Fernando Alonso’s face as he stood on the top step of the podium said it all – a mixture of extreme satisfaction, delight and disbelief.
“Incredible, incredible,” he said in Spanish in his television interviews immediately afterwards, and that seemed as good a summing up as any of one of the most remarkable and thrilling grands prix for some time.
Alonso’s victory was the 28th of his career and it moved him ahead of Sir Jackie Stewart in the all-time list of winners – he is now behind only Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell, whose 31 wins are his next target.
The Ferrari team leader’s presence in such celebrated company is a reminder, as if one was needed, of what a great grand prix driver Alonso is and it was appropriate that his drive on Sunday was one that befitted such a landmark.
Alonso moved up to fifth on the all-time victories list with his win in Malaysia. Photo: Getty
Arguably not the greatest qualifier, Alonso has produced some stunning races in his career, and the one in Malaysia on Sunday ranks up there with the very best.
The Ferrari in its current form has no business whatsoever being able to win a race. In normal, dry conditions, it is way off the pace of the McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus, and almost certainly slower also than the Williams and the Sauber.
And yet there was Alonso, up in fifth place from eighth on the grid by the end of lap one, challenging world champion Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull, which he moved ahead of thanks to stopping one lap earlier for wet tyres in the downpour that led to the race being stopped on lap six.
What won him the race, though, were the laps after the re-start.
He emerged in the lead on lap 16, helped by McLaren having to hold Lewis Hamilton in the pits as Felipe Massa came past.
After everyone had stopped for intermediate tyres, Alonso was 2.4 seconds ahead of Sauber’s Sergio Perez – of whose stunning performance more later – and 6.2secs ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the McLaren.
At that point, most would have expected Hamilton – one of the greatest wet-weather drivers in history – to close in on the two cars ahead of him. Instead, Alonso pulled away from Perez, who himself pulled away from Hamilton.
This was, as BBC F1 co-commentator David Coulthard said, “Alonso at his brilliant best”, as he built an eight-second lead over Perez in 12 laps.
Alonso is such a benchmark, so peerless, so utterly relentless and unforgiving when he senses a sniff of a win, that it seemed impossible at that stage that he would not win the race.
But then Perez began to come back at him – showing the differing characteristics of the two cars that have been apparent since the start of pre-season testing. The Ferrari is hard on its tyres and the Sauber is the opposite.
Closer and closer Perez got, first by fractions, then by full seconds until by lap 40 he appeared to have Alonso at his mercy.
Stopping a lap earlier than Perez for ‘slick’ dry-weather tyres put his lead back up to seven seconds, but on these the Sauber was even more superior.
Perez was within a second of Alonso by lap 48 – with eight to go – and what would have been a fully deserved victory by a man who from the beginning of his career last year has looked destined for great things seemed inevitable.
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F1 being what it is, a lot may well be made of the radio call that Perez received at about this point. “Checo, be careful, we need this position,” he was told by his team, who use Ferrari engines. Was this simply a team that is known to be struggling for finance sensibly warning an excited young driver to make sure he didn’t bin it when a valuable podium place was up for grabs? Or was it, as some will surmise, team orders in disguise, an order not to try to deprive the company on whose largesse they have depended in many more seasons than this one of a much-needed win? If it was a team order, Perez didn’t seem to pay any attention – he continued to push hard until he made that fateful error. And team principal Monisha Kaltenborn dismissed any thoughts of a conspiracy.
“What we meant was get the car home,” she said. “It was important to us to get the result – there was nothing else to it. There was no instruction.”
Either of them would have been a deserving winner after two superlative drives – and there were other noteworthy performances down the field, too.
Bruno Senna showed something of his famous uncle’s wet-weather skills with his climb up from last place at the restart to finish an impressive sixth.
And Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne, who narrowly missed out on a point on his debut last weekend in Australia, delivered in spades with a sure-footed drive in the treacherous conditions at Sepang.
The Frenchman was the only driver to stick with intermediate tyres in the early downpour, and he continued to perform impressively on his way to eighth place, just behind last year’s rookie of the year Paul di Resta, who also looked good.
Senna, Vergne and most of all Perez clearly have bright futures ahead of them.
But ahead of them all was the man whose consistent excellence over a 10-year career not only they but everyone else in F1 has to aspire to.
“Great race for Alonso, top job, and also Perez,” Jenson Button said on Sunday evening in Malaysia. You can say that again.