Malaysian Grand Prix Review

Ralf takes the Chequered Flag for a fine victory

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One would have left Sepang with the impression that things were a little bit strange. This had been no demolition derby like the Australian GP, but everyone had thought that the Malaysian GP would offer a form guide for the year ahead. Instead, teams expected to do well flattered to deceive, whils others fared a lot better than expected. Even though Williams scored a well-deserved 1-2, their first since Portugal 1996, no one (bar Nelson Piquet) suggested that they had necessarily become the team to beat.

Malaysia has always been something of a Ferrari benefit, but in free practice it looked as though the Williams FW24 and the McLaren MP4/17 could match anything the Ferrari F2001 could produce. Indeed, by Friday night Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard topped the time sheets after some blistering laps, even if Ferrari gave the impression of having something in reserve. DC's time was particularly impressive because mechanical problems had put paid to his entire first session.

There were surprises and disappointments elsewhere too. The fragile Arrows were at least quick, Enrique Bernoldi 4th after the first session on Friday, though he was to drop to 15th by day's end, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen lurking in the top half. Mika Salo continued to show that everyone had underestimated Toyota's competitiveness. By contrast, BAR and Jaguar were in trouble, Eddie Irvine even being outpaced on Friday by Alex Yoong, who was putting in his best F1 performance yet, happily on home soil.

Saturday free practice saw Raikkonen continuing to set the pace, trumped only by Juan Pablo Montoya, who was recovering after a relatively slow start on Friday. Neither Ferrari did many laps, saving their tyres for qualifying, while Mark Webber finally got some decent track time. The Australian's Friday had been a shambles, with a spin and an engine failure leaving him with 6 laps to his name, and a time almost three seconds slower than Yoong. Within two sessions on Saturday, he was 0.6s quicker than Alex.

That Michael Schumacher was saving something for qualifying became apparent when he maintained his perfect pole record at Sepang after only three runs out of four, although admittedly Montoya ran him quite close. Rubens Barrichello would not have been pleased to be over 0.6s slower than his team-mate, but surely not as disappointed as the McLaren people. After their competitive times in free practice, they found nothing extra for qualifying, and ended up 5th and 6th but a whopping 1.2s off pole.

Amongst the rest, Salo was superb in 10th, Frentzen had put his troublesome (and ugly) Arrows in 11th, that team's best qualifying performance since Italy 2000. Jacques Villeneuve hauled his BAR up to 13th, leaving team-mate Olivier Panis languishing in a shocking 18th, although 9th to 18th were covered by only one second. If Panis was feeling bad, then how about Irvine, suffering his worst ever grid position in 20th, almost 3.9s off pole, and only ahead of the Minardis. Oh, and two seconds slower than last year. Ouch!

The first lap of the race was hectic, to say the least. In many respects, Sepang is a wonderful track, but it could be said that it is simply too wide. Not only does it not give the drivers an impression of speed as a result, but on the first lap, when all the drivers are blinded by the red mist, it invited desperado moves simply because there's enough room on the track for it. It may make for exciting first lap jostling, but it's also a recipe for disaster.

Not that Frentzen knew anything about it. For the second time in a row HHF didn't get off the line, although at least he made it through the warm-up lap this time, and he eventually finished the race. Either it was a software glitch, or a Heinz-Harald problem, for the German seems to have a habit of failing to get off the line cleanly. It's embarrassing for him and Arrows as it is, but if he doesn't start the race in Brazil it'll be a right royal farce.

Admittedly, Frentzen's drama was overlooked thanks to what was going on up front. Schumacher put his signature chop on Montoya, which looked a lot worse than what it really was, again thanks to the wide track. Michael had made yet another appalling start, which in the era of launch control is a real mystery, and at one point he, JPM and Rubens were side-by-side. Barrichello gave up the fight early, but into turn one it was clear that Montoya was not going to give in.

The Ferrari understeered into the side of the Williams, and Michael lost his front wing. This was a pure racing incident; neither was at fault, or at least both were equally at fault. Both Schumi and JPM would admit as much. Which made the decision of the Malaysian stewards to give Montoya an unprecedented drive-through penalty all the more ridiculous. Clearly authorities want to send the message that first corner bravado is frowned upon, but one can't help but think that they must know precious little about racing to give a penalty in this instance. For destroying Juan Pablo's race they earn our 'Reject of the Race' award this time around.

Having said that, Takuma Sato did his best to pinch the award by not only running up the back of his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, but riding piggy-back on Fisi's car for a not inconsiderable length of time. In one fell swoop both Jordans were out of the reckoning on St Patrick's Day. Jordan have the feel of a midfield team this year, and with Eghbal Hamidy having left after a squabble with Gary Anderson, the yellow cars may find it hard to challenge the leaders, and Eddie Jordan should be a worried man.

The race up front was now between Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and the two McLarens, although with both silver cars out early with engine problems, and with neither Kimi or DC matching Ralf who was on the same strategy, it was really down to Rubens and Ralf for the win. In the pre-season, there were already concerns about the Mercedes engine's power output. Now, in a classic scenario, in the search for pace reliability has gone AWOL. DC's best shot at the title may be thwarted once again.

