Kimi Raikkonen elevated himself to the ranks of grand prix winner - and wiped away the tag of Formula One nearly-man - by winning the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang in oppressive conditions.

Although the expected rain and thunderstorms did not materialise during the 56-lap encounter, the usual heat and humidity played their part as drivers climbed from cars dripping with perspiration, but Raikkonen, dubbed 'Iceman' by his McLaren colleagues, kept his cool to win by almost 40 seconds.

Starting from seventh on the grid, the Finn was able to escape the melee that ensued at the first corner as the first few rows squeezed together and Michael Schumacher made an optimistic lunge inside Jarno Trulli. The German, trying to avoid a fast starting David Coulthard through the first right-hander was left with little room by the time he homed in on the left turn that followed and, with Trulli already heading across his bows, caught the Renault's rear quarter, spinning it across the pack to rest on the outside verge.

Although the Italian escaped without too much damage, and Schumacher continued for a couple of laps before succumbing to the need for a front wing change, those in their wake did not get off so lightly. The concertina effect saw Jos Verstappen make contact with one of the Jaguars - most likely Antonio Pizzonia, as the Brazilian then found himself cannoned into the back of Juan Montoya's Williams-BMW, breaking its rear wing clean off. All three repaired to the pits, losing at least a lap in the process, while Trulli picked the remains of the R4's front wing out of his cockpit and rejoined, red mist fully descended.

For the second year in a row, Montoya and Schumacher found themselves pit-bound after the first lap, although this time they had not been brought together in the incident. While the German was in and out in just over ten seconds, however, his Colombian adversary was stationery for more than two laps, dropping him to the rear of the field.

There had already been two casualties by this point, with Jacques Villeneuve not taking the warm-up lap when his BAR-Honda refused to move off the line, and Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan doing likewise three minutes later. Villeneuve made a valiant attempt to join the race, sprinting up pit-lane to find the spare car as the rest of the field set off on its parade, but, when he got there, the Canadian was left sitting in the pits as the replacement's gearbox refused to select anything.

Fisichella, meanwhile, had successfully joined the rest of the grid on its warm-up, but became confused when returning to his starting place and - not for the first time in Malaysia - lined up in the wrong slot. He attempted to make a late switch of position, including a spot of reversing, but it was all in vain as the car decided it had had enough and shut down.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber was also stranded on the grid, but only for a moment, as it joined the Toyota of Cristiano da Matta - which had started from the pits - at the back of the field.

At the front of the field, surprise polesitter Fernando Alonso had not let the pressure get to him, and calmly led the field into - and out of - turn one, before streaking away at a rate of knots that confirmed suspicions that the Renaults were not exactly the heaviest cars in qualifying. Anyone expecting the Spaniard to pit inside ten laps, however, was to be proved wrong, as Alonso led for 14 laps before having to call in for fuel and tyres.

In that time, both McLarens had had the chance to try second for size, although Raikkonen only seized the position when team-mate Coulthard, having survived the Trulli-Schumacher brush in front of him, pull off and retired with less than three laps under his belt. The Melbourne winner, sensing an opportunity to double his points tally at Sepang, was not a happy man when he returned back to the pits, with the Mercedes engine and its electronics looking likely scapegoats for his exit.

Once into second, Raikkonen initially made little impression on the leader, but gradually began to reel him in to the tune of a few tenths each lap towards the end of Alonso's tenure. When the Spaniard finally stopped, Raikkonen enjoyed a 14-second lead over the best placed Ferrari, which Rubens Barrichello had thrust back up into second, having been delayed by his team-mate's errant first lap lunge.

The Brazilian's hopes of claiming good points were heightened when, having been on the end of the stewards' wrath in Australia, he observed a penalty being dished out to Schumacher for his part in the skirmish. Already with one stop - in which he took advantage of the wing change to fill right up on fuel - the world champion then had to complete a drive-thru punishment, which dropped him to a lowly 14th on the road.

