McLaren locked down the front row for the second consecutive race, with Lewis Hamilton once again edging out Jenson Button. But lurking at P3, his highest qualifying position since 2006, was Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher. And with rain beginning to fall, both Schumacher, a historically great wet-weather racer and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who started today in P6, were looking good.
Hamilton held the lead from the start, with Button also holding P2. Schumacher spun on Lap 1, having been knocked out of line by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean. In the meantime, Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen moved from P24 to P14 over the first 2 laps. Grosjean got his karma on Lap 5, burying himself in the gravel.
Running order for Lap 5? Hamilton, Button, Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Vettel, and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari). The 2011 repeat continues.....? It doesn’t feel like it, but it sure does look like it!
But not so fast. By the time a safety car emerges on Lap 8, and the red flag drops on Lap 9. Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) had advanced to P7 from P18 by staying on intermediates from the start and Sergio Perez (Sauber) to P3 on a combination of pits and others’ offs.
When the race restarted, Button was one of the first to jump into the pits and put on intermediate tires, establishing a Top 3 running order of Hamilton, Perez, and Alonso. After more cars entered the pits (Lap 15), Alonso took the lead, followed by Button and Hamilton. A Button excursion into Narain Karthikeyan’s (HRT) backside in the still-wet conditions, pushed him further back into the field, and put a Lap 16 running order of Alonso, Perez, and Hamilton in place.
Alonso made the most of the situation by setting lap after fastest lap through the race’s 20s. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) was also charging hard, moving from P17 at the restart to P5 by Lap 31.
Perez was on the hunt as the race progressed, cutting Alonso's lead from more than 5 sec to less that 0.5 sec before momentarily leaving the racing surface. Vettel punctured a left rear tire after cutting too quickly across Karthikeyan’s front end on Lap 48, and Pastor Maldonado (Williams) once again suffered late-race ill fortune, blowing his engine on Lap 55 of 56.
But the big news of the day was in the top 2 spots. Fernando Alonso won for Ferrari, taking the championship lead in the process, and Sergio Perez came in 2nd for Sauber, in the team's most impressive performance in ages. Third on the podium for the second straight race, Lewis Hamilton. The hard-charging Jean-Eric Vergne held on to finish P8.
Maybe things are changing after all. Two Sauber's in the Top 10 anyone?
Driver standings - Top 10
35 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
30 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
25 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
24 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
22 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
18 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
16 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
8 - Bruno Senna (Brazil) - Williams-Renault
8 – Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) – Sauber-Ferrari
7 - Paul di Resta (Scotland) – Force India-Mercedes
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
55 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
42 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
35 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
30 - Sauber-Ferrari – Kobayashi, Perez
16 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean
9 – Force India-Mercedes – di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
8 - Williams-Renault - Senna, Pastor Maldonado
6 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
1 - Mercedes - Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg
Next event: UBS Chinese Grand Prix – Shanghai - Apr. 13-15, 2012