MARCH 21, 2005
MALAYSIAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Fernando El Conquistador
Renault's Fernando Alonso was beaten by his team mate Giancarlo Fisichella in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. It was obvious then that the Renault F1 team had a huge advantage over the other teams. As a result F1 arrived in Malaysia convinced that the team would win again and win they did, but this time it was Fernando Alonso who conquered, writing the second chapter in the new world of Formula 1 circa 2005. The Spanish driver was never seriously troubled by the opposition, a fact underlined by the list of fastest laps: Fernando was able to increase his lead as and when he needed to but otherwise he took it easy. His fastest lap only the fourth fastest of the race. He never needed to push that hard. He did not need to hurry. But that does not mean that this was an easy victory. The oppressive heat took its toll and Alonso looked a very weary man as he climbed on to the podium.
The truth is that no-one really expected anyone other than Alonso to win at Sepang as Giancarlo Fisichella was struggling a little with his car from Saturday onwards and he could not quite find the pace that Fernando had available to him. Jarno Trulli stalked his former team mate for the entire race, a great result for the Panasonic Toyota team but still not quite enough to make the team able to challenge for outright victory. Visit the Toyota garage after the race, however, and you would have thought that they had won the race. There were in fact two reasons to celebrate. Toyota had become competitive. And Honda had failed miserably.
Horribly. Before three laps were out, Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson were both walking away from steaming cars, their engines both having had late lunches. The looks on the faces of the Honda men said it all. It was hard to find anyone with a look of such desperation - except if one went down to Bridgestone where all weekend there has been a little cloud sitting in the air above the encampment. Someone somewhere got it wrong and the tyre company showed up with tyres which were immediately and very obviously not the thing that was needed. Some said they were too soft, others that they were too hard. But it did not really matter because whatever the cause the effect was that down at Ferrari the reddest things in the garage were not the cars but rather the faces of the multiple World Champions. This was a major league disaster. Having flunked qualifying badly, Ferrari flunked the race as well although Michael Schumacher eventually managed to crawl home in seventh place. Another three or four laps and he would have been demoted or ended up in a sandtrap as Christian Klien and Kimi Raikkonen zoomed in to get him. The three cars crossed the line nose-to-tail although the TV coverage was of such poor quality on this occasion that as this battle was shaping up on the last lap, TV viewers across the world were being treated to an unpleasant view of Flavio Briatore's sweaty armpit as he celebrated Alonso's win.
Formula 1 is never a boring sport. Even if there is only one car going around it is still exciting because of the power and the noise of these wonderful machines. The problem is that until some money is invested in improving the coverage, we are stuck with dull TV programming which is years behind the state of the art. Everyone is too busy fighting over the spoils to invest in the sport at the moment.
But for the lucky folk who were there at the race track there was plenty of action and excitement. Behind Alonso and Trulli there were some mighty battles, beginning at the first corner when the first four were followed by a howling bunch of nutters going three abreast, here and there and somehow managing to get around the first lap and a half without smashing into one another. It is one of the world's great mysteries how they do this but it is fun to watch, even if following every lunge and slice that is developing in front of you.
And then a pattern began to emerge and we were treated to a rather quiet first stint as the drivers worried about their tyres and tried to avoid flat-spots and incidents. Webber was fourth in his Williams with Ralf Schumacher right up his chuff with the second Toyota. Then came a feisty Kimi Raikkonen and the two Red Bull cars which were still going well. If we thought Melbourne was a flash in the pan, we were mistaken. The BAR-Hondas went out in a blaze of anything but glory but then it was everyone on their best behaviour for a while. The strategies were not as wild and different as we thought they might be. Klien had, as expected, gone out with rather less fuel than some of the others and he came into the pits after 18 laps for a top-up. That cost him places to Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello. Between laps 20 and 25 all the others came and went and had it not been for Kimi Raikkonen suffering a high-speed tyre failure, which the team said later was the result of a valve problem, the order would have been little changed. David Coulthard should have been eighth and closing in on Montoya's McLaren ahead of him but on lap 25 he had a spin (which was completely missed by the TV) and so lost six vital seconds. These crucial moments lost allowed Barrichello to come out ahead of him on the road and as the Ferrari was just not quick, Coulthard and Klien were bottled up behind the red car. That lasted for nine laps and then they both jumped Rubens as his handling became so bad that in the end he headed for the pitlane and parked the car. The rear tyres were shot to pieces. The team blamed this on a handling imbalance caused by a piece of rubber that was found jammed into the rear wing. It was an indication perhaps of just how sensitive these cars can be these days.
