Malaysian Grand Prix 2002 - Ralf Makes it Two Out Of Two For The Schumacher Brothers
Grand Prix racing has, by and large, stuck to mainland Europe. Of course the teams have had to go through the rather unpleasant experience of trekking out to Sao Paulo every year, in order to be able to say that they race in South America and thus help to justify the tenuous claim that Formula One is a truly global sport. There is on the other hand, still no race in Africa, and a whole host of ludicrous plans to bring Grand Prix racing to the untenably hot Middle East have thus far come to nothing. For the last four years however, the F1 circus have gone out to a very impressive looking facility in Malaysia. Ok, so the country is a semi-dictatorship with a human rights record that has attracted more than a little attention from Amnesty International and a pollution problem that leaves Kuala Lumpur enveloped in smog for much of the year. On the other hand, it does have, in Sepang, a really rather good racing circuit. It has a couple of very slow corners following on from long straights, which makes overtaking easier than it is most everywhere else.
To deal first with the ridiculous, the stillborn Phoenix F1 team, ever more reminiscent of the Andrea Moda squad of the early 1990s, turned up in Malaysia with a pair of 2001 Prosts and a set of 1998 TWR engines. The engines were not attached to the chassis, and given the time period available, nor were they likely to be. It seems indicative of the team's intentions that there didn't seem to be anyone in Malaysia with any intention of driving the things. The idea may have been to at least get the cars to scrutineering and stake some kind of claim to be the twelfth F1 team on the grid this year, but they were halted by Malaysian customs, who refused to release the cars until a $1 million bond was paid. Hence someone, somewhere spent a lot of money transporting a pair of F1 cars half way across the globe to no greater purpose. To add to the feeling that something fishy was going on, Arrows personnel in plain clothes were distributing press releases on behalf of the team while Tom Walkinshaw denied that it was anything to do with him.
With that safely out of the way, everyone could turn their attention to qualifying. The grid turned out o be something of a mirror image of that in Australia. Where Barrichello had taken pole for Ferrari in Australia, this time it was Michael Schumacher who lined up first on the grid. There had been a strong challenge from Williams this time round, who found the hot, sticky conditions far better suited to their Michelin tyres, but the challenge came not from Ralf Schumacher, but from his team mate Montoya. To continue the theme, Raikkonen outqualified a troubled Coulthard by a few thousandths over at McLaren, but neither man looked able to do anything about either the Williams or the Ferraris. Next up was Heidfeld in the Sauber, showing that Peter's men can still embarrass teams with twice the budget, while Button showed he was able to put 2001 behind him by lining up in eighth well ahead of his rapid new team mate at Renault. Further down the grid, Salo and Frentzen were amongst those who had something to be happy about. Toyota continue to show jaguar how to run a full manufacturer works F1 team, and Salo was delighted to qualify in 10th at Toyota's second race. All the more remarkable when you consider that this is no phantom-manufacturer team, buying the factory and design expertise of a well established team, but a built from the ground up, entirely new equipe, albeit one which had won several world rally championships over the past twenty years. Frentzen was next up in his Cosworth engined Arrows, some six places further up the grid than the fastest of the Cosworth powered Jaguars. Of the rookies, Sato continued to look a little lost over at Jordan and was well off the pace of his team mate Fisichella, while Massa was a similar distance behind Heidfeld. McNish lined up nineteenth in his Toyota, complaining that he was unable to get his car balanced right, while Webber lined up 21st in his Minardi, leaving Malaysian Alex Yoong last on the grid once more at his home race.
Things looked set for a great battle between Montoya and Michael Schumacher on Sunday, and the popular opinion was that it was Montoya, or more particularly Michelin, that might have an advantage over a race distance. Sadly we were not to find out, as Montoya and Schumacher emulated their team mates behaviour in Melbourne by running into each other at the first corner. Thankfully, neither they nor anyone else was put out of the race, but Montoya found himself somewhat unfairly lumbered with a drive through penalty, while Schumacher lost time replacing his nose. This left Barrichello leading from Ralf Schumacher, while the McLarens trailed some way behind. When it became apparent that Barrichello was going to be making one more tyre stop than Schumacher Jr, all hope that there might actually be a real race for first place evaporated. Behind them, first Coulthard and then Raikkonen went out in their McLarens, suggesting that Ron's cars are not only slow but unreliable too. McNish had carved his way well through the field to run eighth behind his team mate in the Toyota, while messrs Schumacher and Montoya had to fight their way up the order. Bernoldi briefly caught our collective attention by repassing Schumacher for tenth place in his Arrows, but he was unable to hold the German back for more than a lap. Barrichello once again suffered the lion's share of the mechanical misfortune in his Ferrari, with his engine blowing while he ran a strong second. This left Button running second in his Renault towards the end of the race. Montoya was soon up with him, and running on fresher tyres, didn't take long to relieve Button of second. A late suspension problem with his Renault saw him lose a certain third to Schumacher Sr, while Schumacher Jr ran out the winner. Behind them, Peter Sauber again signalled his intent to put in an impressive performance in this year's constructors championship, with his cars finishing fifth and sixth. Toyota might have had another point had McNish's final pit stop not been botched, as he had been successfully holding Massa's Sauber off up until that point. Salo, too, might have scored had electrical gremlins not intervened.
What of the rest ? The Arrows put in a respectable but ultimately fruitless performance over the course of the weekend. Frentzen's eleventh place on the grid was squandered when he again suffered problems with his car, while Bernoldi ran in the midfield until retirement. BAR and Jaguar had an appalling weekend, with neither team looking remotely on the pace. If nothing else, they continue to show that a star driver and a bundle of cash are not enough to succeed at the F1 game. While Jaguar's problem lies with the chassis, BAR preferred to lay the blame at the door of Honda. Whatever, it looks like its going to be a trying season for Villeneuve and Irvine, to say nothing of Panis and De La Rosa, who are most likely being paid a lot less to endure an uncompetitive 2002. Minardi never really figured, though Yoong was, for once, a match for Webber in the race. Both cars would end their race in the gravel trap. Jordan might have made more of an impression were it not for Sato committing the cardinal sin of running into his team mate on the opening lap, and leaving both of them several laps down from the start.
So victory went to Ralf Schumacher, though he can take little comfort from the thought that he had been comprehensively outpaced all weekend not only by his brother but also by his team mate. Whatever, the season could certainly prove to be an interesting one, with what looks like a possible three way title fight between the Schumacher brothers and Montoya. All this of course, assuming that the new Ferrari isn't a second a lap faster than the old one……
To return to racing lines.