Thursday race preview - Malaysia 18 Mar 2004
Michael Schumacher has already told everyone not to read too much into his runaway victory in Melbourne, the 71st of his career, his fourth in Australia and Ferrari's 168th.
Which, of course, means that they are all going to Malaysia expecting the German to continue his newly re-established dominance. The performance was strongly reminiscent of 2002, when Ferrari won 15 of 17 races on the way to clinching the Drivers' and Constructors' world championships with ease.
Schumacher, though, is adamant that the Sepang race could be very different. It is clear that in Australia Bridgestone produced just the right tyre for the F2004s of the five time champion and team mate Rubens Barrichello, who exploited them to the full. So the million-dollar question is whether Michelin can hit back in what should be a much hotter race?
"I think Malaysia will show the true picture a bit more because the conditions were completely ideal for us," Schumacher said in Melbourne, "and maybe not so ideal for our competitors' tyres or cars. If we can compete in Malaysia, then we are going to be looking very strong. If we are sort of hanging behind, then maybe it is going to be a little bit more tough."
McLaren team principal Ron Dennis was adamant that Australia's cool conditions militated against the Michelin runners and gave the Ferraris and their Bridgestones the advantage all weekend. "Our poor performance was amplified by the low ambient temperatures, which certainly didn't favour any of the Michelin runners," he said. "We believe we have an understanding of the areas which need to be improved and only a careful analysis and a team-driven recovery plan will resolve our problems."
Several teams tested at Valencia between the two races, and Ferrari's rivals left encouraged. Pedro de la Rosa set the fastest time for McLaren, with 1m 09.979s, just ahead of Luca Badoers Ferrari on 1m 10.153s, but comfortably in front of BMW Williams tester Marc Gene's 1m 10.248s. Barrichello was within striking distance of that on 1m 10.476s, while Anthony Davidson confirmed BAR's threat with 1m 10.736s to edge out Renault's Franck Montagny on 1m 10.946s.
The weather was changeable in Spain, which provided ideal conditions for Sepang, where the hot weather can lead to frequent tropical downpours.
Since Melbourne BMW Williams have made some developments (mainly aerodynamic) to their FW26 to improve performance. "Malaysia will be the first truly hot race of the season, which will give us a better understanding of the true competitiveness oft his year's grid," says Mario Theissen, BMW's motorsport director.
While Juan Pablo Montoya says he isn't worried about Ferrari's lightning start to the season, Renault's executive engineering director Pat Symonds is also confident that 2004 won't be a Ferrari whitewash.
"I wasn't really surprised by our performance," he says of Australia, where Fernando Alonso finished third and leading Michelin runner. "I was, though, by Ferrari's! During the winter, it is hard to know what everybody is up to; that's doubly true of Ferrari, as they tested separately from the other teams during the winter. Having said that, the circuit maybe didn't allow us to fully capitalise on the strongest features of our package: I would have preferred to see slightly higher temperatures. What's more, Albert Park is always a place where Ferrari seem to go well."
Symonds says that Renault now go to each race with the ultimate objective of winning. "But will we be able to do better in Malaysia than Australia? Yes, it's possible. I am sure we will be closer to the Ferraris. Of course, beating them is going to be a tough job, but that will be our aim."
The Malaysian Grand Prix is always a big event for Sauber, since it is the home of its major sponsor, Petronas. In a busy pre-event build-up the Swiss team claimed a first in Formula One when Felipe Massa drove a C23 in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak which is on the island of Borneo. Despite the remoteness of the region, a crowd of 120,000 turned out to watch the Brazilian driver in action. That's the same as the raceday crowd in Melbourne!
A strong race in Sepang is crucial for the team, while Minardi also has Malaysian interests after setting up a satellite operation there with former British F3 racer Piers Hunnisett. Minardi will also be celebrating signing a new title sponsor, Wilux, a Dutch company which manufactures shower cubicles and baths. The team is now officially entered as Wilux Minardi Cosworth.
Elsewhere, Jaguar is quietly confident of another strong showing with hopefully greater reliability, BAR believe that they will really be able to show their true race form in hotter temperatures after proving in Australian qualifying that their winter speed was genuine, while Toyota will be doing everything they can to avoid being embarrassed by Jordan, as they were in Melbourne.
The Malaysian race weekend clashes with national elections, and the critically important 56-lap race starts at 1500 hrs local time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT.