredible job; they called me always (into the pits) on the right time, especially the first pit stop,” said Perez, who finished ninth at Melbourne in Round 1. “Unfortunately, Fernando pitted one lap earlier than us towards the end of the race when the track was already dry and he opened up some gap there. Even though we managed to get (close) to him.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, admitted he had nothing for either Alonso or Perez in the conditions after surrendering the lead during a pit stop on Lap 15.

“I can’t really complain,” said Hamilton, the World Champion in 2008. “I’m on the podium for the second week in a row, so I’m pretty happy. I feel pretty fortunate I was able to stay out of trouble with the conditions changing constantly. I think we did a great job.”

Despite plenty of offseason and early-season angst over the performance of the F2012 Alonso moved into the Driver’s Championship lead by five points, 35-30, over Hamilton. Button is third with 25 points, one head of Webber with 24. McLaren/Mercedes leads the Constructor’s Championship with 55 points, followed by Red Bull/Renault with 42 and Ferrari with 35.

The drop-nosed F2012 has been described as the ugliest F1 car to ever roll out of the storied factory in Maranello, Italy. And Alonso indicated this victory was perhaps cosmetic.

“It changes nothing, to be honest,” said the Spaniard, who now has 74 career podium finishes. “We are in a position we don’t want, fighting to go into Q3 (in knockout qualifying) and then fighting to score some points. We want to fight for pole positions, for victories. So definitely, in these first two races in the championship we found ourselves off the pace. The goal (Sunday) was not to lose many points to the leaders. I think we did the job on the track-side, as I said. So this is positive news out of these first two races.

“But coming to China, Bahrain, Barcelona _ there is a lot of stuff coming to improve the car. This is the real job we have to do and I know the team is putting in a lot of effort. We trust each other a lot; we are very, very united at the moment and this win will make us very happy today and maybe the next two days in the factory. But it doesn’t change our determination to improve the car and to keep winning.”

Nine different teams were represented in the top-10 points-paying positions. Not among them was Sebastian Vettel, the two-time/reigning World Champion, whose Red Bull Racing/Renault suffered a blown left rear tire on Lap 48 of the 56 after contact with the front wing of the HRT/Cosworth driven by Narain Karthikeyan. Vettel, who finished second to Button in Australia, placed 11th on Sunday.

Meanwhile, seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher suffered through his second disappointing outing when contact with the Lotus/Renault of Romain Grosjean on Lap 1 dropped him from fifth. Schumacher had qualified third but wound up 10th _ good for his first point of 2012 _ after finishing 20th at Melbourne last week.

Round 3 of the series, the Grand Prix of China, is scheduled for April 14 from the Shanghai Circuit. SPEED’s live coverage will begin at 2:30 a.m. (EDT).

The FIA-sanctioned series will return to the United States for the inaugural Formula One USGP at Circuit of The Americas, a $300-million facility under construction in Austin, Texas, Nov. 16-18.

FIA Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix results with car number in parentheses, driver, country, chassis/engine and time/laps differential:

(5) Fernando Alonso, Spain, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro

(15) Sergio Perez, Mexico, Sauber/Ferrari, plus 2.2-seconds

(4) Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, plus 14.5-seconds

(2) Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull Racing/Renault, plus 17.6-seconds

(9) Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Lotus/Renault, plus 29.4-seconds

(19) Bruno Senna, Brazil, Williams/Renault, plus 37.6-seconds

(11) Paul di Resta, Great Britain, Force India/Mercedes, plus 44.4-seconds

(17) Jean-Eric Vergne, France, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, plus 46.9-seconds

(12) Nico Hulkenberg, Germany, Force India/Mercedes, plus 47.8-seconds

(7) Michael Schumacher, Germany, Mercedes AMG, plus 49.9-seconds

(1) Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Red Bull Racing/Renault, plus 75.5-seconds

(16) Daniel Ricciardo, Australia, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, plus 76.8-seconds

(8) Nico Rosberg, Germany, Mercedes AMG, plus 78.5-seconds

(3) Jenson Button, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, plus 79.7-seconds

(6) Felipe Massa, Brazil, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, plus 97.3-seconds

(21) Vitaly Petrov, Russia, Caterham/Renault, plus 1 lap

(24) Timo Glock, Germany, Marussia/Cosworth, plus 1 lap

(20) Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, Caterham/Renault, plus 1 lap

(18) Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela, Williams/Renault, plus 2 laps

(25) Charles Pic, France, Marussia/Cosworth, plus 2 laps

(23) Narain Karthikeyan, India, HRT/Cosworth, plus 2 laps

(22) Pedro de la Rosa, Spain, HRT/Cosworth, plus 2 laps

(14) Kamui Kobayashi, Japan, Sauber/Ferrari, plus 10 laps

(10) Romain Grosjean, France, Lotus/Renault, plus 53 laps

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 25 2012
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