Despite pre-race predictions to the contrary, Fernando Alonso was the man to beat on a hot and humid afternoon at Sepang, the Spaniard dominating the Malaysian Grand Prix from start to finish.

After Kimi Raikkonen's scintillating performance in Melbourne was followed by pole position for team-mate Felipe Massa in Malaysia, most money was on Ferrari to add a second win of the season, but Alonso, McLaren and rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton had other ideas.

Right from the start, the silver machines took the fight to their scarlet rivals, Alonso positioning his car on the inside of poleman Massa on the run to turn one and braving it out to take the lead. Massa, perhaps pre-occupied with not hitting the back of the Mclaren, failed to notice the second MP4-22 nosing up his inside as they exited the turn, and Hamilton, having already despatched Raikkonen, stuck with the Brazilian around the outside of turn two to emerge in second place.

The Briton did not have the pace to run with Alonso, but his natural ability was enough to frustrate the two Ferraris, which became a permanent mirror-filler as they lapped at his heels.

Further back, the field escaped the usual turn 1-2 melee without anyone spearing off, but only had to wait until a couple of corners later, when Adrian Sutil exited stage left. The Spyker team believed that the young German had made contact with another car in the first corner complex - most likely Tonio Liuzzi, as the Toro Rosso driver pitted soon after for a new front wing - and then suffered a mechanical failure under braking for turn four. Jenson Button, struggling down the order with this year's recalcitrant Honda, was lucky not to become embroiled in Sutil's off, the F8-VII cannoning off the side of its luridly-liveried opponent en route to the gravel trap.

Overnight rain had washed the track clean of the rubber the teams had diligently been laying down all weekend, but that did not prevent most of the frontrunners - Jarno Trulli excepted - from starting on the softer of the two Bridgestone tyre options. Clearly unconcerned by the possibility of increased rear wear, Alonso continued to bolt into the distance, opening a gap back to team-mate Hamilton that increased by almost a second a lap.

Aware that the lighter-fuelled McLaren could get too far in front for them to do anything about, Massa and Raikkonen began applying greater pressure to the rear of Hamilton's car. Massa was the more impetuous of the two, pulling alongside the McLaren into turn one on laps four, five and six. Twice, Hamilton coolly rebuffed the Brazilian but, third time around, the slightest of errors allowed Massa a decent run up to turn four. As had happened a lap earlier, however, the Ferrari man managed to out-brake himself but, where previously the two cars had merely swapped and re-swapped positions, this time he ploughed onto the grass, dropping not only back behind Hamilton, but also behind Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld, effectively scuppering his afternoon.

Raikkonen wasn't close enough to capitalise on the mistake and take a run at Hamilton, appearing content to remain a presence in the McLaren's mirrors until the first round of pit-stops, even though Alonso was, by now, some eight seconds up the road.

Spyker's afternoon got worse on lap seven, when Christijan Albers pulled in to retire with his car smoking heavily. Gearbox failure was blamed, the Dutchman having struggled back to the pits after becoming stuck in third, but causing the F8-VII to overheat. Robert Kubica was also an early pit visitor, the Pole thought to be the victim of a faulty sensor that was playing havoc with his traction control, but otherwise the attrition rate was failing to live up to expectation.

Ironically, Alonso could have become the afternoon's third retirement had both he and the team not been quite so observant. The Spaniard found that his radio link to the pits had gone down after only ten laps, leaving them to resort to the trusty pit-board to communicate, but Alonso needed vigorous prompting to make his first routine stop.

The world champion had built up nearly 20 seconds' advantage over the chasing pack by the time he finally stopped, but that did not prevent Hamilton from assuming control of a grand prix for the second time, Alonso rejoining in third spot. Raikkonen pitted at the same time and, when Hamilton came in on lap 20, Heidfeld was left out front to gain some brief glory for the 'home' team.

Order was quickly restored when the German made his stop on lap 22, with Alonso again heading Hamilton - who had had a touch of front wing removed to help cure a wayward rear end - Raikkonen, Heidfeld and Massa, the poleman having failed to generate enough pace to vault the German during the stops. Nico Rosberg, driving another impressive race for Williams, was sixth, ahead of the late-stopping David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella, Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen.

