A fascinating fight...

Michael Schumacher, Malaysian GP 2004

Michael Schumacher, Malaysian GP 2004 

 © The Cahier Archive

Sunday was election day in Malaysia but despite the need to go home to vote, the Malaysians turned up in decent numbers for the race. No-one really believed the 90,000 figure which the organizers said were there but as no-one else bothered to count, who knows? It was decent turnout particularly when on race morning the newspapers had said that the Malaysians should vote first and go to the race later.

Given the grip on power of the ruling party in Malaysia it seemed fairly irrelevant. The only real issue was how big the margin of victory was going to be.

Down at Sepang, it seemed that the race was really rather a similar question: By how much was Michael Schumacher going to win this one?

But these days Formula 1 is a bit like doing jigsaw puzzles. You do not get the full picture easily. It takes time to understand what is going on. The first hint that Ferrari was not as strong as things might suggest came when Michael headed for the pit lane after just nine laps. That meant a great deal. The fact that he was followed in by David Coulthard and Fernando Alonso was also quite significant. On the next lap Kimi Raikkonen, Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli all stopped. There was a pattern emerging here. Everyone has been running lighter than the Williams-BMWs in qualifying; everyone except BAR-Honda.

On the grid before the race Pierre Dupasquier of Michelin scanned the sky. Would it rain?

"I do not know," he said. "All I want is that they all get to their first pit stops before the rain comes so we can see what is going on."

That said it all. One cannot make any comparisons of relative performance in the hot conditions unless one knows what everyone was up to in qualifying. And here it was. The only team that really remained a mystery was Jaguar Racing, although Christian Klien was an early stopper and so one must presume that Mark Webber would have gone a lap longer. That would have put him in the same range of fuel load as the Williams-BMWs and the BAR-Honda.

Michael Schumacher later shrugged off the difference in the length of stints but it was of key importance. Ferrari had qualified with a lot less fuel than had Williams and yet Montoya had been pretty quick. In other words, Ferrari's advantage in qualifying had been artificial. Given what was learned in Melbourne about Ferrari's aerodynamic advantage, it was fair to say that in Malaysia the Ferrari was ahead not because the Bridgestones were faster nor even because they were more consistent than the Michelins. It was because the car was better. In other words, in the hot conditions Michelin still has a tyre advantage.

Montoya set the fastest lap of the race...

The Ferrari strategy was to have Michael run a fast first stint and then hang on to it for the rest of the afternoon. Michael took three bigger fuel loads to get him to the flag with three equally-balanced stints (15 laps, 14 laps and 16 laps). The danger therefore was that Webber would beat him away at the start and stop him getting the clear air to build an advantage. That did not happen because the Jaguar "bogged down" at the start.

It was not the driver's fault but no-one would actually explain what had happened. The whole team behaved as if on the way to a "Let's get Vague" Party.

"We have to analyse the risk factors against the performance," Webber said, making the issue as clear as mud. "We can make good starts," he added.

Was the team trying something a little different, perhaps in an effort to emulate the Renault start in Melbourne? Or are there weaknesses in the car that they do not want us to know about. Who knows?

It did not much matter on this occasion because Webber was gone from the equation in the first few seconds of the race. This was the best possible news for Ferrari because it meant that Rubens Barrichello, chugging along on his harder tyres, could act as Michael Schumacher's rearguard. No-one seemed able to explain why it was that Rubens was on the harder rubber except that perhaps it was an insurance policy; a chance to learn more about the tyres in hot conditions or, if you like conspiracies, in order to play a tactical game later in the race.

In fact Ferrari was only able to be relaxed about Schumacher for a lap. On the second lap Rubens went wide at one corner and, in a flash, Montoya and Raikkonen were ahead and Rubens was left jostling with Jenson Button.

In those early laps there was one other element that has to be assessed for rain was spitting from a loaded sky. When there is light rain, Michelin seems to have an advantage. That showed. On the second lap Montoya closed to just a second behind Schumacher. But then the track began to dry and Schumacher went to work. He had only a few laps and as big an advantage as possible to build. He set three consecutive fastest laps to push the gap from 1.1secs to 4.2secs.

It may not seem much but it was vital. The race was lost and won in those laps.

On lap 4 Michael clocked a 1m36.894s. It was three tenths of a second better than Montoya. Not much. But next time around Michael went down to a 1m35.022s. Montoya could manage only a 1m36.361s. Michael followed up with a lap in the 1m34.8s. Montoya could do only a 1m35.884s. After that the balance of performance changed. Montoya was able to match Michael's pace. When Michael peeled off into pit lane, the cat was out of the bag. The Ferrari had been running light.

