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MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX

How things can change in just twelve months. This year at Sepang it was hot, very bloody hot and at the end of the race there was not a Ferrari in sight. It was hot enough to turn the usually “cool” Flavio Briatore of Renault into a sweat soaked wet patch and hot enough to ensure that the Bridgestone tyres, that had such a good run with cooler than normal weather last year, were woefully off the pace. So much so that the only cars behind the Ferraris on the grid were the Minardis, Jordans, Saubers and stand in driver, Anthony Davidson’s BAR. Added to the heat were the “1000%” humidity, a smoke haze from God knows how many forest fires, two fairly vigorous illnesses (Sato & Trulli), one bereavement (Trulli) and one set of broken ribs (Webber). It all added up to a fairly uncomfortable weekend. Thank the lord it was a good race.

And unlike the Melbourne snooze fest two weeks ago this one was full of incident and actual overtaking. Not all the overtaking worked, admittedly, but many of the drivers have probably forgotten how to do it over the last few seasons. Fernando Alonso in the Renault, who had actually figured out how to overtake people at Melbourne didn’t need to refine that particular skill here as he was only ever headed during the pitstop sequences in an untroubled run to the victors flag, much like his team-mate Fisichella in Melbourne. Alonso was simply imperious, a driver on top of his game in the best car in the field and on the best tyres. From Saturday morning onwards it seemed inevitable that he was going to win the race and so it proved. Team-mate Fisichella on the other hand had the exact opposite type of weekend. Seeming to be overly cautious about his engine, he was a couple of tenths slower than Alonso in every session from Saturday onwards and apart from one lap in the lead during the first stops, was running an ever decreasingly comfortable third until his unflattering exit, taking out Webber’s Williams after having already lost third to it on the previous corner. For whatever reason, Fisichella had been in fairly serious tyre and handling difficulties from the start and was loosing whole seconds per lap, not only to Alonso at the front, but to the rather dramatic Webber, Heidfeld, Ralf Schumacher battle that was looming large in his mirrors. It is to Fisichella’s credit that he tried to fight back after having lost the spot, but very much an entry in the debit column for the application of that fight-back. To dive down the inside, on the very dirty line where there is so much rubbish and so little grip, on completely knackered tyres and brake so, so late was not just asking for trouble, but demanding it. He obviously believed that he had to retake Webber immediately to have any chance of a podium finish but with twenty laps still to go he should have realized that he really had no chance of holding Webber off for ever and tried to conserve his car for the best finish possible. That team boss Flav was in his ear on the radio all day telling him to speed up probably didn’t assist in a calm reflection of the situation but it was still a pretty serious case of brain fade from the likable Italian.

Webber and Williams were having one of those weekends where everything is going as well as can be expected and having qualified a very strong fourth, Webber was getting stronger as the race progressed. Apart from getting nurfed by Ralf Schumacher in the Toyota in the final turn, a very similar move to that of Fisichella I might add, but with less severe consequences, and almost losing his spot to team-mate Nick Heidfeld in the ensuing confusion, Mark was well on his way to his first F1 podium. He would not have caught Alonso or Trulli but he had already taken third from Fisichella when he got bitten by the brainless bolt of blue. This left Heidfeld to run comfortably to third in his place after a strong drive from his tenth place on the grid. Had he not made a mistake in second qualifying session who knows, he may have threatened Trulli for second.

Trulli in the Toyota had one of those drives that he is capable of when inspired, like Monaco last year, and the fact that he had lost a friend in the past week and had a nasty stomach bug that required medical treatment seemed to put him in the mood. He was on the pace all weekend, putting the Toyota on the front row for the second time in succession, and held a comfortable second for the entire race. He even led for a couple of laps after Alonso made his second stop. A brave and brilliant drive by the much maligned Italian. Not something that could be said for team-mate Ralf however. A competent performance that was not quite on Trulli’s level all meeting. The ham-fisted passing attempt on Webber could have cost him third or fourth as the bingle busted his barge-boards (well named in this instance) and he began to drop back immediately from the battle with Webber, Fisichella & Heidfeld. That he finished fifth is only thanks to Fisichella.

