Sunday, 23 March 2008

Malaysian Grand Prix Race Review

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen today hit back in the second race of the season with a crushing display in the tenth running of the Malaysian Grand Prix. It was a great response from the World Champion after an uncharacteristically scrappy race last weekend, and Ferrari showed today that they have pace in abundance. It was something of a role reversal from Melbourne as this time it was McLaren's turn to struggle all weekend long. The weekend wasn't a total loss as they recovered to a third and fifth place for Kovalainen and Hamilton respectively, helped in part by Felipe Massa's apparent ineptitude without traction control, but they were a long way off the pace of the Ferraris and were only really on pace with the BMWs and Toyotas. Robert Kubica put in probably the drive of the day to secure second spot on the podium, and was the only man even vaguely close to the Ferrari's pace throughout the race, showing that BMW are genuinely capable of living with the big boys at the front.

Off the start line pole-sitter Massa and Raikkonen both got away well and were neck and neck on the long run down to the first corner. Massa just managed to squeeze out Kimi and was free to lead from the front for the first stint of the race. Behind them there were surprisingly few real dramas through the first couple of turns. Those tricky corners are notorious for being car breakers as 22 cars go piling in there 3 abreast, but remarkably everyone got through unscathed. Lewis Hamilton was the big winner in the first corner shake up. He took the long route around the outside of 1, then dove past Alonso into 2, and as others dithered he emerged in fifth spot, a gain of four places. BMW's Nick Heidfeld was the big loser as he plummeted from fifth all the way down to tenth, completely ruining his strategy for the race. Replays showed that he came into light contact with Trulli in turn 1.

Sebastien Bourdais couldn't repeat his heroics from last week as he dropped it in turn 4, becoming the first retirement of the race. The other hero-to-zero performance today was Nico Rosberg. He took a remarkable podium last weekend but this time out he put his front wing into a gap that wasn't there and had it taken off by Timo Glock's rear wheel. This ended Glock's race and spoilt what little chance Rosberg had of points.

As the Ferrari's cruised off into the distance the best little battle of the race was shaping up in the midfield. Fernando Alonso was all over the back of David Coulthard's Red Bull with Heidfeld closing rapidly on the pair of them. Alonso had a couple of looks at the back of Coulthard, then decided to make his move on the long back straight down toward turn 15. DC went defensive, forcing Alonso to the outside. Heidfeld could smell blood and he picked up a great tow to get alongside both of them up the inside. They entered the braking zone for the final turn 3-wide, but Heidfeld had the line and took two places in one fell swoop. Coulthard found himself the meat in the sandwich and ended up losing out to Alonso too, as the Renault got better traction out of the final turn.

At the sharp end of the race the McLarens were struggling to make an impact on the race. Hamilton couldn't really get onto the back of Webber and Trulli seemed to be keeping Kovalainen comfortably at bay. Kubica in third was showing decent pace as he went out into third all on his own. He ended up having a pretty uneventful day and we didn't really see much of him on the screens, but the timing screens showed that he was putting in an excellent performance.

With the first pitstops looming Hamilton finally began to get to grips with his McLaren and was all over the back of Webber's Red Bull before the Australian came tearing into the pits at break-neck speed. This freed Hamilton up to set about putting himself into a position to challenge for the final podium spot. The Ferrari's both pitted within a couple of laps of each other, first Massa then Kimi. Kimi clearly made the extra couple of laps count as he emerged from his stop ahead of the young Brazilian and was now in the box seat to take the race victory. Then came one of the big moments of the race as things went horribly wrong for Hamilton in his first stop. There was a mystery problem with his right front wheel, as the wheel cover didn't appear to detach cleanly. Whether it was a problem with the wheel cover itself or the gun we will have to wait and see, but either way his stop lasted almost 20 seconds and undid all of the hard work that he had done in the first stint. Also the right front wheel cover was not fixed properly and was rotating with the wheel instead of remaining stationary. This may have caused Hamilton some troubles with the airflow around the front of the car, and possibly some cooling issues with the front right brake.

Heikki Kovalainen was now the lead McLaren after the stops, with Hamilton again queued up behind Webber with Heidfeld on his tail. McLaren caught their only break of the day thanks to Felipe Massa. Somehow he managed to spin his Ferrari on the exit of turn 8 whilst chasing his teammate. It looked like he may have just given it too much right foot and lost traction, but it is highly unusual to see a loss of traction in such a high speed, high downforce corner. He may have had some kind of failure at the rear of his car to save his blushes, but either way he is leaving the first two races without a single point to his name. Kovalainen was now on for podium spot with Kubica promoted into second, and that is how they ended the race.

Takuma Sato had a excursion across the gravel during this phase in what was a pretty scrappy race for the Japanese, and then the second round of pitstops were upon us. Everyone near the front had clean pitstops this time, with Hamilton and Heidfeld both managing to jump Webber who was unlucky to get caught up behind the recovering Sato on his outlaps. Webber's battle was now with Fernando Alonso's Renault.

At first Hamilton was unable to make any inroads on Trulli's advantage and seemed to be stuck battling with Heidfeld, but slowly but surely the harder tyres came to Hamilton and he set about a last gasp charge to try and rescue another championship point by taking Trulli. He was setting his fastest laps of the race at this point and was catching Trulli hand over fist, but he just ran out of laps with Trulli holding on to beat Lewis by the narrowest of margins. None of this was of much interest to the guys at the front as Raikkonen had his foot off the gas for the majority of the final stint and cruised home for a flawless victory, and arguably the easiest 10 points he will ever have earned. Kubica crossed the line a creditable 20 seconds behind him in P2, with Kovalainen a similar distance behind him in third. Webber held off Alonso for seventh, and Coulthard kept Button at bay for ninth after Button went careering across the grass late on.

So Ferrari have finally converted their winter testing pace into consistent race pace, and that will be a very worrying sight for McLaren, BMW and everyone else on the grid. If they carry on with so much pace then they are going to be hard to catch. It's just fortunate for the others that Felipe Massa appears incapable of finishing a race at the moment as that leaved McLaren still with a healthy lead in both championships. However, they clearly have their work cut out for them before Bahrain, as at this rate they may be battling BMW for best-of-the-rest honours if Ferrari continue to show such dominance.

Provisional Race Result

1. Raikkonen
2. Kubica
3. Kovalainen
4. Trulli
5. Hamilton
6. Heidfeld
7. Webber
8. Alonso
9. Coulthard
10. Button
11. Piquet
12. Fisichella
13. Barrichello
14. Rosberg
15. Davidson
16. Sato
17. Nakajima
Ret Vettel
Ret Massa
Ret Sutil
Ret Glock
Ret Bourdais

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