THE ICEMAN COMETH....... Malaysian Grand Prix Review

After a refreshingly exciting season opener, everyone assumed that Ferrari would reassert their dominance at Sepang. It didn't work out that way though - once again they looked to have the fastest car in the field, but once again they shot themselves in the foot and lost out to McLaren......

Against a backdrop of war in the middle east, Formula one was hardly at the centre of the world's attention as the teams rolled up at Sepang. With the conflict in the Gulf being analysed on television in the manner of a particularly brutal sporting battle with pundits who might not sound out of place on Match of the Day, several F1 teams seemed to be degenerating into open warfare. Leading the heavy artillery were the BAR boys, who each seemed unable to talk into a microphone without bemoaning how immature their team mate was. Evidently the rift brought about by the pit stop fracas has not been healed. Team boss David Richards seemed to be enjoying it all though, and gave the impression that it was good to have a bit of competition between his two charges. If nothing else, it generated plenty of publicity for the team. Over at Toyota, Panis was far from happy with the direction that the team have taken over the past two weeks, and after talking of podium finishes before he flew out to Malaysia, neither Toyota was anywhere near the pace in free practice.

The most vicious battles, however seemed to be raging in the long running internecine war between Williams and Ralf Schumacher. Schumacher continued to berate the team for failing to make progress with the new FW25 and all through practice and qualifying the German was a long way off the pace. There is talk of a complete breakdown in relations between the team and the troubled driver which culminated in the German qualifying in a very lowly 17th place and then refusing to talk to the only people who could help dig him out of the hole he has dug for himself - the Williams engineers. Word has it that, if anything, the feud between team and driver has been underplayed in the press and Ralf might be out on his ear before the end of the season.

The lengths which tailend F1 teams are now having to go to in securing funds are resulting in some rather odd deals being done. Last year, of course, we had Minardi securing funding from a city - Kuala Lumpur. This year, Jordan came to Malaysia with sponsorship from Shanghai Circuit - an as yet unbuilt racing track. Minardi went one better and picked up sponsorship from a political cause, running anti-war logos on the sides of their cars. The team were understandably cagey about who was paying for these, but it is known that they are seeking funding from Malaysian government owned companies, and their major sponsor this year is Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom. All very well, but one rather suspects that they would have been equally happy running "Nuke Baghdad" stickers on the cars if the money was right. Asked for his opinion on the matter, Dave Richards smiled and said "And they've got British American Racing next door to them......."

First qualifying saw something of a return to normal service at the front of the grid. Michael Schumacher headed the time sheets, and his team mate Barrichello was the next up, and Montoya third. The McLarens were there or there abouts, and the best of the rest seemed to be the Renaults of Trulli and Alonso. BAR, on the other hand, were back in the middle of the pack, which must have come as something of a disappointment after they had surprised everyone with their qualifying pace in Melbourne. They did at least have a better time of it than the Jaguar team. Webber was down in 15th, while Pizzonia failed to set a time at all after his car refused to fire up. That said, a session which merely determines running order for the following day's televised shoot-out is all rather academic. Perhaps Mr Ecclestone should consider allowing aggregate times to count and add a little drama to what is a rather entertaining Friday afternoon format.

Qualifying proper was dominated not by Ferrari, nor even by McLaren or Williams, but by Renault. Spanish youngster Alonso went out and set a time which none of the heavy hitters were able to get anywhere near. Up in second was none other than his team mate, Jarno Trulli. It was almost twenty years to the day since Renault last achieved a 1-2 in qualifying, with Alain Prost and Eddie Cheever in the French Grand Prix in 1983. Of course, given the fact that they had been unable to match the Ferraris, McLarens or Montoya's Williams in practice, it seemed a fair bet that they had deliberately been light-fuelled to grab some headlines, but the jury would be out on just how light they were running until Sunday afternoon. Behind them, the order was much as you would expect, with Schumacher and Coulthard occupying the second row. There were a couple of wild cards in the pack though. Heidfeld had fuelled light in order to qualify 6th, while the troubled Ralf Schumacher was a long way off the pace in 17th. All looked set for an interesting race. Received wisdom was that, providing it stayed dry, the Renaults would soon fade from contention, but, on the other hand, there seemed to be little to separate Raikkonen, Coulthard, Montoya, Schumacher Sr and Barrichello. A reprise of Melbourne, perhaps ?

Chaos at the beginning of the race did for such hopes however. Michael Schumacher slid out of control and into Jarno Trulli while trying to keep Coulthard at bay. Behind him, Pizzonia ran into the back of Montoya's Williams and each car lost a wing. Barrichello was caught out in the confusion and ended up behind not only Heidfeld's Sauber, but Jenson Button's BAR. Various others didn't even get as far as the first corner. Villeneuve's BAR failed to get away on the parade lap, and attempts to start him in the spare car faltered when that too refused to fire up. Fisichella found himself accidentally moving into Villeneuve's grid slot, and ended up burning out his clutch in the process of trying to manoeuvre back to his own starting position. Frentzen's Sauber too, failed to get off the line on time, though on the plus side, this did at least spare him any involvement in the chaos that ensued further round the lap.