That was the moment at which Montoya had to blast ahead but Schumacher on new tyres with the clear track ahead of him is a mighty opponent. The time that Montoya needed had already been lost and Michael was not going let that advantage slip. Now he had a slightly heavier fuel load than Montoya and it was the Colombian who was closing down the gap. In the laps after the first stops were over the Williams-BMW driver cut a 6.4secs gap back to 3.3secs. The fuel loads were fairly similar and Montoya was faster... But then the consistency of the Bridgestones came into play and Michael began to edge away again. The gap went from 3.3secs to 8.2s before both men stopped together on lap 26. Out on the track again Montoya was faster again, closing down the gap to only 3.7secs by lap 37. Montoya knew that to win he had to emerge ahead at the third stop but the race was lost. He was four and a bit seconds behind when he rejoined. Look back at the early laps when Michael gained those vital 3.2secs. Yes, it was that close.

Montoya found that Rubens Barrichello was between him and Schumacher.

"As soon as I moved he closed the door straight away and his pace backed off." said Juan later. "There was no point in even trying to pass. There were 12 laps to go. I just backed off and cruised."

Rubens disappeared into pit lane but by then Juan was 9.2secs behind Michael and both men were in cruise mode. Even if Montoya had pushed and caught Michael he would not have been able to pass. He knew it and Michael knew it.

There was time to reflect. Had the strategy been right? Given the new knowledge acquired we might see Williams be willing to run a little lighter in Bahrain - and if that happens Montoya should be closer to Michael in qualifying and in the race. The Michelin tyres had been quicker than the Bridgestones. The difference had been in aerodynamic efficiency and tyre consistency.

But the important point was that Ferrari no longer looked invincible.

"I reckon if you had the BMW engine in the back of the Renault chassis you would have a car that is as good as the Ferrari," said one of the drivers. "It is just a matter of getting all the elements together. Ferrari has done it again. The rest of us have to work towards it."

So now the smell of Ferrari blood is in the nostrils at Williams and at Renault. McLaren might like to think that they too can pick up a whiff of the kill but it is a long way to go.

"We were a little better than we were in Melbourne," said David Coulthard. "We find it difficult to extract performance from the car for just one lap. But in the race our performance is as good as anyone else. The thing is that you need to get clean air. The brakes are very good and the car has a lot of traction. A new front wing has helped."

What David did not say was that the car's biggest problem is that the chassis lacks aerodynamic downforce and the engine lacks horsepower...

There is a need for more aerodynamic efficiency at Williams but otherwise the team looks well-placed, even if it was hard to find anyone in the team who thought Ralf had done a good job. It was not a patch on Montoya's performance.

Renault made a mess of qualifying and, if the truth be told, things did not go well in the race either. The Renault drivers found that with the set-ups they had the tyres were graining and understeer was a problem until the tyres cleaned themselves up. Alonso drove a great first stint to go from the back of the grid to eighth but further progress was blocked by David Coulthard's McLaren. In his second stint it was a similar story and the team then took the most extraordinary decision to fill Fernando with half a ton of fuel and sent him off to drive non-stop to the finish. They might just as well have attached a caravan to the back of the Renault.

"I think they messed up a bit," said Coulthard with a shrug.

"We had to try something different," said a Renault man. "I guess it didn't work."

Good guess!

BAR-Honda was thus able to step into the limelight on this occasion, Jenson Button overtaking Jarno Trulli early on and then catching and passing Barrichello and Raikkonen as the race developed. It was his first podium and a great moment for the team. BAR-Honda must now be taken seriously because the car is good. Sato started at the back and ran a two-stop strategy. He had a spin early on but when he went out with an engine failure three laps from home he was a good solid eighth. Without the spin he would have been able to grab some more points, an impressive achievement from the back of the grid.

Jaguar too must now be taken seriously even if things did not go well on Sunday. Webber's recovery after the start was a good indication of why Mark is suddenly a sought-after driver. He was 14th on the run down to Turn One. By the end of the lap he was ninth.

"I did a bunch of them in the first corner," he said. "I cannot remember who it was. I think here was a Renault (Alonso) Then in Turn Four I got past Nick Heidfeld and both the Toyotas. And then I went round the outside of Ralf at Turn Five. He got me back in Turn Six."

It took Webber a couple of laps before he nailed the Williams driver at Turn 8 , getting down the inside. Ralf did not want to give way and so ended up out on the grass.

A couple of laps later Ralf tagged Webber from the rear at the first corner. The Jaguar had a puncture.

"We had a chat later," Webber said. "He said that he had been a little bit too optimistic in his move. I could have told him that!"

Webber had to drive almost a whole lap with a puncture and that damaged the diffuser and so after he rejoined the car had serious oversteer and the tyres were being punished. In the end the right rear blistered and Webber lost control of the car. There was also a moment of frustration when Webber went too fast in the pit lane.

"My fault," he said.

The rest of the field were of little interest. The Jordans, Saubers, Toyotas and Minardis were all out of the picture although one must single out Nick Heidfeld for punching well above his weight in the early laps.

Toyota was little better in the race than it had been in Australia but a radio miscommunication screwed Panis out of 10th place. He misheard a radio call and the pit did not hear his requests for confirmation. He went into pit lane only to be told to drive on by. He floored the throttle and so ended up with a drive-through penalty later.

The Malaysian GP was another Schumacher victory but it gave us a hint that there are chinks in the Ferrari armour.

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