Despite pre-race predictions to the contrary, Fernando Alonso
was the man to beat on a hot and humid afternoon at Sepang, the Spaniard dominating the Malaysian Grand Prix
from start to finish.
After Kimi Raikkonen's scintillating performance in Melbourne was followed by pole position for team-mate Felipe Massa
in Malaysia, most money was on Ferrari
to add a second win of the season, but Alonso, McLaren
and rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton
had other ideas.
Right from the start, the silver machines took the fight to their scarlet rivals, Alonso positioning his car on the inside of poleman Massa on the run to turn one and braving it out to take the lead. Massa, perhaps pre-occupied with not hitting the back of the Mclaren, failed to notice the second MP4-22 nosing up his inside as they exited the turn, and Hamilton, having already despatched Raikkonen, stuck with the Brazilian around the outside of turn two to emerge in second place.
The Briton did not have the pace to run with Alonso, but his natural ability was enough to frustrate the two Ferraris, which became a permanent mirror-filler as they lapped at his heels.
Further back, the field escaped the usual turn 1-2 melee without anyone spearing off, but only had to wait until a couple of corners later, when Adrian Sutil
exited stage left. The Spyker team believed that the young German had made contact with another car in the first corner complex - most likely Tonio Liuzzi, as the Toro Rosso
driver pitted soon after for a new front wing - and then suffered a mechanical failure under braking for turn four. Jenson Button, struggling down the order with this year's recalcitrant Honda, was lucky not to become embroiled in Sutil's off, the F8-VII cannoning off the side of its luridly-liveried opponent en route
to the gravel trap.
Overnight rain had washed the track clean of the rubber the teams had diligently been laying down all weekend, but that did not prevent most of the frontrunners - Jarno Trulli
excepted - from starting on the softer of the two Bridgestone tyre options. Clearly unconcerned by the possibility of increased rear wear, Alonso continued to bolt into the distance, opening a gap back to team-mate Hamilton that increased by almost a second a lap.
Aware that the lighter-fuelled McLaren
could get too far in front for them to do anything about, Massa and Raikkonen began applying greater pressure to the rear of Hamilton's car. Massa was the more impetuous of the two, pulling alongside the McLaren
into turn one on laps four, five and six. Twice, Hamilton coolly rebuffed the Brazilian but, third time around, the slightest of errors allowed Massa a decent run up to turn four. As had happened a lap earlier, however, the Ferrari
man managed to out-brake himself but, where previously the two cars had merely swapped and re-swapped positions, this time he ploughed onto the grass, dropping not only back behind Hamilton, but also behind Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld, effectively scuppering his afternoon.
Raikkonen wasn't close enough to capitalise on the mistake and take a run at Hamilton, appearing content to remain a presence in the McLaren's mirrors until the first round of pit-stops, even though Alonso was, by now, some eight seconds up the road.
Spyker's afternoon got worse on lap seven, when Christijan Albers pulled in to retire with his car smoking heavily. Gearbox failure was blamed, the Dutchman having struggled back to the pits after becoming stuck in third, but causing the F8-VII to overheat. Robert Kubica
was also an early pit visitor, the Pole thought to be the victim of a faulty sensor that was playing havoc with his traction control, but otherwise the attrition rate was failing to live up to expectation.