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.