Michael Schumacher made it six of the best with success in Sepang, but the Malaysian rain gods made him work for what turned out to be another comfortable victory.

The German made the best of his pole position to lead away when the lights went out, and appeared to have made a clean getaway - unlike those behind him. In a race dominated by early lap incidents, the first came as soon as turn one, when a slow starting Rubens Barrichello misjudged a gap to the inside of an inspired Ralf Schumacher, and spun the Williams driver through 180 degrees in front of the pack. After his fantastic qualifying performance, this was less than Schumacher Jr deserved, but he was soon to be helped in his recovery.

As Melbourne rookie sensation Kimi Raikkonen coasted to a first lap halt, and Eddie Irvine recovered from his own turn one spin, the rest of the field began to string out in Michael Schumacher's wake, with Barrichello surviving in second, but followed by David Coulthard and Jos Verstappen - up from eighth and 18th respectively!

Next to go was Olivier Panis, whose Honda engine blew in spectacular fashion, pitching the BAR backwards through its own flame into the gravel trap, and leaving a coating of oil across the turn as the leaders approached on their third lap. To make matters worse, the wet warm-up conditions returned with a vengeance on just the part of the circuit, creating a lethal mix of oil and water and turning half of the circuit into a veritable skid pan.

First to arrive, Schumacher and Barrichello flew off the road, although both managed to circumnavigate the gravel trap and rejoin - remarkably without ceding too may places. Further back, others were less lucky, reducing the field by five cars at a stroke, and delaying many more. Those to depart the fray at this point included Jacques Villeneuve - compounding a miserable two minutes for BAR - Nick Heidfeld - doing likewise for Sauber - Enrique Bernoldi, Juan Montoya and Irvine.

Montoya had already been left stranded on the grid at the second time of asking as the incident list began even before the first green flag appeared. With Heinz-Harald Frentzen crawling around the initial warm-up, Giancarlo Fisichella wrong-slotted on the reformed grid, bringing out the red flags. The Italian was duly relegated to the rear of the field at the second start, but Montoya was less lucky, going nowhere when the formation lap began except back into the pits under marshal power. a quick sprint to the Williams garage saw him take to the spare but, as it turned out, he needn't have bothered.

The rain storm, despite falling on just one half of the circuit - turns one to four, amongst others, remained dry, was of monsoon proportions, and it was not too long before the organisers decided to call for the safety car as rooster tails of spray billowed behind even the slowest cars. When things finally shook out, it was Jarno Trulli at the head of the field - although the Italian would immediately fall foul of the conditions, leaving Coulthard, the first of all to stop after seeing both Ferraris skate off, at the head of the field.

Behind the Scot the order constituted Frentzen, the remarkable Verstappen, Mika Hakkinen - who had made a poor start - Trulli, Alesi, Fisichella, Ralf and Gaston Mazzacane before we got to the first Ferrari. Barrichello, rejoining the track quicker than his team leader, had duly made it back to the pits first, but was then delayed by a long stop while tyre choice was debated and debris removed from his sidepods. Schumacher fared even worse, being trapped behind the Brazilian in the pit queue at Ferrari, and rejoining a lowly eleventh.

The deliberation among the Scuderia was immediately proved worthwhile, however, when the safety car finally pulled off. Schumacher had opted for intermediates - while those around him plumped for full wets in light of the downpour. Aware that it had stopped raining fairly quickly, the reigning champion decided to take his chances on half-cut rubber, and the fact that the Malaysian sun would ultimately dry the circuit, to swap initial grip for longevity in his tyres.

The move worked to perfection and, with only half of the circuit under water, Schumacher was able to make up places hand over fist. Barrichello succumbed in short order, the victim of original team orders which had Schumacher on a lighter fuel load, but the German made equally easy meat of those in front of him as he sliced his way to the front in just six laps, passing Frentzen and Coulthard around the outside as the F2001 proved its undoubted ability.

Once in front, the domination continued. Five seconds up the road in the blink of an eye, Schumacher quickly made a mockery of those who had chosen full wets. Hakkinen, among them, was lapping some six seconds slower than the German, despite the wet parts of the circuit still holding a lot of water, and the race, weather pending, was as good as over.

