SEPANG, Malaysia — Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won the rain-interrupted Malaysian Grand Prix in thrilling style on Sunday to claim his first victory in eight months and throw the early title race wide open.
Alonso survived a lengthy rain suspension, a rash of spins and mishaps and a strong challenge from Sauber’s Sergio Perez to finish the year’s second race ahead of the Mexican driver, with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton third.
Spain’s Alonso, a two-time world champion, was nobody’s pre-race favourite in the clunky F2012, but he emerged from the chaos caused by torrential rains at the head of the pack and doggedly clung on for victory.
“It’s an unbelievable result and a great job from the team,” Alonso said. “We maximised the potential we had in our hands. It’s a tough time for us at the moment but we will remember this Sunday.”
Perez pushed hard for his first win and looked set to steal victory from Alonso until he dramatically overshot a turn on lap 50.
But he still managed seal his maiden trip to the podium — and Sauber’s best result since they reverted to the ownership of their founder, Peter Sauber, in 2009.
“I wanted the win and I thought it was possible,” smiled the Mexican, who is rumoured to be in Ferrari’s sights to replace the struggling Felipe Massa. “It never happened but I’m very happy and proud with this second place.”
Red Bull’s Mark Webber was fourth with former world champion Kimi Raikkonen fifth for Lotus. German great Michael Schumacher, who started third on the grid, span early in the race and finished 10th.
But there were no points for McLaren’s Jenson Button, who won last week’s season-opener in Australia, after he collided with India’s Narain Karthikeyan and dropped to the back of the pack, finally coming in 14th.
Red Bull’s reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel also endured a torrid day as a spectacular rear tyre blow-out left him in 11th.
After days of mostly dry weather, black clouds rolled over Sepang and the rain fell, right on cue, as the Malaysian anthem was played.
Pole-sitter Hamilton, who was passed by Button at the front of the grid in Melbourne last week, survived a furious challenge from his team-mate at the start and he emerged from the first corner with his lead intact.
But as the cars kicked up plumes of spray, it was only a matter of time before they started spinning and the first casualty was wet-weather maestro Schumacher, who dropped down the field.
The rain immediately turned torrential and Ferrari’s Massa was the first in for wet-weather tyres, followed immediately by the other drivers in a chaotic few minutes in the pit lane.
Lotus’s young Frenchman Romain Grosjean span into the gravel and out of the race, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg went off-course and Button radioed that the last sector was “like a lake” before the safety car came out on lap seven.
And as the rain came down in buckets, the race was suspended shortly afterwards, evoking memories of Button’s storm-shortened victory in 2009.
But less than an hour later they were back out and once the safety car withdrew for lap 14, it was the signal for some frenzied action as drivers dived into the pits for intermediate tyres on the drying track.
Button smashed up his front wing in the collision with HRT’s Karthikeyan and needed his third pit stop, pushing him way down to 21st. On lap 18 Alonso led followed by Perez, Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel and Raikkonen.
Vettel and Raikkonen both nipped past Rosberg on laps 23 and 24 to leave the German world champion behind Hamilton in third spot.
Alonso was driving his unloved Ferrari to the limit, but his big lead was whittled down to just a couple of seconds by Perez before both joined the rush to pit for slick tyres around lap 40.
When they resumed Alonso was seven seconds in front but Perez was soon back on the Spaniard’s tail, setting up a gripping dogfight in the closing laps — distracted only by a nasty puncture for Vettel, who slipped back.
But when Perez went off-course with six laps to go, Alonso was able to claim his first win since the British Grand Prix last July — and conclude a remarkable weekend for the Ferrari camp.
The first five drivers are separated by just 13 points in the overall standings as the 20-stop season heads to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai on April 15.
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