DAVID HAYE'S presence at Sepang yesterday led some wag to joke that if the race was a dud, Britain's former heavyweight champion could always liven up the press conference afterwards.
In the end, the Hayemaker's explosive talents -- last seen on display in a Munich media centre dust-up with fellow Briton Dereck Chisora -- were not needed. This race packed a knockout punch of its own.
An extraordinary, rain-affected Grand Prix, halted for nearly an hour at one stage as a tropical rainstorm lashed down on the circuit, was won in the end by Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. That's right, Ferrari's Alonso. The same Ferrari whose senior management flew back to Maranello following the opening Grand Prix in Australia for crisis talks.
Crisis? What crisis?
Alonso, incredibly, leads the drivers' standings this morning despite a car, the F2012, which is rumoured to have been written off already, binned in favour of a new model that will appear in Barcelona in May. "I don't think it changes anything," Alonso, the arch-pragmatist, said afterwards. "We are still in a position we don't want to be in -- fighting to get into Q3. We want to be able to fight for wins in dry, sunny conditions, not just in wet races like today. But it was a good race."
It certainly was, for many reasons. That the Spaniard won was testament not only to his extraordinary grit and ability to wrestle the maximum from a skittish car, but to the heart-rending failure of Sauber's Sergio Perez to overhaul him and provide the race with the fairytale ending -- the David and Goliath moment -- every neutral was willing to happen.
The race began in damp conditions, with Lewis Hamilton holding off McLaren team-mate Jenson Button to lead into the first corner. But by lap six the suffocating heat and humidity had conspired to produce a storm, which brought out the safety car and then the red flags as cars began to aquaplane dangerously. Still, as the drivers returned to the grid and sat in their machines under special marquee-like structures to keep the rain off, things were looking good for McLaren. They began to go awry soon after the race restarted behind a safety car 51 minutes later.
As the drivers dived in to switch to intermediate tyres on lap 14, Hamilton was followed into the pits by Alonso and Felipe Massa, Ferrari opting to "double shuffle" their drivers.
It meant Hamilton was held in his pit box rather than collide with the Brazilian and he emerged not only behind Alonso, but behind Button as well, the 2009 champion having pitted one lap earlier.
Button then crashed into the back of HRT's Narain Karthikeyan, who had not yet stopped, and his race was as good as over. Hamilton, meanwhile, found he was unable to catch up to Alonso and Perez, who had come out ahead of them both having done an extra lap on full wets.
Alonso swiftly reclaimed the lead, building a lead of 7.7 seconds before Perez began to come back at him. The Mexican hunted down the two-time world champion in relentless fashion, sometimes by a second per lap or more.
Even when Sauber, overly cautious, made the mistake of pitting Perez one lap after Alonso as everyone switched to slicks on the fast-drying surface, and he dropped from one second to seven seconds behind, Perez just kept on coming.
By lap 50, with six laps of the race left, he had caught back up to the Spaniard. It seemed inevitable he would pass him and claim a famous victory. Alas, he ran wide and on to the wet part of the track at T14, losing his hard-won gains. He would have to be content with second, although he still finished a good 12 seconds in front of Hamilton in third.
It was an emotional day all round; a brilliant, unpredictable day, in keeping with the start to the 2012 season.
Nine different teams occupied the top 10 places; a Sauber finished second; world champion Sebastian Vettel, like Button, finished out of the points after a collision with Karthikeyan; Mercedes had another abysmal race with Michael Schumacher nicking their solitary point and Ferrari, Formula One's fallen heavyweights, got up off the canvas. (© Daily Telegraph, London)