Japanese team prove doubters wrong with first podium
Renault's performance in winning the Malaysian Grand Prix was expected. The big surprise was Toyotas speed and consistency.
If Renault were delighted with their second consecutive victory, Toyota were overjoyed with the best result since their entry into Formula One racing in 2002. There was a modicum of surprise after Jarno Trulli placed his TF105 second on the grid in Sepang, partly because doing so in Melbourne had been the product, it was thought, of fortune after the change in weather there. But what Sepang proved is that the Toyota has speed, reliability and consistency to match Renault, and only Alonsos speedy break in the early laps took the Spaniard beyond Trullis reach.
The performance was also vindication for the Italian, who has often been accused of falling asleep as races develop. He and Toyota were sharp all the way through, and with Ralf Schumacher taking fifth place (after a less impressive race troubled by tyre graining and a clash with Mark Webber), the Japanese team are a solid second in the constructors championship. All that investment is beginning to pay off, and now that Mike Gascoyne is being allowed to do his thing the results are beginning to speak for themselves. No mistake, Toyotas rise to form is great news for Formula One racing.
Williams also had a lot to be pleased about. Yes, Webber was unfortunate in his tangle with Fisichella (for which the stewards warned the Melbourne winner), and the team should really have taken third and fourth places, but Heidfelds podium was a great fillip. Moreover, his lap times were very competitive with those of Alonso and Trulli, and he set the races second quickest lap with 1m 35.712s on lap 40. The only man who went faster was Kimi Raikkonen, whose race was ruined by a tyre valve problem which deflated his right rear Michelin tyre on his out lap after his first pit stop. In an inverse sort of way, that was encouragement for McLaren, and further indication that the silver cars are also going to be strong contenders in the races to come.
That said, Juan Pablo Montoya was again unhappy with his MP4-20s handling so clearly there is still some fine-tuning to do. It didnt help that he flat-spotted the front-left tyre early on, setting up a vibration that lasted the entire race.
Once again Red Bull combined combative speed with impressive reliability, bringing both cars home in the points for the second Grand Prix in a row. If anything, Christian Klien drove a slightly better race than David Coulthard, the Scot spinning in Turn Four on lap 25 and losing six seconds which would later place him behind the troubled Rubens Barrichello during the pit stop windows, where he lost a further nine seconds. With another four points in the bag, Red Bull are third in the championship table, one point adrift of Toyota.
Ferrari were the first of the big losers in Sepang, and it was a weekend from hell for the team that crushed everyone so often in 2004. However brave a face everyone put on the debacle, which saw Barrichello running down in 11th place and Michael Schumacher in 13th during the first part of the race, and thereafter struggling to make any headway, it was clear that the updated F2004 is not to blame. Bridgestones tyre compound proved too hard, and both drivers struggled as a result. Optimism quickly faded that the track conditions and high temperatures might suit the tyres. The situation was made worse for Barrichello when rubber debris on his rear wing promoted savage oversteer that killed his tyres in a 20-lap stint mid-race. He was optimistic that without that he might have made the top six by the end, but it would be no surprise to see the new F2005 rushed into service in Bahrain in a fortnights time.
Sauber Petronas also had a bruising time in their sponsors home race. Even on Michelin tyres the C24 lacked pace. Villeneuve spun his out in Turn One after 27 laps, and Massa slid over a kerb and lost something from the rear end - possibly on the diffuser. That aggravated his oversteer problems.
Jordan and Minardi continued as they had in Melbourne, the yellow cars faster than the black ones as their drivers used one another as their yardsticks. The former were completely reliable as Narain Karthikeyan finished 11th ahead of Tiago Monteiro, but Paul Stoddarts chance of 100 percent reliability evaporated when Patrick Friesacher spun on oil or water from Anthony Davidsons expired BAR on the second lap. Christijan Albers finished 13th, four laps down.
The unhappiest camp in Malaysia without doubt were BAR, with the world believing from their television images that both cars blew their Honda engines on the third lap. The problem was not quite as serious as that, though the end result was the same. The oil leak countermeasure used on Jenson Buttons car for Saturday qualifying was also used on Davidsons as a precaution for the race, but was insufficiently robust as both cars suffered leaks early in the race. Button in particular was critical afterwards, which wont help them in their quest to prevent him heading to Williams for 2006. All of this was a shame, as the Englishman had pushed up to sixth and would have been a strong contender for Heidfelds eventual podium slot.
If there was a blot on the landscape for Renault it was a rear wing problem that gave Fisichella serious understeer in sector two, and gave Webber, Schumacher Jnr and Heidfeld their chance to attack. But so far the blue team are on course, leading both championships and apparently capable of winning with ease. But the rise of Toyota and the growing menace or Williams and McLaren holds great promise as the series heads for Bahrain. Ferrari, and Bridgestone, have a lot of catching up to do. And fast.