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Race analysis - damage limitation 22 Mar 2004

(L to R): third placed Jenson Button (GBR) BAR with race winner Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Rd 2, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 March 2004 Jenson Button (GBR) BAR Honda 006 celebrates his first podium finish.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Rd 2, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 March 2004 (L to R): Ralf Schumacher (GER) Williams BMW FW26 and Mark Webber (AUS) Jaguar R5 collide.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Rd 2, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 March 2004 Second placed Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams in the post race press conference.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Rd 2, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 March 2004 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Ferrari F2004 is passed by Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams BMW FW26 as the rain falls early in the race.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Rd 2, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 March 2004

Who went forward and who went backwards at Sepang

So, Ferrari won in Malaysia, where they shouldn't have won, and alarm bells are well and truly ringing up and down the pit lane. But should rivals really be tearing their hair out?

The fact that the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris were as bullet-proof as ever and almost as quick as they had been in Melbourne was a source of great concern to their Michelin-tyred opposition. But when the victorious Michael Schumacher spoke of being fast at the beginning and the end of each stint was he really being a trifle disingenuous after playing with Juan Pablo Montoya? Certainly theirs seemed to be a tough struggle, but usually a car is fast at one or other end of a stint, not both. Where Michael cruised on to a fine victory, Rubens Barrichello lucked out after opting for Bridgestone's harder tyre compound, especially as they lost temperature in the wet section early in the race.

BMW Williams looked a lot more convincing than they had in Melbourne, and Montoya's car was fast enough to set fastest lap, by nearly six tenths from Michael. Ralf's race was compromised by the early in-fighting, in which he damaged his front wing against Webber's right rear wheel. Crippling understeer was the result, and he was only fifth when his BMW V10 blew up. But eight points are eight points, so it was reasonable damage limitation.

BAR Honda were cock-a-hoop as they moved ahead of McLaren, figuratively and literally. The 006 was fast and reliable, in Button's case, and the team are learning fast about getting the best from their Michelin rubber after some glitches early in practice when Button complained about the car's balance. It was balanced enough in the race to set third fastest lap, only a tenth off Michael. Sato's Honda engine failure was a shame after his strong recovery drive, but whereas they went backwards in Melbourne, BAR moved forward in Malaysia.

Sauber Petronas were chuffed when Felipe Massa scored a point for a hard-driven eighth place, especially as the difficulty in steering the car on fresh rubber caused him to slide right across Turn Five on the 42nd lap. The result helped at a time when the team's new race engineers are still learning their new car and while they are awaiting the first fruits of the new wind tunnel in Hinwil which became operational a fortnight ago.

Those who went down, at least as far as the race was concerned, were Jaguar, Renault and McLaren.

For Jaguar the brilliance of qualifying was instantly negated by problems getting both cars off the line. Both R5s bogged down disastrously, and while Jaguar's engineers must have a pretty good idea why, they weren't letting on as they headed home for a post-mortem. It was a real disappointment, after Webber's superb front row qualifying effort, and robbed the race of one of its most fascinating prospects.

Renault went to Malaysia expecting to run at the front, so fifth and seventh places were a big disappointment. Unusually for a car whose tyre preservation was the talk of winter testing and the Australian race, the R24 was less than great round Sepang. Trulli complained of graining in the race, and neither car was particularly well balanced. Then there was that remarkable gamble in running Alonso on a two-stop strategy to try and get him clear of the likes of Coulthard. Somebody will surely file that one away in the 'seemed like a good idea at the time' drawer.

McLaren were certainly better than in Melbourne, thanks to some revised aerodynamic parts, but there was more unreliability for Raikkonen when he suffered what was described as a transmission failure. He had already lost time with a fuel nozzle problem during his second stop. Clearly there is still a lot more work to be done at Woking, but at least Coulthard's MP4-19 was reliable enough for a sixth place finish.

Toyota again had a tough time with a poor overall performance that again saw both cars chasing Nick Heidfeld's well-driven Jordan, which is running on a fraction of their budget, in the opening stages. Then there was a disastrous radio miscommunication for Panis which led to an unnecessary late pit stop and, in turn, to a drive-through for speeding.

So have we got a championship, or are Ferrari going to run away and hide like they did in 2002?

"It's very hard to say," Montoya said. "It's very early days. The car still needs quite a bit of work because in the end we're not trying to be at their level but above, really, and to be above you need to have a car that is consistent enough to win everywhere. And they have the car. We're close in places but we still need to do quite a lot of work."