With not enough time for Raikkonen to build a significant advantage over the Ferrari, Barrichello acceded to the lead when the Finn made his first stop, on lap 19, but only held position for three more laps, setting up a tantalising battle between the two 'number twos' for the rest of the race. Raikkonen re-assumed control on lap 22, while Barrichello dropped back behind Alonso who, despite predictions, was continuing to hang in with the leading duo.

The Spaniard had qualified on pole despite the onset of a 'flu-like fever, and later reported that the symptoms had continued to linger throughout possibly the most gruelling event of the season. However, the 21-year old showed remarkable powers of concentration and stamina as he barely put a foot wrong in his dogged pursuit.

His progress was serene in contrast with that of his aggrieved team-mate. Trulli had avoided having to make an early stop for repairs, but had to battle his way through the midfield before breaking back into the points positions. His first stop, on lap 16 two later than Alonso then dropped him back to ninth spot, a mighty handful of revs before getting away underlining his frustration. Ralph Firman's Jordan did little to lighten the mood, as the Briton christened a promising race day display by fighting the Renault for position, before Trulli was released by the rookie's pit-stop to home in on Jenson Button and Ralf Schumacher ahead of him.

The trio ran almost in 'tandem' through the mid-section of the race, with Button and Trulli closing on the German as they battled. Schumacher had perhaps benefited most from the scrap at the first corner and, having again qualified badly via the single-lap shootout, found himself almost immediately in the top eight. With Button and Trulli baring down on the back of the Williams, battle was joined for fourth and only interrupted when the time came for second - and, in most cases, final - pit-stops.

Button was the first to blink, dropping out of the train on lap 34, but almost coasting into his pit-box as he struggled to find gears. The team nevertheless turned the BAR around in 10.8secs, and the Briton appeared to have no problems pulling away and rejoining the fray.

Trulli was right on Schumacher's tail when he got the call to stop, and was slowed slightly when he almost ran into the back of the Williams instead of taking the wide line into the pit-lane. Like Button, the feisty Italian had problems once he reached for the speed limiter, the Renault appearing to stop at the white line instead of simply slowing and, when Trulli reached his mechanics, the fuel filler car was shut tight - a sign that the restrictor had deactivated. A long wait for a screwdriver meant that the R23 was stationery for an endless 20+secs before he restarted, although this was still 'good' enough for sixth on the road.

Schumacher's stop, timed at around eight seconds, was problem-free, enabling the German to keep hold of fourth, but there were problems elsewhere. Whether the heat and humidity had got into the works remains to be seen, but both Saubers struggled to get away at the first time of asking, and Mark Webber struggled to find a cog when he needed one. Olivier Panis managed to get out of the pits, but lasted little more than half a lap before his car slowed, and Firman, too, found himself in trouble, his impressive race seemingly at a sorry end until three of his crew got hold of the Jordan's rear wing and shoved him back into action. The Briton was the only man to make a one-stop call, eventually bringing the sole Ford-powered EJ13 home in tenth.

Unusually, Bridgestone and Ferrari also appeared to have made a poor judgement call, as Barrichello's first pit-stop was followed by a rapid couple of laps.... then no further progress. Opting for the softer of the two Japanese compounds, the Brazilian paid the penalty when his progress was halted by a drop off in lap times that allowed Raikkonen to make his decisive break.

By the time of his second stop, the Finn was comfortably in control, and had enough time to get in and out of the pits ahead of the Ferrari. He then underlined the progress McLaren has made between the original and 'D'-spec MP4-17s by eking out a few more seconds over Barrichello, even though the team was hanging out the 'easy' board along with his other information.

Once he had taken on his final load of fuel and rubber, Barrichello was able to hold onto second, Alonso now half a minute in arrears, leaving the focus of attention to fall, once again, on the battle for the minor placings.

Although Ralf Schumacher appeared to have fourth sewn up while he stayed ahead of Button and Trulli, a similarly monikered Ferrari pilot was making ground on all three. The world champion, despite now having made three stops - including his penalty - was right on Trulli's tale by lap 41 and, heading into the scene of their earlier brush, outfumbled the Italian after making it three abreast down the main straight. With the Ferrari again on the outside, Trulli attempted to hold a tighter line, only to run wide and allow Schumacher down the inside.