Both Renaults had made strong getaways to jump into the top ten at the start, although Kovalainen found himself embroiled with the two Renault-powered Red Bulls in the opening stages. Further back, Kubica held station ahead of the troubled Hondas, which sandwiched Ralf Schumacher's Toyota in 15th, the German having made a bad start and not recovered. Super Aguri and Toro Rosso filled the remaining spots, neither Takuma Sato or Anthony Davidson able to replicate the heroics of Melbourne.

Alonso's lead over Raikkonen was quickly re-established, but the Spaniard was unable to drop team-mate Hamilton at quite the rate he had managed earlier on. Indeed, the Briton was the fastest person on track during the middle portion of the race, closing on the leader and setting the fastest lap of the afternoon in the process. Clearly, the wing adjustment had made his car handle more to his liking, and the advantage appeared to have ended Raikkonen's hopes of claiming a second straight win for Ferrari unless fate intervened.

Sepang is reputed to be the toughest place to visit for an F1 race, not because the circuit is particularly tricky, but because the conditions are so oppressive. Rain that had been forecast pre-race never arrived, leaving the drivers to combat heat and humidity, but there were few mistakes to report as the result of fatigue. Instead, it was mechanical components that appeared to wilt first, with Kubica into the pits ahead of schedule for a second time, this time for a new front wing to accompany a change of tyres. The alterations did little to help the Pole's cause, however and, after a late off, he trailed in 18th, having been lapped by BMW team-mate Heidfeld.

Coulthard's late-stopping strategy also failed to pay off, as the Scot suffered a reoccurrence of the bizarre problem that blighted his Friday. A promising afternoon for the Red Bull driver ended when he parked a RB3 in which the steering column again began fouling the pedals, making it impossible to drive either competitively or safely. Team-mate Webber continued without problems, meanwhile, but was probably not amused by the irony of chasing down Alex Wurz, the Austrian at the wheel of the Williams Webber decided to forsake even before the end of 2006. The pair ran nose-to-tail for a long time, before Webber faded to three seconds behind his rival.

Williams enjoyed another strong showing, led by Rosberg's presence in the points for all but 14 laps. Sadly, those 14 laps were the final ones, the German having to park his FW29 when the hydraulics gave up the ghost. His retirement allowed former GP2 rival Kovalainen into the points positions, but was not enough for team-mate Wurz to salvage something for the Grove team.

Remarkably, the German was the last retirement of the afternoon, with just four cars falling by the wayside, his exit and Coulthard's book-ending the final round of pit-stops. Having got the gap to Alonso down to eight seconds, Hamilton was the first of the frontrunners to stop, switching to the harder compound Bridgestone for the run to the flag. Alonso, too, has the less-favourable rubber to contend with in the closing stages, but handled it better than his rookie team-mate.

While the world champion continued serenely out front, Hamilton's times dropped away by as much as a second a lap from what they had been, giving Raikkonen a sniff of second place. The Finn was clearly faster than Hamilton, lopping vast chunks off the Briton's advantage, despite running on similar tyres. The rate at which the gap was coming down suggested that the battle for second would culminate on the final lap and the pair duly rounded the final turn within touching distance of each other.

Hamilton, however, had driven with the air of a driver with far more than two races under his belt, and his resistance at the end reflected that shown under pressure from Massa in the early stages. Refusing to be flustered by Raikkonen's Ferrari looming ever closer in his mirrors, he hardly put a wheel wrong, and had just enough in hand to keep the Finn at bay to the line.

With Alonso having already taken the flag some 17 seconds earlier, the Spaniard weaving wildly across the track in celebration, the result not only confirmed McLaren's first 1-2 since Brazil 2005, but also helped elevate the champion back to the head of the point standings. With the same three drivers appearing on the first two podia of the year, Alonso heads Raikkonen by two points, with Hamilton a similar gap behind the Finn.

Heidfeld picked up a second successive fourth place, having successfully kept the lacklustre Massa at bay for 50 laps, while Fisichella, Trulli and Kovalainen completed the scorers in an order that had shown little change for much of the afternoon.

The revelation of the afternoon, however, was McLaren's resurgence after being comprehensively beaten by Raikkonen in Australia. Alonso had claimed pre-race that the MP4-22 was much improved after testing at Sepang last week, but few would have imagined that it would become a Ferrari-beater overnight. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances - Hamilton holding up both Ferraris for the entire race - but if the season continues to provide competition like this between the top two teams, perhaps it won't be so predictable after all.



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