Barrichello followed Schumacher's lead, carving through the pack to assume second spot in the same time, and gradually opening a gap back to the now third-placed Coulthard. The Scot had been unable to do anything about either Ferrari, and soon became the target for those chasing him down.

Prime among these was Verstappen who, as in Canada last year, proved that he is no mean driver in adverse conditions. Having put the Arrows in a higher-than-accustomed position at the original start, the Dutchman set about attempting to keep himself in a point-scoring position. He ran second to DC before Schumacher and Barrichello arrived to spoil the party, then fended off the advances of Hakkinen, Frentzen and Ralf for much of the mid-part of the race.

On one occasion, having been thwarted at every turn for some ten laps, the Finn finally found a way through on the inside running down to the final turn, only for Jos to turn the A22 on a sixpence and reclaim the optimum line. Surprised by the move, Hakkinen ran wide, allowing Frentzen through in a move that would prove decisive in the final reckoning.

Sadly for Verstappen, this would not include him, as an out-of-synch pit strategy saw the orange-and-black car dive in for fuel and tyres with just twelve laps remaining. The necessity dropped him to seventh, with too little time to regain the ground lost to those who stopped before him. It was a sad lack of reward for one of the drives of the Dutchman's career, but proved, perhaps, that Arrows was right to retain him alongside the disappointing Bernoldi.

Hakkinen's presence in the battle for fourth was due, in part, to McLaren's decision to put him back onto 'slicks'. Initially appearing foolish, as the move brought no gain in lap times compared to Schumacher, he gradually got closer to the pace and, along with Ralf and Frentzen, who also made the switch, gained ground on Coulthard.

Ralf was the man on the move now, highlighting the power of the new BMW V10 by again being fastest through the speed traps as he moved to the head of the fourth-place battle and made his break for third. Gaining at around a second a lap on Coulthard, the German appeared a good bet to reclaim his starting position, but was ultimately thwarted by Williams' strategy, which forced him to stop for a final time 16 laps from home, while the McLaren soldiered on.

Towards the back, Trulli never recovered from his pace car off, trailing Verstappen in eighth, while Alesi, Burti and Mazzacane were well spaced at the tail of the top ten. Neither Benetton graced itself again, with Fisichella's embarrassing afternoon being halted by retirement and Jenson Button's learning curve being punctuated by a couple of spins as he rolled home twelfth - ahead of both European Minardis, which showed commendable relaibility once again, despite Tarso Marques' losing a tread from one of his Michelins.

When the final round of pit calls had played themselves out, the order at the front remained fairly static to the end, with just the recovering Ralf and Hakkinen - who had both dropped to seventh before regaining ground as Verstappen stopped - locked in battle. Dodging the backmarkers - the few of whom were left after the lap three debacle - Ralf used all of his BMW horses to fend off the McLaren, pipping Hakkinen to that extra point by just four-tenths at the flag.

Ahead of them, Frentzen, Coulthard, Barrichello and Schumacher Sr were all comfortably spaced, with the field only closing up on the run to the flag as those ahead eased off. Hakkinen kept himself amused by setting a string of fastest laps, but no-one could touch Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher thus cruised to a second imperious victory of the season, this time heading Barrichello and Coulthard in a reversal of the Melbourne podium, while the rest of the top six came in over forty seconds adrift. The German's fears of a McLaren revival on raceday had proven completely unfounded and, if Woking does not get its act together soon, any thoughts of a championship challenge to the German will go in a similar fashion.

Race Result:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 55 laps 1hr 47mins 34.801secs
2. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +23.660secs
3. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +28.555secs
4. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Honda +46.543secs
5. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +48.233secs
6. Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +48.606secs

7. Jos Verstappen Holland Arrows-Asiatech +1min 21.560secs
8. Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda +1 lap
9. Jean Alesi France Prost-Acer +1 lap
10. Luciano Burti Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap

11. Gaston Mazzacane Argentina Prost-Acer +2 laps
12. Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault +2 laps
13. Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European +3 laps
14. Tarso Marques Brazil Minardi-European +4 laps

Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault 31 laps completed
Rtd Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas 3 laps completed
Rtd Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech 3 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 3 laps completed
Rtd Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth 3 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 3 laps completed
Rtd Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda 1 lap completed
Rtd Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas 0 laps completed

Fastest lap: Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 1min 40.962secs



Loading Comments...