When you think back upon the 2012 Formula One season, what comes to mind? Firstly, you have Sebastian Vettel winning his third consecutive Drivers’ World Championship in the third season of a four-year period of dominance by the German driver in his Renault powered Red Bull RB8. You also have the fact there were now six former Drivers’ World Champions on the grid, after the return of Kimi Räikkönen to Lotus from a brief spell in the WRC. Then there’s the fact that the first seven races on the 2012 Formula 1 calendar produced seven different winners.
One of these particular races, the Malaysian GP saw the emergence of a great Mexican talent, who used the widest track on the calendar as the stage he would show Formula 1 why he deserved a seat. Before the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez had just started his second season as a Formula 1 Driver for Sauber with a point-scoring 8th place finish in Albert Park. Checo was hopeful of another points finish after qualifying in 10th place the day before on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. The next evening in Sepang would bring showers, and the whole grid would line up in the green-walled intermediate tyres, with the exception of the HRT Cosworth’s on the back-row who opted for the blue-walled full wet tyres.
After the lights went out, it only took Perez a lap before deciding to switch to full wets, a decision which kickstarted one of the best underdog chase downs of the 2012 season. He was down to 17th place after the pit-stop, but as the rest of the drivers opted to copy Perez and the HRT’s and don the full wets, he moved up to 3rd place by the time the safety car came out on lap 6 due to the torrential rain. After it was reported that a bolt of lightning hit the rear of the grandstand of the Sepang International Circuit, the race was red flagged on lap 9 allowing the drivers to shelter from the unrelentless downpour.
Just under an hour later, the race restarted under the safety car with the whole grid having to put the blue-walled wet compound tyres on. Checo was in 3rd place, behind the two McLaren Mercedes’ of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. On lap 13, four laps after the restart, the safety car made its way back into the pits and Jenson Button dived straight into the pits for an intermediate set, pushing the number 15 Sauber into 2nd place. Only two laps later, Button suffered front wing damage in a clumsy weather-fuelled mistake which saw him make contact with one of the HRT’s, ending his chances of a consecutive podium finish to start the season. Sergio Perez took the lead of the race as well as the fastest lap shortly after, with Hamilton also opting for the intermediates. A slow pit stop from the British team based in Surrey meant that Hamilton would come out behind Fernando Alonso who was driving the Ferrari F2012, which was labelled as under-performing by the media coming into the 2012 season.
As both Alonso and Perez came onto the intermediate tyres in P1 and P2 respectively, the Ferrari started to pull away from the Ferrari-powered Sauber C31 in the very wet conditions. However, this was due to the raw pace of the F2012 in damp conditions and not because of the Sauber showing slow pace, as Hamilton couldn’t get within four seconds of the Mexican. As Alonso slowly built a gap between himself and Perez, Perez also started to increase the gap to the former World Champion behind him, creating an eight second gap within the first eleven laps of the restart. By this point, Alonso out in front had created a steady six second gap, which would increase to nearly eight seconds by lap 31. The conditions around the circuit started to dry, and the Mexican driver seemed to relish them after setting fast lap after fast lap.
A Drying Track: The Hunt Begins
The slowly drying conditions caused indecision for all of the pit lane crews as the weather forecast showed another shower heading towards the circuit. A game of who dares first ensued, as the teams in the paddock wasn’t sure whether to switch onto the dry compounds available yet or wait to see if the forecast was correct. Meanwhile on track, Perez was slicing into Alonso’s lead every lap, catching the Spaniard who was patiently awaiting team orders for a pit stop. Finally on lap 37, Daniel Ricciardo in his Toro Rosso STR7 gambled onto the white-walled medium tyre while Perez, on his very worn (basically slick) intermediate tyres set another fastest lap. Over the course of the three laps prior, Perez had hacked away nearly a second of time per lap to the prancing horse in front of him, bringing the gap down to around two and a half seconds. A lap later a Daniel Ricciardo set a new fastest lap, over three seconds quicker than Checo’s previous attempt, which meant the rest of the grid followed suit onto the dry compound.
Alonso got the call to pit on lap 40, when Perez had got the gap down to DRS range under one second. This was the first mistake by the Swiss team, as they left Perez out for one more lap before putting him onto the grey/black-walled hard compound. This meant Alonso was able to create a gap to the Mexican once again, putting seven seconds of time between them. Perez wasn’t that easy to get rid of though.
Again, the 22-year-old from Guadalajara continued to cut Alonso’s lead with every passing lap. He was finding grip on every inch of the 16-foot-wide track that was now fairly dry except for a few puddles and there was nothing Alonso was able to do. Six laps before the chequered flag, Sauber issued a very cautious message to Checo, stating ‘be careful, we need this position’. At turn 14, just a few more corners after the team’s radio message, he found himself taking a little bit too much curb before the penultimate straight and lost about five seconds of time which was the second mistake of the Grand Prix for him, ultimately costing him the win. He re-joined the track, still hunting for the Ferrari in front of him, but the chequered flag came a few laps too early for him and Fernando Alonso took home his first win of the 2012 season. Sergio Perez got the first podium of his career as well as the best ever result for Sauber as an independent team, in P2.
The total race time in Sepang was 2:44:51, not nearly quite as long as Button’s drive in Canada the year before, but this race was a serious nudge to everyone else on the grid about Sergio Perez’ talent and hunger in F1. He went on to get two more podiums in 2012, with a P3 at Canada and a P2 at the temple of speed, Monza. As of writing this Perez doesn’t yet have a seat in the 2020/21 Formula 1 season, but with 9 years of experience under his belt and more than a few podiums it would be a shame to see him leave the sport. Hopefully this won’t be the case and we can see more special performances like this in the future.
[This was originally posted in September 2020 on DriveTribe.com]