After two Formula One race starts from pole position to start the 2010 season but no podium finish to match them, Sebastian Vettel took his first Formula One victory of the year at the Malaysian Grand Prix, converting a second-row starting position into a 4.849-second victory over his teammate Mark Webber.
Webber, the polesitter, looked to have had a good start with only minimal wheelspin, but Vettel's was once again stunningly good, and the young German vaulted past Webber and second-place starter Nico Rosberg to take the lead into the first corner.
"I had a good start," he recalled after the race. "I got past Nico (Rosberg) and had a tow from Mark, so it was gain, gain, gain! It's a long sprint to Turn One so I clearly ad an advantage over (Webber)."
Webber stayed on his teamate's rear wing, though, and tried to retake the lead into Turn Four, but could not carry in quite enough speed to seriously challenge his teammate, who had the inside line. After that, it was clear sailing toward the sixth career victory for Vettel, as he only momentarily lost the lead as he pitted before his teammate.
"I could see that Mark and I had more or less the same pace," the 22-year-old recounted. "Mark was a little bit quicker in the beginning as I was trying to save my tires. It worked, so before the stop I was able to pull away a little bit."
After having been let down by mechanical failures -- exhaust system and wheel -- from the lead in each of the first two races, Vettel must have been feeling some stress as the chequered flag approached, but this time there were to be no mechanical issues, and he cruised across the finish line comfortably in the lead.
Webber did not quite have the pace of his teammate, but at least in the absence of the McLaren and Ferrari threats, he was easily able to secure the Red Bull 1-2 finish in spite of losing some 2.5 seconds to a stubborn wheel nut during the pit stop.
Behind the Red Bull duo, Rosberg claimed third place for Mercedes, the new team's first podium finish. 8.7 seconds behind Webber, the German was never a threat for victory once the field got past the first corner, but the points haul for third may yet end up being critical in the championship standings at the end of the year.
"Unfortunately the start didn't go very well," Rosberg explained. "It was quite a lot down to me, I got too much wheelspin. I knew it would be difficult to follow the Red Bulls. I was struggling a little bit in the first stint with the Option (soft) tires, but once we did the pit stop and got on the Prime, I was very comfortable."
Robert Kubica took a quiet fourth place for Renault, another five seconds behind Rosberg, while Force India-Mercedes driver Adrian Sutil was able to hold off McLaren's resurgent Lewis Hamilton to take fifth place -- and make it three German drivers in the top five.
Like Hamilton and the second McLaren-Mercedes of Jenson Button, the two Ferraris started from near the back of the grid, with Fernando Alonso taking in the starting lights from 19th and Felipe Massa from 21st. The two made up a lot of ground at the start, and were 15th and 14th, respectively into the first corner. However, after the second lap it was a quiet first half of the race for the Maranello team, and neither Massa nor Alonso was able to make an on-track pass before the pit stops, gaining track position only through other drivers' retirements or pit stops. Alonso was handicapped by a downshift problem throughout the race, but Massa appeared to be lacking only pace.
The Ferraris worked much better on the soft tires after the pit stops, though, and the two red cars, running in formation, caught up and passed Button, and threatened the other McLaren of Hamilton. However, as Alonso struggled in the dying laps, Button caught him again, and passed, only to have Alonso retake the position -- even if was only a lowly eighth.
But as Button passed Alonso again, for the third time today, the Ferrari's engine let go, and the two-time champion was forced to pull off with smoke billowing from under the Ferrari's engine cover. With only eight engines per car available for the season, the Ferrari team has now already had to replace the Spaniard's engine twice, only three races into the year.
Overall, it was a black race for Ferrari engines, as both Sauber-Ferraris also suffered engine failures: Pedro de la Rosa was unable to take the start, and Kamui Kobayashi had to pull off on lap 9 with a dead engine.
Alonso's engine failure promoted Button into eighth place for four valuable championship points; the last points-paying positions were then taken up by Jaime Alguersuari in 9th and Nico Hulkenberg in 10th, each scoring their first career World Championship points.
The results tighten up the championship race: with three races run so far, Massa is in the lead, now with 39 points, but there are four other drivers within four points: Vettel is now tied with Alonso at 37, and Button and Rosberg share the fourth position with 35. Hamilton and Kubica, too, are only a few points behind at this early point in the season.
After what was panned as a boring race at the Bahrain season opener, the Formula One circus has now demonstrated two far more interesting races at Melbourne a week ago, and at Kuala Lumpur today. While rain was a factor in each -- during the race in Australia, and in scrambling the starting grid in Malaysia -- at today's race the fans saw numerous side-by-side battles, from McLaren vs Ferrari, through Toro Rosso vs Renault, to Lotus vs Virgin. Might the reaction over the new rules have been just a little bit hasty?
The season will continue in SHanghai in a fortnight's time, though, so we will shortly be able to have better perspective on the 2010 season. However, one thing is certain: evein if Vettel has been the strongest so far this year, the championship is still far away from being decided.