It was a case of third time lucky for Sebastian Vettel as he finally got his first victory on the board of the season with a dominant triumph in yesterday's Malaysian Grand Prix. After the frustration of a spark plug problem that slowed him down and dropped him from first to fourth in Bahrain before the agony of a mysterious brake problem caused him to spin out of the lead in Australia, finally in Sepang came the race the German had desperately craved: a problem free one.
It was a masterclass of smooth driving from the 22-year-old, with a ruthless manoeuvre on Mark Webber, his teammate, at the first corner deciding the race in his favour. Webber made a sluggish start and Vettel, starting directly behind him in third, seized the opportunity. He got into Webber's slipstream and bravely dived down the inside into the first right-hander. Slightly compromised on the exit of turn two, Webber had a run back at Vettel.
But Vettel stayed focused, calmly forced Webber to the outside and braked late to keep the position. From there on it was only ever going to be a technical gremlin that would prevent him tasting that winning feeling for the first time since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. With none of the forecast rain arriving, the way was clear for the Red Bulls to drive serenely on to a one-two finish and the sixth win of Vettel's career.
Webber's only hope of leapfrogging his teammate came in the pit-stops, but a problem with the front right tyre change slowed his stop and the Australian actually lost ground to Vettel rather than gaining anything. It was as much relief as joy that Vettel celebrated a result that has fired him back into championship contention just seven days after his hopes appeared to be wilting. "A very good result for us and for myself after two races where I didn't finish where I wanted to," he said. "It was crucial for the team not to panic. It is a long season but this is the best result we could get and on top of that Mark getting second place is a big plus for the team and a lot of points."
Having been seventh in the standings prior to the race, Vettel is now joint second, two points behind leader Felipe Massa and suddenly everything is looking good again for Red Bull. Nico Rosberg's Mercedes GP car was quick, but not in the class of the Red Bulls, and the German had a lonely run to third spot, ahead of the Renault of Robert Kubica. In all likelihood the Red Bulls would have won anyway, but they were given a hand by their chief rivals McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari. Thanks to their misjudgement of the weather in qualifying they had started at the back and put themselves out of contention.
Lewis Hamilton did the best of the four, as he started from 20th in his McLaren and made a scintillating start. He was up to 13th by the end of the first lap, and in the top 10 by lap five. The Briton was fortunate to get away with weaving on lap eight to keep Vitaly Petrov's Renault behind him and he received a warning from the stewards for his actions. Hamilton's charge came to a grinding halt after his pit-stop as he was unable to get past Adrian Sutil's Force India and had to settle for sixth behind the German.
Massa enjoyed a race-long duel with world champion Jenson Button's McLaren in his Ferrari, before taking take seventh by passing the Briton 12 laps from the end. Button was harried by Massa's teammate Fernando Alonso in the closing laps. But just as he looked to have passed Button, he ran wide and then his engine expired, ending his chances of retaining the championship lead. Alguersuari was a fine ninth for Toro Rosso-Ferrari to score his first ever championship points, while Nico Hulkenberg got his first top 10 finish in tenth spot in the Williams-Toyota.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher's tough return to the sport continued as a wheel nut came loose and the car lost drive. * Compiled by Graham Caygill, with agencies