All this left Alonso leading from Coulthard's McLaren and Heidfeld's Sauber. After just three laps, the Melbourne winner, who was looking to be in a pretty solid position for a second win, ended up going out, the surprise victim of an electrical problem in the supposedly well sorted year old McLaren. Raikkonen was soon past Heidfeld, into second place, while Barrichello had little trouble in dealing with Button, who was to spend an afternoon slithering around on poorly behaving Bridgestones.

It took Barrichello a little longer to get past Heidfeld's Sauber, by which time Raikkonen was well down the road. Inevitably, when Alonso made his early pit stop, this left the McLaren driver in a very strong position. Unless Barrichello was running one stop less than the Finn, he appeared to be out of contention. Barrichello did run longer on his first tank of fuel, but it wasn't enough and after the Ferrari's first fuel stop, Raikkonen was never headed again. Barrichello tried to give chase, but on this occasion, the Ferrari appeared second best to the McLaren. Or perhaps more accurately, the Bridgestones were decidedly second best to the Michelins. The man who, two years ago, entered Formula One at the age of 21 with just a baker's dozen of car races in Formula Renault behind him, had won his first Grand Prix. It seems very, very unlikely that it will be his last. He was even talkative in the post race interviews, at least in his native Finnish. Out of the car, he remains a quiet, almost monosyllabic man, who makes the Schumacher brothers look charismatic, never mind such as Montoya or Fisichella. In the car though, he is perhaps the most exciting of all of the sport's new breed.

Behind them, a somewhat unwell Alonso did a very good job in bringing his misfiring Renault home in third, despite losing fifth gear about half way through the race. In doing so, he became the first Spaniard to claim a Grand Prix podium since Alfonso De Portago nearly fifty years ago. He too is one of the most exciting of F1's newcomers, and despite the fact that he made his race debut back in 2001, he is still only 21. Trulli brought the other Renault home in fifth place, putting in a spirited if erratic performance after falling to the back of the field at the start. He did a good job of passing Button while keeping Schumacher's Ferrari behind in the closing stages of the race, but he would have been comfortably clear of both had he not spun a few laps previously. Renault clearly aren't yet a match for the big three teams but they are not a long way behind either. Some insiders reckon they are as much as 100BHP down on the best engines in F1, which, if true, rather suggests that they already have the best chassis in Formula One. Even if they are really only 40BHP down, they are still clearly going to be more of a threat at tracks where outright power isn't so important as it is on the long straights of Sepang.

Ralf Schumacher had an uninspired but error-free run to fourth place, which will do little to discourage those who think he is on borrowed time at Williams, but did at least secure points for the team in the constructors' battle. Further down the field, Toyota had a disappointing day, especially considering that they had looked so quick in pre-season testing and were on the favourable Michelin tyres. Panis looked quick in the early stages, but this turned out to be the result of a very light fuel load, and fuel pressure put paid to his race before it really got going. Cristiano Da Matta may or may not have been quick, but a fuel pressure problem in his car obliged him to run the car on full tanks throughout, meaning a heavy car and a three stop strategy - the worst of all worlds.

Sauber fell victim to pitlane problems and dodgy Bridgestones. Heidfeld claimed the final point, despite losing around 30 seconds when his car refused to restart after the first pitstop - a disappointing weekend for a man who had to watch his former team mate (whom he usually beat) claim his first win for McLaren. Frentzen too lost out to pitlane problems, faulty launch control which cost him time at the start, and a heavy fuel strategy which left him trying to run long on poor tyres. He claimed ninth after Firman's Jordan spluttered out of fuel on the last lap. The Anglo-Irish driver had his most promising outing yet. He qualified dead last, but this turned out to be the result of a one-stop fuel strategy, which saw him run as highly as sixth and do a very good job of fending off Trulli's Renault before he too lost around half a minute when his car wouldn't go into gear coming out of his only pit stop. He certainly had a better race than Fisichella, who must surely have been feeling rather sheepish as he left Sepang. Undoubtedly the Italian is quick (possibly the quickest driver of all away from the big three teams) but mistakes like this perhaps help explain why Ron Dennis, Jean Todt and Frank Williams aren't knocking down his door to sign him. A shame, because I don't doubt he would be as exciting as he is erratic.

All this leaves only the remnants of the Cosworth brigade. Jaguar had a disastrous weekend, qualifying well down the order, and ending up the only team which got neither car home. Pizzonia outqualified Webber, but after that was chiefly noticeable for ruining Montoya's race, before eventually spinning out a few laps from home. Webber made up ground well after qualifying poorly, and might have been on course for the final point, only for his engine to drain of oil and force him out. Minardi's race seemed to go much as the last one did. Wilson made the most of a light fuel load to climb as high as seventh in the opening laps, but ended up cooking his ancient Bridgestones in the process and slipped back down the order. He remained ahead of Pizzonia for a fair while, but was eventually forced to retire when his HANS system ended up twisting his arms so badly that he lost all feeling in them. How he managed to bring the car back to the pits remains a mystery, but he found himself on a drip and later, in hospital following the end of the race. Verstappen, on the other hand, lost his front wing and fell to the back, where he remained for the whole afternoon, eventually ending up thirteenth.

It wasn't quite the thrill-a-minute race that we had at Melbourne, but compared to the somatic races of 2002, this was nonetheless a very interesting motor race. How much more so it might have been had Michael Schumacher, Juan Montoya, David Coulthard and Jarno Trulli not all had their races interfered with remains to be seen. On this evidence though, Brazil is going to be very interesting indeed.

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