KUALA LUMPUR // It leaves the steering wheel. It points to the sky. It marks another race win.
The index finger of Sebastian Vettel protruded upwards once more last night at the Sepang International Circuit after Red Bull Racing's reigning world champion coasted to victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
"In the heat, we kept our heads cool," said the 23-year old over his team radio after finishing 3.2 seconds ahead of Jenson Button's McLaren-Mercedes to secure his fourth successive race win and become the first driver to defend his title in Malaysia since Michael Schumacher in 2001.
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Nick Heidfeld, the Lotus-Renault GP driver, finished third.
"I don't think I can be happier," Vettel said. "Perfect. Couldn't be better."
With the triumph, the German driver maintained his 100 per cent record this season and extended his lead at the top of the drivers championship to 24 points.
He conceded he had benefited from his compatriot Heidfeld's explosive start.
Heidfeld, starting in sixth, had jumped to second by the first turn and his presence at the front of the chasing pack kept McLaren pair Button and Lewis Hamilton at bay.
"I thought I had a really good start," Vettel said. "I was surprised going into turn one — all of a sudden I had something black in my mirror and I knew it was a Lotus [Renault] and realised it was Nick. It was a good thing to happen because I could pull away lap by lap."
After nine laps, Vettel had generated a 5.2-second gap and, two laps later, that lead had increased to 8.3 seconds.
However, while he rarely looked like being caught, his race engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, was forced to inform him midway through the 56-lap race that the RB7's bulky Kinetic energy recovery system (Kers) was not reliable enough to continue operating.
"[Kers] saved our life at the start, without it the race would have been completely different," Vettel said. "It gave us what we needed, but at a later stage, I was told not to use it. I don't know what the problem was."
Both Vettel and teammate Mark Webber had raced without Kers in the season-opening race in Australia after Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, asked his engineers to remove the energy-saving device following reliability issues during the first day's practice at Albert Park.
Horner played down the need for the system at the Melbourne circuit, but admitted both cars would have to be fitted with Kers for the season's second race in Sepang. Webber called the refitting a "no-brainer".
Yet it was the Australian who suffered, his Kers device not working at the start and resulting in him slipping from third to seventh.
He fought back to finish fourth.
"For the first three or four laps, I was trying to pass people, but they were coming back at me on the straights; it was tough to clear people when I didn't have Kers," said Webber, who defied his car's lack of acceleration to clock the day's fastest lap. "I fought back with good strategy and was disappointed not to get on the podium."
Webber was denied a podium by veteran Heidfeld, who held him off to secure his first top-three finish since the 2009 Malaysia Grand Prix. The 33-year-old, who had been called upon to replace Robert Kubica when Renault's Polish driver was seriously injured in a rally crash during the off-season, marked his new team's second successive podium following Vitaly Petrov's third-place finish in Australia.
"It was great fun fighting," said Heidfeld."In the final few laps, Mark was close behind me, but we had the pace to stay ahead. It's another great result for us and it's clear we have take a big step forward this year."