Further down the field, meanwhile, Vettel's engine going up in smoke on lap 40 – a further example of Ferrari's fragile early-season reliability – saw the young German join countryman Adrian Sutil
in retirement, after the Force India
pilot had pulled off at turn nine earlier in the grand prix.
Webber again lost out in the second round of stops as he rejoined behind backmarker Takuma Sato, who it took the Aussie some time to clear and whose obstinacy in being lapped enabled Heidfeld to get past. Hamilton was again the first of the two McLarens to pit second time around – switching over to the harder tyres for the final twelve laps – and crucially he held his position over Heidfeld, whilst Kovalainen's stop a lap later saw the Finn rejoin comfortably ahead of Trulli, dashing Toyota's podium hopes.
Indeed, the major interest in the closing stages of the race was the gap between Trulli and Hamilton behind, as the 2007 vice-champion pushed hard to put pressure on the Italian, taking increasing chunks of time out of the fourth-placed man's lead. With eight laps to go the deficit stood at 4.7 seconds, and Trulli's earlier pace was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
Further back, Alonso was similarly beginning to hound Webber for seventh place, closing right in on the back of the RB4 as the chequered flag loomed. A little ahead, Hamilton's pursuit of an increasingly ragged-looking Trulli had cut the deficit to under three seconds, forcing the Toyota
pilot – who memorably lost third place to Rubens Barrichello
in the final corner of the 2004 French Grand Prix, leading to a sizeable falling-out with Renault
MD Flavio Briatore and his premature departure from the Régie
later that season – to raise his game.
When the pair began the final tour they were practically nose-to-tail, as Heidfeld unexpectedly produced the fastest lap of the race and Jenson Button
went for a spot of late-race grass-cutting in the Honda, but up front nobody could hold a candle to Raikkonen, who crossed the line some 19.5 seconds ahead of Kubica for his second Malaysian victory and 16th of his F1 career, equalling no less a man than the great Sir Stirling Moss.
Kubica's lonely race to the runner-up position nevertheless marked the finest result of the Pole's fledgling career in the top flight – and only his second rostrum appearance following the third place he achieved at Monza in 2006 – whilst Kovalainen's first podium for McLaren
was somewhat overshadowed by the gaping 38.4 seconds that separated the young Finn from his compatriot at the chequered flag.
Trulli held off Hamilton for a superb fourth place, with Heidfeld coming home sixth ahead of the duelling Webber and Alonso, the former opening Red Bull's points-scoring account for the year with seventh spot.
Behind them, the final running order was completed by Coulthard, Button, Nelsinho Piquet (Renault), Giancarlo Fisichella
– who enjoyed a strong race for Force India
–Rubens Barrichello (Honda), Rosberg, Super Aguri duo Anthony Davidson
and Sato and Williams' Kazuki Nakajima.
All eyes were on the race-winner, though, who only seven days after Ferrari
had appeared almost amateurish in Melbourne, made the Italian outfit's competitors in Malaysia look somewhat second-rate.