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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Practice Sessions for the Malaysian Grand Prix

Friday Practice in Malaysia was another inconclusive event, apart from proving that the Ferraris are still fastest. Felipe Massa was quickest in both sessions with Raikkonnen giving his impression of a man merely waiting until it counts before revealing his hand. No prizes for guessing who will be on pole, particularly as the team maintain there will be no engine changes this time round.

The speed of the Renault and Williams cars was interesting, even though both teams insisted that it meant nothing. No doubt they will be a little slower with race fuel and tires but the signs are still hopeful that things are improving for them.

David

David Coulthard in the Red Bull RB3

In contrast, BMW hit problems, finding it difficult to set the cars up correctly and slipping down the time sheets as a result. McLaren too lagged a bit behind their usual performance but that will prove a temporary thing, I’m sure.

The award for consistency has to go to Honda and Toyota, both mystified as to why their cars behave so badly and outpaced by their “B teams”. It must be very tempting for Toyota to borrow Alex Wurz from Williams to find out what they’re doing wrong. Honda, unfortunately, does not even have that possibility although, if Colin Kolles manages to stop Super Aguri running last year’s Hondas, the parent company could always ask for their ball back.

In qualifying we can expect it to be business as usual, with the Ferraris at the front, McLaren just behind and either BMW or Renault thereafter. Williams should be a little closer, perhaps with both cars this time, and Toyota will fight with Red Bull and Super Aguri for the next spots.

It sounds as though the season is becoming predictable but I think all that will change once they get to Europe. Expect some sudden improvements in some of the teams at that point and some shuffling of the order as a result.

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Raikkonen’s Big Worry

Speculation over who will become Ferrari’s number one driver continues, with the Raikkonen ranks swelling after his win in Australia but the Massa devotees still expecting there to be a fight when their boy gets a car that doesn’t break in qualifying.

Kimi

Raikkonen in Australia

But I think Massa will be the least of Kimi’s worries at the moment – more to the point is that his engine temperatures shot up in the last few laps of the Australian GP. No damage was caused but it does put a question mark over the engine’s ability to survive another GP.

He could play safe by taking an engine change and the ten-position penalty that goes with it, of course. Which might be the wiser option, given the inevitability of Kimi qualifying on pole in Malaysia. No driver likes to have to fight his way to the front from tenth position but that shouldn’t be too big a problem for the Finn – he’s used to doing the same in an uncompetitive McLaren, after all.

The downside of the tactic is that it increases the risk of someone defending his position too vigorously and pushing Raikkonen off the track. But that is part of racing and can happen even if you’re leading and lapping an inattentive back marker. And how much more risky is it to start a race with an engine that was beginning to give trouble at the end of the last one? So I would say that Kimi should take the engine change and give us an entertaining drive through the field.

What, you think that Massa might be the fly in the ointment of that strategy? Get real – Felipe has improved out of all recognition in the last year, it’s true, but he is still not in the same class as Raikkonen. The Finn will come past him like a train and he won’t need team orders to do it.

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