Sepang: Sauber driver Sergio Perez may have just thrown away a golden opportunity to take his first ever Formula One victory, but he still had much to celebrate after Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.
The 22-year-old Mexican driver looked certain to take over the race lead but made a critical error with six laps left as he put a tyre on wet curb, ran off the track and lost his chance to overtake eventual winner Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.
Still, for a young driver who had never finished better than seventh, second place was not only a personal triumph but also delivered his team its best F1 finish, so his broad smile on the podium was perhaps understandable.
"The victory was quite close, but all in all it was a great day," Perez said. "I was catching Fernando and I knew I had to get him soon because (on) the sectors with high speed I was losing the front tyres. I touched the curb and I went onto the dirty side of the track. It was completely wet and I lost the win.
"In the end second place is a great result for the team. It's many points. It's only the second race, but hopefully we can keep improving to fight."
Perez's podium was largely due to a daring piece of strategy by the Sauber team, pitting their driver after just one lap to change his intermediate tyres to full wets. By the time other teams had followed suit as the tropical rain poured down, Perez had vaulted up to third place from his starting grid position of ninth.
Following a 51-minute rain delay, and with the track drying, all drivers ducked back into the pits to switch back to intermediates, and following the flurry of pitlane action, Perez was in second place behind Alonso.
Initially the Ferrari driver began pulling away, increasing his lead from 2.4 to 7.7 seconds in the space of 12 laps to the half-way mark. But as the Spaniard's tyres began to degrade, Sauber's renowned ability to extend the life of its rubber began to pay off and Perez sliced the gap down to 1.3 seconds by lap 39 of 56.
At that point, all drivers pitted to change to dry-weather, slick tyres. Sauber's decision to keep Perez out for one more lap than Alonso looked like a mistake as the Ferrari's advantage was pushed back out to 7.1 seconds.
But it was not over yet. Perez pushed hard to get back onto the back of Alonso, trailing by only 0.5 seconds with seven laps to go. An extraordinary Sauber win had gone from possible to likely, and the pit crew bounced on their heels expectantly as they watched the action on television screens.
But then Perez made the critical error that he will replay in his mind forever, or at least until he finally manages to break through for his maiden F1 win.
Few were in any doubt that Perez - who has been strongly linked to a move to Ferrari next year or perhaps even this season if Felipe Massa continues to struggle - will eventually get that first victory.
"There is a big talent in this guy," Alonso said as he sat beside Perez in the post-race media conference. "Today the victory was not possible but the win will come (sooner) before later for Sergio."