Reject of the Race: The Sepang Stewards

The Sepang Stewards
Preposterous penalty ruins JPM's race

Full marks to Ralf, though, who fully deserved his fourth Grand Prix win, which in hindsight was never in doubt after his great first stint. He matched Barrichello who was lighter on fuel, and went faster once his Michelins 'came in'. While both Rubens and Michael's speed suggested that the F2001 had been thoroughly outdone for race pace and grip in the hot conditions, that Ralf went for a one-stop plan when most went for two, and made it work, was a tribute to him.

One wonders if an unhindered Montoya could have given his team-mate a race. He was not substantially faster than Ralf, and he had to constantly fight back up the field. Inevitably he would have lost time in doing this, not that I could tell because the world feed from Malaysia was so appalling. It missed JPM's drive-through penalty and most of his passes, and we never really got a decent replay of the first corner. Like the stewards, the director didn't seem to have much of a clue either.

One thing is for sure, though, and that is that Ferrari would not have won. Barrichello was well beaten when his engine blew up, and Schumacher's progress through the field was sluggish compared to Montoya, although it was still moderately impressive. Well, as impressive as it could be when even Bernoldi managed to pass him, much to everyone's amusement and amazement. ITV's James Allen said it was like Jean Alesi passing Ayrton Senna at Phoenix in 1990; I suspect Enrique isn't in Jean's league though.

Ferrari have reason to be disappointed with the result, but shouldn't lose heart. They are using the old car after all, and the fact that the Williams just matched it, and the McLaren couldn't even do that, bodes well for when the reputedly rapid F2002 is deemed reliable enough to race. Furthermore, the hot, humid conditions of Malaysia suited the Michelins in particular; in more moderate climes the tyres should be evenly matched, and while Williams now lead the constructors' title, Ferrari should still be favourites.

The relatively high attrition rate amongst the front-runners once again opened the door for others to shine, and this time the man who stepped up to the plate was Jenson Button. After the slagging we justifiably gave him last year, it is only fair to note that he dominated Jarno Trulli all weekend, and in the race was easily 'best of the rest'. He deserved a podium finish, only to be cruelly robbed by suspension problems on the last lap, and relegated to 4th behind the less-deserving Schumacher.

The way Jenson briefly fought off Montoya when the Colombian tried to pass was a refreshing return to form. In F1, you're only as good as your last race, and it wouldn't surprise me if he goes back to being flavour of the month very soon. With Button in 4th, 5th and 6th fell to the two Saubers on Petronas' home turf, Nick Heidfeld ahead of Felipe Massa. Heidfeld did what he seemed to do a lot last year: maintain a quick, consistent, unobtrusive pace that picks up points when the leaders trip up.

Massa though should consider himself lucky to score his first ever points. He wasn't on Heidfeld's pace all weekend, and he spent most of the race caught up in duels just outside the points. One was with Allan McNish, who drove a quite stunning race in an ill-handling Toyota to climb from 19th on the grid to run 6th near the end. He deserved to score, and after Salo's 6th in Melbourne, another point for Ove Andersson's men would have been incredible.

Or would it have been that amazing at all? Make no mistake, the cars from Cologne are quick upper-midfield runners. Salo ran with Button early on; with reliability, he could have ended up 4th or 5th, even 3rd (gasp!). Toyota seem to be on par with teams like Jordan, and maybe even ahead of BAR if Sepang was anything to go by. As in Australia, BAR were non-events in Malaysia; maybe worse, since all weekend they were the third-last team. Unless Sepang was an aberration, they are really looking down the barrel.

Not quite as badly as Jaguar, though. The R3 is heinously lethargic, and while Pedro de la Rosa gives his all, the behaviour of the car seems to be at odds with Irvine's driving style, and sadly Eddie looks increasingly disinterested. Who could blame him? The car has the advantage of being reliable, but once other teams get that right, then the Jags will rarely hit the top 10 in races. Ferrari could afford to wheel out the F2001; Jaguar don't have that luxury with the disappointing R2. But they way they're going they may just have to.

Irvine got caught up in an incident mid-race when Yoong, whom he was trying to lap, trod on his front wing. Eddie subsequently slammed the Malaysian, but was perhaps being slightly presumptuous in expecting the Minardi to move over. He was lunging from way too far back anyway, and since he was pitting that lap, he did not have to take the risk. Having said that, Yoong's many and varied lines around a racetrack could well give anyone following the impression that he's going wide and moving over...

To be fair, though, Yoong had had a good race in front of his home crowd. He ran in front of Webber for the first stint, and may have finished in the top 12. Webber, on the other hand, may have been heading as high as the top 10 when he retired. KL Minardi still have too many reliability issues to fully develop the car, hence they remain entrenched at the very back of the grid, but the potential is there, and after Melbourne they have points in the safe already, which is more than what Jordan, BAR and Arrows can say right now.

One more fly-away race in Brazil remains before the teams return to the normality of the European season. After two surprising and controversial Grands Prix, we may see another peculiar race at Interlagos. This would not be a surprise, since although the Sao Paulo track normally produces close racing, it also tends to throw up the odd weird result. Williams and Ferrari can again be expected to fight it out on the anti-clockwise circuit, but McLaren will need a massive improvement to kick-start their season.

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