Just after the pits stops and Raikkonen's wild ride on the grass and a lap on three wheels we were witness to the demise of Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber, which had been running in a very depressing 13th place. Peter Sauber clamped a cigar between his teeth and looked a little exasperated as journalist after journalist asked him when he was going to fire the former World Champion. Peter admitted that Jacques was a big disappointment but said that the car was to blame because it was too slow and did not suit Villeneuve's style. That was the first priority, he said. Once the car was fixed Villeneuve would have to deliver. Race analysts meanwhile noted that Felipe Massa's best lap in a difficult race was still eight-tenths of a second better than Villeneuve's fastest.
In the darker recesses of the garage, some of the team seemed to be rather less charitable.
While all this was happening to Villeneuve, Giancarlo Fisichella was running into bigger trouble. He ran over a kerb or somesuch, perhaps a piece of Raikkonen's detached tyre, and some fancy aerodynamic tweak fell off his car. The car began to mishandle and the car ate its tyres. Suddenly Fizzy was losing time at a rate of knots. And podium-hungry Mark Webber was closing in with the clear intention of putting paid to Giancarlo's dreams of a new podium. The problem was how to get there. And behind him, Mark had the additional problem of Ralf Schumacher, who was looking punchy in the second Toyota. Ralf made his move on lap 32 and tried to skitter down the inside line at the final corner. It was a botch job and Ralf clunked into the Williams and pushed the pair of them off line. As they scrambled back to speed Nick Heidfeld in the second Williams arrived and the three men went at it hammer and tongs with a couple moves which must have left clumps of hair on the floor in the Williams garage. Webber soon left Ralf behind and Heidfeld dealt with his fellow countryman with commendable authority. You could almost hear a German yell of "Out of the way, chump, I am coming through!"
And through he came. The two Williams-BMWs then went after Fisichella again and you just knew that this was going to be good. Giancarlo was exposed but desperate and Webber was keen to keep his team mate behind him. On lap 37 Mark made a lovely move down the outside going into the last corner. He was ahead and leaving Fisichella plenty of room when Giancarlo, perhaps a little distracted by the move, lost the rear of the Renault and spun across into Mark's path - the accident putting out both drivers.
Sometimes life is just not fair. Webber's podium was gone and he was not a happy bunny but Fisichella is a good bloke and does not get up to funny business, nor is he an incompetent and so one must conclude that he simply pushed the envelope just a hint too far. It was a shame that Webber had to pay the bill for Giancarlo's error. Fizzy did try to suggest that the Australia had left him no room for error but that is not really a good excuse for making the error! The FIA Stewards gave the Roman a warning perhaps to make Webber feel a bit better. It did not improve his points tally nor did it give him his first F1 podium. It was probably all the more galling because Mark had to watch his team mate Heidfeld pick up the spoils.
Behind Nick was Montoya but he was so far back that he was never really a threat. It might have been Coulthard but for the secret spin but it is unlikely that David could have hoped for more than that. Ralf struggled home to fifth, his car less than delightful to drive after the incident with Webber. He may have been disappointed but the mood at Toyota was such that he did not seem to be too upset. Coulthard followed him home and then we had the scramble for seventh with Raikkonen the impressive one of the three, having made up a huge amount of ground (and set the fastest lap) after his blow-out. If McLarens can travel that fast, then it must be only a matter of time before we see Kimi winning a race this year.
Michael Schumacher's glum weekend ended and the team admitted that it was all a big mess. There were no excuses. The enemy was stronger etc etc. Bridgestone admitted that it was the fault of the tyres, which was good of them. However, we would be surprised not to see Ferrari trying to rush the new car out for Bahrain. Michael's fastest lap was 12th quickest and 1.5secs off the pace of the fastest lap. Even if the new car is half a second faster Michael could end up a second off the pace if the tyres are not sorted. There was, on this occasion, no bull at Ferrari
Over at Red Bull there were lots of happy faces. Each driver has scored in both races and the team has 11 points in the bag and is third in the World Championship. It may not stay that way forever but it is a hell of a good start.
Massa came home a miserable 10th, a lap down. A further lap behind him we had Narain Karthikeyan doing another solid job. Tiago Monteiro was a lap behind his team mate in the second Jordan but he stayed out of the way, which was good.
A lap behind him was Christijan Albers scoring his first F1 finish. Alas Patrick Friesacher in the second Minardi had no such luck. He went off when one of the BAR-Honda's dumped its lunch in front of him.
No-one dared go too close to the BAR pit after the race but Jenson Button was tracked down and remarked that he is ever so slightly annoyed as hell at what has been going on. Another bad race or two (and remember both BARs will be down 10 places on the grid at the next race) and Button's future with the team will be in doubt as they need him to score a pile of points by midsummer if the team is to stop him heading off to Williams in 2006.
Roll on Bahrain.