The Ferrari then set off after Button, and scythed inside the Briton at the final corner of the same lap. The BAR driver at least made a better effort at defending his place than he had twelve months previously, but still had no answer to the champion. It later transpired, however, that Schumacher was running far lighter than his two rivals, and his final stop, on lap 44, left him with it all to do again.

Fastest lap on his first full tour out of the pits showed that he meant business, despite the fight being - by Schumacher standards - for slim pickings, and battle was rejoined with Trulli by lap 51. The Italian almost made things easy this time around, spinning in his close pursuit of Button as they rounded the final hairpin and letting Schumacher get to within momentary touching distance before easing out a gap again.

Button now appeared safe in fifth place but, incredibly, suffered the same fate as in 2002 - when he was Trulli's team-mate at Renault. Going into the last lap, his BAR slowed, allowing both his long-time combatants to gain a place before the chequered flag. While he was still able to score points, seventh was not what his drive had deserved.

Nick Heidfeld rounded out the point scorers after a largely unobtrusive race that saw him run briefly in third place after the first lap melee, while Sauber team-mate Frentzen snatched ninth from Firman after a run strewn with mishaps. Firman finished ahead of Cristiano da Matta, who continued his F1 learning process in a fine scrap with the Jordan and Sauber ahead of him, the luckless Montoya and Verstappen, who again brought his Minardi to the line.

Pizzonia, having helped ruin Montoya's afternoon, spun himself out of the race at the final turn with 14 laps to go, and joined team-mate Webber on the sidelines after the Jaguar team leader pulled into the garage with a sick engine. It was not a good day for the latest bunch of F3000 graduates, as Justin Wilson - having again been in the top ten in the opening laps - retired in pain after a trapped nerve added itself to the usual Sepang ailments. As the chequered flag fell, the lanky Briton was in the medical centre, attached to a drip.

Outside, without the aid of air conditioning, a breath of fresh air swept across Formula One. New rules or not, the sport has received something of a shake-up in recent weeks and, despite Ron Dennis' objections to the regulation changes, it is his men that have benefited most.

The latest winner - providing that waft of cool - brought a tear to tough guy Dennis' eye as, punching the air in almost unrestrained, un-Finnish, manner, Raikkonen crossed the line.

Race Result:

1.Kimi RaikkonenFinlandMcLaren-Mercedes56 laps1hr 32min 22.195secs
2.Rubens BarrichelloBrazilFerrari-Ferrari+39.286secs
3.Fernando AlonsoSpainRenault-Renault+1min 04.007secs
4.Ralf SchumacherGermanyWilliams-BMW+1min 28.026secs
5.Jarno TrulliItalyRenault-Renault+1 lap
6.Michael SchumacherGermanyFerrari-Ferrari+1 lap
7.Jenson ButtonBritainBAR-Honda+1 lap
8.Nick HeidfeldGermanySauber-Petronas+1 lap

9.Heinz-Harald FrentzenGermanySauber-Petronas+1 lap
10.Ralph FirmanBritainJordan-Ford+1 lap
11.Cristiano da MattaBrazilToyota-Toyota+1 lap
12.Juan MontoyaColombiaWilliams-BMW+3 laps
13.Jos VerstappenHollandMinardi-Cosworth+4 laps

RtdAntonio PizzoniaBrazilJaguar-Cosworth42 laps completed
RtdJustin WilsonBritainMinardi-Cosworth41 laps completed
RtdMark WebberAustraliaJaguar-Cosworth35 laps completed
RtdOlivier PanisFranceToyota-Toyota12 laps completed
RtdDavid CoulthardBritainMcLaren-Mercedes2 laps completed

DNSJacques VilleneuveCanadaBAR-Honda
DNSGiancarlo FisichellaItalyJordan-Ford

Fastest lap:

Michael SchumacherFerrari-Ferrari1min 36.412secslap 46


Loading Comments...