by Russell Atkins

A McLaren victory in Melbourne last weekend and a Woking one-two in the Malaysian Grand Prix twelve months ago - the omens would appear to be distinctly promising for the Silver Arrows as Formula 1 returns to the Sepang International Circuit for round two of the 2008 world championship campaign.

Though the formbook is not yet entirely clear - with the chaotic Australian Grand Prix masking the competitiveness of certain teams and over-emphasising that of others - it would seem fairly safe to say that McLaren and Ferrari are once more slightly ahead of the field, though which of them is the absolute front-runner is rather harder to discern just yet.

Whilst Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari - when the Finn was in clear air as opposed to off the track or stuck behind slower cars - looked devastatingly quick around the Albert Park circuit on occasion, it was the McLaren boys who set the race's two fastest laps, team new boy Heikki Kovalainen narrowly pipping Lewis Hamilton to the honour on his racing debut for the squad, with the reigning world champion unable to get any closer than within half a second of the duo's best efforts.

Though Kovalainen would ultimately slip back to fifth after losing out under the final safety car period and his misdemeanour with the pit-lane speed limiter, the significance of McLaren's performance and result Down Under - especially with Ferrari scoring just a lone point in the season-opener - has not been lost on anyone inside the team.

The Silver Arrows have triumphed twice in Sepang since the inaugural race there held back in 1999, with a further four podium finishes and the current lap record to their name. Kovalainen in particular has special memories of Sepang after notching up his first point there twelve months ago in what he called his 'first proper race in F1'.

With a five-point lead in the constructors' title chase and 13 in-hand over their arch rivals from Maranello, McLaren is in the driving seat as it heads to Malaysia, but it is equally clear that nobody inside the team is taking even the slightest thing for granted.

Ferrari, meanwhile, are determined to banish the memories of a nightmarish Australian outing with victory in Malaysia. Both Scuderia pilots made a handful of costly mistakes in Oz, with Raikkonen only lucking into a point following Rubens Barrichello's disqualification. The Finn is a past winner in Sepang - ironically enough with McLaren in 2003

Team-mate Massa also committed a litany of errors Down Under, with a coming-together with Red Bull Racing's David Coulthard that he classified as a 'racing incident' proving to be the defining moment of what the Brazilian called 'a crazy race and a very frustrating day'. Following the race he vowed that Ferrari's 2008 world championship campaign would henceforth have to begin in Malaysia, as he bids to erase Melbourne from his memory.

BMW arguably emerged as the third force once more in Melbourne, despite having displayed mixed performance throughout winter testing after the new F1.08 endured something of a troubled birth.

Whilst Robert Kubica was the Munich and Hinwil-based squad's qualifying star - only a late error preventing him from snatching pole position away from Hamilton - it was team-mate Nick Heidfeld who shone in the race, achieving the fourth runner-up spot of his F1 career. The experienced German is now hoping to stand up on the rostrum again in what he describes as one of his favourite races of the year, whilst Kubica is aiming to repay the team's fans' enthusiasm and support with a strong result in chief sponsor Petronas' home event.

Aside from McLaren, Williams was the only outfit to register a double-points finish in the season curtain-raiser, with Nico Rosberg earning a well-deserved maiden podium finish in third spot and team-mate Kazuki Nakajima ultimately being classified sixth, leaving the multiple championship-winning Grove-based concern sitting second in the constructors' standings. Having now developed a taste for celebration champagne, the young German clearly wants more, whilst the Japanese GP2 Series graduate is keen to make further progress in what will be just the third grand prix of his fledgling F1 career.

Renault's general mediocrity Down Under was saved only by Fernando Alonso's combative brilliance and unwillingness to ever say die - an approach that earned the Spaniard former double world champion fourth place in Melbourne, though similarly exceptional circumstances apart he is unlikely to repeat that feat in Sepang, let alone replicate his 2007 victory there. Rookie team-mate Nelsinho Piquet, meanwhile, will surely be happy simply to have a more competitive outing than that which he endured on his grand prix debut last weekend, when the young Brazilian began from the last row of the grid and ran towards the back of the field before retiring with accident damage just over halfway through.

Toyota may have left Australia empty-handed, but the big budget Japanese manufacturer at least had the satisfaction of Jarno Trulli's strong run up in the top six in the race's early stages. Team-mate Timo Glock was somewhat less fortunate still, crashing out spectacularly on lap 43, but the Cologne-based squad seems nevertheless to be in for a brighter time of things than was the case last year, should the TF108's early performance and development be sustained.

The same can arguably be said of Red Bull Racing, which endured a similar time of things to Toyota in the season-opener, with one car heavily damaged - that of David Coulthard following hefty contact with Massa's Ferrari - and the other retiring early on. RBR has not troubled the scorers in Malaysia since its first race there three years ago, but the Milton Keynes-based outfit will clearly be keen to open its 2008 account this time around, following its luckless outing four days ago.

Honda, by contrast, far exceeded expectations Down Under, and Barrichello looked to have scored his first points in 18 starts until he was excluded from sixth place for exiting the pit-lane whilst the red light was still showing during the third and final safety car period. Both the Brazilian and team-mate Jenson Button could take hope, however, from a much more encouraging start to the campaign than the Brackley-based concern suffered last year - and a far more impressive performance than winter testing of the new RA108 challenger had suggested would be the case.

Scuderia Toro Rosso was another team that was out of luck in Melbourne, with F1 rookie and four-time Champ Car king S?bastien Bourdais agonisingly denied a dream fourth place finish on his grand prix debut by engine failure almost within sight of the chequered flag. Team-mate Sebastian Vettel was one of the victims of the first lap shenanigans that removed a number of drivers from the fray, and though such a fortuitous scenario is unlikely to repeat itself in Sepang, the pair can nevertheless be counted upon to give it their all to hoist STR up amongst the scorers once more.

Force India ultimately flattered to deceive in Melbourne, with Giancarlo Fisichella never given a chance to show what he might have been able to accomplish in the race after being unceremoniously torpedoed out of the action into the first corner, ironically by Nelsinho Piquet, a man driving the car he had occupied this time last year. Whether the former Spyker squad's top ten practice promise will be fulfilled in Sepang remains to be seen.

Super Aguri, finally, will probably merely be happy to be on the grid at all, though Takuma Sato's speed Down Under - hounding the top ten before his retirement on lap 32 - pointed to what the Japanese minnows may be able to achieve should sufficient funding be found to enable the squad to truly compete in 2008. Until then, though, he and team-mate Anthony Davidson look set to bring up the rear once more, only catching a glimpse of McLaren, Ferrari et al when the leaders come up to lap them in their rear-view mirrors.

Qualifying for the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix will be held at 6am on Saturday, 22 March, with the race due to get underway at 7am the following day.

 

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