McLaren had another odd weekend. Both drivers chances were compromised by mistakes in qualifying although the cars again had the speed to be podium contenders. Raikkonen looked set for third at least after passing Webber during the first pit stop sequence only to have his right rear tyre disintegrate just after leaving the pits. This dropped him to 14th in front of only the Jordan’s and Albers’ Minardi but in typical fashion the Finn charged back through the field and just miss scoring the final point by 0.6 of a second. Montoya had a fairly quiet but effective race, steadily moving up through the pitstops and others retirements and finally passing Ralf for fourth place with fifteen laps to go. The Red Bull boys were at it again, proving that Melbourne was no weather induced fluke. Seventh and eighth on the grid, a full two seconds faster than the best Ferrari shows that they are a competitive little team this year. After dropping a couple of places at the start both drivers settled down and battled with the likes of Heidfeld and Montoya and kept the Ferraris behind them until Michael Schumacher jumped Klien at the final pitstop. Sixth for Coulthard and eighth for Klien was a great result and leaves the former Jaguar team in third in the championship behind Renault and Toyota.

Ferrari had another shocker by their recent standards. Actually it was a shocker but just about any standards. The Bridgestone tyres are simply not competitive at the moment. In the heat of Malaysia they were either too hard to be quick in qualifying or not hard enough to last the race distance. Schumacher chose the harder compound hoping for race pace but they were so hard that he could get no warmth into them, and hence no grip, for the one lap qualifying runs and end up in 13th place, a massive 4 seconds off Alonso’s time. His only problem then was that the tyres really had no race pace either and he had to fight hard initially to keep Felipe Massa in the Sauber in sight. That he ended as high as seventh was only due to the carnage in front of him. He passed no-one on the track and only picked up two places during the pitstops, those of Massa and Klien. Barrichello went the other way but had no more success. Qualifying 12th he ran as high as 8th after the first stops but then his tyres gave up the ghost. That and a chunk of rubber, probably from Raikkonen’s shredded rear embedded in his rear wing made the Ferrari undrivable and he finally gave up with seven laps to go.

Much to Honda’s embarrassment, BAR got just what they deserved after their cynical “retirement” on the last lap in Melbourne. After their unimpressive qualifying performance (Button was 9th and Davidson, subbing for the very ill Sato, 15th) both cars lasted just two laps before the Honda engines detonated. There was not much sympathy for the team but a fair bit for poor Anthony Davidson. After not being allowed to join Williams this year he would have been hoping to make a good impression in his first race outing in two years. Beginning practice only on Saturday, Sato had driven on Friday, he did reasonably well in qualifying and would have wanted to finish the race and put on a good show. It was not to be.

Sauber had another miserable weekend. Massa showed well early and battled hard with the Ferraris, even holding off Schumacher until the first stops but then faded to a distant 10th at the finish. Villeneuve had another very poor meeting being over a second off Massa’s pace in qualifying and lasting only 26 laps before throwing the car off at the first corner under braking. The less said the better.

The rookies could again hold their heads high. Karthikeyan had a better weekend than Monteiro in the Jordan just edging him out in qualifying but finishing a whole lap ahead in the race. Friesacher out-qualified Albers in the Minardis but he spun out on the Honda oil whilst Albers had a consistent drive through to 13th and last place. Not much more could be expected at this point.

RESULT/DRIVER CAR LAPS/GAP COMMENTS 1 Fernando Alonso Renault 56/1"31'33.736 Ave Speed 126.418 mph/203.407 kph 2 Jarno Trulli Toyota +0'24.327 - 3 Nick Heidfeld Williams +0'32.188 - 4 Juan Pablo Montoya McLaren +0'41.631 - 5 Ralf Schumacher Toyota +0'51.854 - 6 David Coulthard Red Bull +1'12.543 - 7 Michael Schumacher Ferrari +1'19.988 - 8 Christian Klien Red Bull +1'20.835 - 9 Kimi Raikkonen McLaren +1'21.580 - 10 Felipe Massa Sauber 55 - 11 Narain Karthikeyan Jordan 54 - 12 Tiago Montiero Jordan 53 - 13 Christijan Albers Minardi 52 - RETIREMENTS Rubens Barrichello Ferrari 49 Handling Giancarlo Fisichella Renault 36 Accident Mark Webber Williams 36 Accident Jacques Villeneuve Sauber 26 Spun Jenson Button BAR 2 Engine Anthony Davidson BAR 2 Engine Patrick Friesacher Minardi 2 Spun

FASTEST LAP Kimi Raikkonen 1'35.483

LEADERS Fernando Alonso 51 (1-21,25-40,43-56) Kimi Raikkonen 2 (23-24) Jarno Trulli 2 (41-42) Giancarlo Fisichella 1 (22)

POINTSCORE Alonso 16 Fisichella 10 Barrichello 8 Trulli 8 Coulthard 8 Montoya 8 Heidfeld 6 Webber 4 R.Schumacher 4 Klien 3 M.Schumacher 2 Raikkonen 1

Renault 26 Toyota 12 Red Bull-Cosworth 11 Ferrari 10 Williams-BMW 10 McLaren-Mercedes 9

Sam Snape

22-3-05