A1 Team Germany's rising star Nico Hülkenberg has fulfilled his early weekend promise with a dominant victory in the Astro A1GP Sepang, Malaysia Feature race. The 19-year-old German talent finished more than 42 seconds ahead of A1 Team Great Britain's Robbie Kerr and defending champions France in a race shortened by heavy rain.
The heavens opened half an hour before the start of the race, forcing a start behind the safety car as standing water remained on the track. Hülkenberg however proved himself to be as adept in wet conditions as he is in the dry as he pulled off a bold overtaking manoeuvre on polesitter Neel Jani at Turn Four to seize the lead. Seeing Jani was slow out of Turn Three, Hülkenberg ran onto the kerb to squeeze past the Swiss on the inside and take the lead. Willi Weber's star protégé then stormed away from the field to pull out a three second lead by the end of the first lap. He was never challenged from that point on; his only drama coming on lap 18 when he stalled during a pit stop. With a 19 second lead however, Hülkenberg's position was never in jeopardy and he returned to track in front.
"It wasn't too bad at the start as it was not so wet any more, but when we went out for the installation lap at 14.20 when the pit lane opened. That was incredible - I have never seen so much water in my life and I spun off on the straight as there was just no chance to drive the car as it was aquaplaning all the time. That was a bit crazy. When we started the race it was quite wet but the car was okay to handle. I like the wet and have no problems with it. When I overtook Neel it was out of Turn Four I think he had a little bit of problems with traction, a little bit of wheelspin, I was a bit smooth on the throttle in second gear and then I had better traction and could pass him. I stalled the car as I was just not smooth enough with my clutch and then the engine stalled. My mechanics had a very good reaction time and pushed me and I started the car by clutch."
Robbie Kerr demonstrated complete confidence and car control to move from fifth on the grid to second at the flag fall. Kerr caught Malaysia's Alex Yoong off the start and fought hard to find a way past. On lap 10 the Briton took a long line through Turn 13, which gave him the inside line going into the pit straight and using all available road and grip, Kerr forced his way through into fourth. With Yoong out of the way Kerr then set his sights on third-placed New Zealander Jonny Reid. Racing wheel-to-wheel down the pit straight, Kerr again took the inside line into Turn One, but Reid was not to be pushed out easily and kept his nerve, his line and his position. Undeterred, Kerr challenged again on the following turn and, with good traction and grip, made the move stick to move into third.
"It was absolutely soaking in the first few laps and it was particularly bad back in fifth position where you couldn't see too much because of the amount of spray. The first few laps were getting used to the track for learning where all the puddles were and such like and then through the race just being able to pull up on Malaysia quite easily and then playing with them a little bit to get Alex to move where I needed him to be to make the overtaking move. Nicolas Lapierre was a little bit close to me behind at that point in time, but I then managed to pull clear in the middle part of the race and was really quick, catching Jonny quite quickly. He braked very early the first time I got alongside him, came into the last corner and I went down the inside of him. I was quite surprised how early he did brake but from then from that point I was just directly behind him and pushing him hard to make a couple of mistakes and then squeezing through."
Kerr pushed to close the gap to second-placed Jani and eventually found his chance on lap 20 when Jani spun at Turn 14 and lost time while Kerr was making a routine pit stop. Kerr exited the pit lane just seconds before Jani powered down the straight to snatch second. "The team did an excellent pit stop and the team came on the radio telling me to push, push because we had a chance of second position and that was what I did keep consistent lap times, quicker than Neel, and it worked and I squeezed ahead. We had a problem with the car, throughout the race, getting worse and worse towards the end when France was catching up, but I was happy to be in second position and it is great to come back into the series after a break and looking forward to Indonesia."
Kerr is confident the team will be on the pace at the next round in Sentul, Indonesia, "We are going to push for the win in Indonesia. I am sure the car will be better than it was last year. The competition is going to be harder and I am sure we are going to be on that top step some time soon."
Third-placed France moved steadily through the field as the track dried, going ahead of Malaysia on lap 12. There was brief contact between the two as Lapierre took an aggressive inside line through a turn, but no damage was sustained and the Frenchman eventually made the move stick round the back of the circuit. He moved ahead of Canada into fourth on lap 22 and took advantage of a mistake in Turn Two by Neel Jani the following lap to move into the final podium slot.
"The most important thing was the second race. I think at the end Neel was a bit straining with his tyres. My tyres were fine and I was just pushing and coming back like a second a lap and then I went past him. It was okay but the main problem was we lost a lot of time at the beginning of the race because we were sixth and could not see anything and were stuck behind Malaysia and we lost 20 or 30 seconds there. Then we came back and I think we had a good pace but we need to start on the front if we want to win a race. We have struggled a bit this year with the new tyres but Indonesia is a track where we qualified second last year, I know the track and Nico will not have the rookie session any more so there are plenty of things which will help us."
Home nation A1 Team Malaysia seemingly had a race of two halves, as Yoong dropped down the field before the pit stop. With a new set of tyres, a rejuvenated Yoong then scythed through to close to the tail of a five-way battle for seventh with South Africa, Ireland, Singapore, Netherlands and USA by lap 19. Yoong and South Africa's Adrian Zaugg had light contact at the entrance to Turn Two as Yoong squeezed through, but both emerged unscathed. Yoong made careful use of the PowerBoost to close down on Ireland down the pit straight and take Michael Devaney on the entrance to the first corner.
Again Yoong used his PowerBoost to go ahead of Singapore's Christian Murchison and then Netherlands' Jeroen Bleekemolen, within striking distance of seventh-placed Phil Giebler in the USA car. Giebler however moved ahead of Jonny Reid into sixth, leaving Yoong to ease in front of the New Zealander into seventh. Yoong put his second half performance down to changing the tyre pressures on the second set of rubber, "It was so bad at the start," commented Yoong. "I just had people passing me so we dropped the tyre pressures for the second set and the car was transformed and I could really attack. It's really been a race of what ifs, but that's Motorsport."
Ireland and Singapore battled for the final points scoring position until the end of the race, with Devaney coming out on top to secure the Irish team's first points of the season. Brazil were however excluded from the final results after Stewards deemed the team had taken its mandatory pit stop outside the allocated pit stop window. Germany's win puts the team back at the head of the teams' championship, six points ahead of Great Britain, who are the only nation to have scored in all four Feature races this season. Malaysia move up to third in the standings, while Mexico drop to fourth.