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Malaysia 2008: Unstoppable Kimi sends out warning
23 March 2008
Kimi Raikkonen catapulted Ferrari back into the world title fight following the Prancing Horse's disastrous season-opening Australian Grand Prix just seven days ago, by storming to an unchallenged victory in Malaysia as McLaren wilted in the searing heat.
The Finn's second Sepang triumph came on the back of the first time he had begun the race from the front row around the demanding Hermann Tilke-designed circuit, and cemented team-mate Felipe Massa's post-qualifying assertion that the Scuderia's championship challenge would begin in Malaysia. It did, and with a vengeance.
With a 20 chance of rain, a mixture of tyre choices, the McLaren-Mercedes' down the order following their qualifying penalty and Lewis Hamilton and former team-mate Fernando Alonso close together on the grid for the first time since the title-deciding showdown at Interlagos last year, the potential for fireworks was immense.
As the lights went out the two Ferraris made similar starts from the front row of the grid, and it was only Massa keeping his foot in that prevented an aggressive Raikkonen from squeezing past. Behind them Jarno Trulli forced Nick Heidfeld wide into turn one, resulting in the Italian slipping back behind the second BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica to fourth and the German dropping all the way down to tenth.
Fernando Alonso was another to lose out, exiting the first corner in ninth, but the two McLarens were both clearly intent on gaining as much ground as quickly as possible, with Heikki Kovalainen plumping for the inside line and team-mate Lewis Hamilton – from the grippier side of the grid – the outside.
It was the Briton's tactic which would work better, as the world championship leader made up positions around the outside into turn one, and seized another one from Trulli later around the opening tour, demoting the Toyota ace to fifth.
Further around lap one, Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sébastien Bourdais became the race's first casualty as he flew off the road at turn six and beached his STR2B in the gravel trap, what the Frenchman phlegmatically rued 'part of the learning process'. There was similar misery for Toyota's Timo Glock, whose baptism of fire continued apace as the F1 returnee found himself harpooned into retirement by fellow former GP2 champion Nico Rosberg in turn 14. The Williams star pitted for a new nose, before rejoining right at the back of the field.
With the two Ferraris seamlessly pulling away out front – separated by a near-constant gap of around 1.6 seconds – it was fourth-placed Mark Webber, who had made an excellent start in the Red Bull Racing from row three, who became the McLarens' principal spoiler. Further back Webber's team-mate David Coulthard, Alonso and the recovering Heidfeld provided the race's principal early action as they squabbled over eighth place and the final points-scoring position.
With Coulthard suffering from understeer and Heidfeld feinting left and right, Alonso dived to the left of the RBR heading down the back straight, and in a flash the BMW ace both saw and seized his chance, ducking into the Scot's slipstream before pulling alongside on the right as the cars ran three-abreast down towards turn 15.
It would prove to be a case of 'he who dares wins', as Heidfeld kept the inside line for the corner and snatched two places in one go, with the combative Alonso and Coulthard – who will celebrate his 37th birthday this week – continuing to go at it hammer-and-tongs side-by-side along the start-finish straight and through turns one and two – almost touching wheels at one point – before the Spaniard finally made the move stick.
With the McLarens showing no real speed – Hamilton lapping a full two seconds slower than the pace-setting Ferraris – fans witnessed the unexpected sight of Trulli's Toyota piling the pressure on the Melbourne winner, though once the Briton had got into his groove he began to inch clear again and take a look at Webber's Red Bull.
Hamilton's cause was aided as Webber became the first man to blink – entering the pit-lane absolutely on the ragged edge and almost on the grass – and as Massa came in next time around, Raikkonen was handed his chance.
In a scene not unlike that witnessed in Magny-Cours last year, the Finn immediately got the hammer down, setting a new fastest lap on Massa's in-lap before blitzing the first two sectors of his own. With the Brazilian – who had rejoined the fray behind Kovalainen – suffering a tardy out-lap, almost seven tenths of a second slower than Raikkonen's, the reigning world champion's efforts would just prove enough as he exited the pit-lane narrowly ahead of his team-mate. Job done.
That promoted Kubica into the lead with the McLarens second and third, but when Hamilton made his own stop disaster struck as there was a problem removing the right front wheel, and more than ten additional seconds were lost in the process. The 23-year-old rejoined the action sandwiched between Webber – another big loser in the first round of stops – and Heidfeld on the outer fringes of the points-scoring positions.
Ahead of the trio, Kovalainen was one of the main beneficiaries of the stops, jumping not only his team-mate but also Trulli and Webber to move into fourth, whilst Alonso failed to run as long as many had expected him to, the Renault slipping back outside of the top ten following his first pit visit.
Trulli's surprise form continued as the Italian homed in on Kovalainen, whilst up at the front, Raikkonen was now moving away from Massa at a considerable rate. Even more unnervingly for Maranello's competitors, the only man remotely close to the scarlet machines' pace was Rosberg – all the way down in 17th spot.
The race's next major drama came as Massa dropped his Ferrari between turns seven and eight – as, in the words of Martin Brundle, 'ambition got ahead of adhesion' in the absence of traction control this year – beaching his F2008 firmly in the gravel trap and promoting the impressive Kubica up into second and Kovalainen into a potential podium position, though with the persistent Trulli still crawling all over the back of him. Worse still for Massa, the retirement made it two races in 2008, and nul points. All of a sudden, Ferrari's demonstration run was beginning to look just a little shaky.
Race leader Raikkonen's advantage over Kubica coming into the pits for the second time, though, was an eminently comfortable 24 seconds, with further back Kovalainen continuing to fend off Trulli's advances and Webber continuing to impede Hamilton's charge. Behind the pair Heidfeld's threat was beginning to recede, the BMWs seemingly undergoing a role reversal of their Melbourne fortunes, when it was Kubica who had faded away as the race wore on and his German team-mate making all the headlines up on the second step of the rostrum.
Webber's second stop finally released a relieved Hamilton into clear air, and with Trulli coming in shortly afterwards, the Melbourne race-winner knew he had to get his head down in an effort to close down the 13-second gap separating him from the Italian.
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.