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Ferrari ride the storm - Sepang 2001 17 Mar 2004

McLaren mechanics push a car through the rain.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang, Malaysia, 21 March 2003

Mention the Malaysian Grand Prix to the average paddock insider and the first thing they’ll think of is the heat; the second is the rain.

When the heavens open at Sepang you know about it – especially if you’re trying to keep 800+ horsepower under control on dry tyres. Kuala Lumpur’s notorious monsoon-like storms can arrive at a moment’s notice and completely change the complexion of a race in an instant – a fact amply illustrated at the 2001 event.

With Sunday’s early morning rain having cleared, the race actually started on an almost dry track. Michael Schumacher was on pole in the spare Ferrari, with team mate Rubens Barrichello alongside. Like virtually all the grid, both had opted for dry tyres. After formation lap dramas for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Juan Pablo Montoya, things finally got underway, with Schumacher streaking into the lead. Behind him brother Ralf tried to shut the door on Barrichello to seize second, but spun, forcing several other drivers to take evasive action.

But then the real drama started, as the first drops of rain begin to fall on lap two. The leading Ferraris were aware of it, but not of the oil spilt by Olivier Panis’ ailing BAR. They speared off the road in unison, somehow avoiding each other and the barriers. Barrichello regained the track before Schumacher as the drizzle turned into another mini monsoon that swamped the circuit.

Things rapidly became chaotic. By the time the safety car emerged on lap five, four cars had been accounted for and 11 had hurtled off the circuit. The pitlane was suddenly a very crowded place, especially in front of the Ferrari garage, where Barrichello arrived first and Schumacher sat impatiently behind for a full 72 seconds as debris from his ‘off’ was cleared from the car. They rejoined in 10th and 11th place respectively, a very long way behind the safety car. Both had opted for intermediate tyres, unlike the rest of the field who had played safe with full wets. Up front David Coulthard led from Frentzen, with Jos Verstappen up to an incredible third, having started a lowly 18th on the grid.

By the time the safety car pulled off on lap 10, the 16 surviving cars had bunched up and much of the standing water had cleared. Coulthard immediately set about consolidating his lead, while Verstappen caught Frentzen napping and moved into second. The significant passes were happening further down the order, though. The two Ferraris soon devoured Jean Alesi and moved onto the tail of Jarno Trulli’s Jordan. As Barrichello went to pass, the Italian blocked and Schumacher muscled ahead of both in one decisive move. As he crossed the line the German was lapping a full second faster than leader Coulthard.

On the following lap Schumacher passed Frentzen, his brother and the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen. By the next he was right with Verstappen, but struggled to find a way past the Dutchman. Finally, on lap 15, he got the job done – Schumacher crossed the line, then swept imperiously round the outside of Coulthard at Turn One to assume the lead as Barrichello went through into second. From that point on the race was effectively over.

Ferrari took a convincing one-two less than two hours after both cars had looked to be heading into the barriers. It was Schumacher’s sixth successive victory. In the paddock there were whispers of questionable traction control systems. In reality, the German’s drive from the edge of disaster to crushing domination was one of the greatest race performances of our time.