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The Malaysian Grand Prix Preview 16 Mar 2006

Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Renault (Left) and Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Renault Third Driver (Right) walk the circuit.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 16 March 2006 Jenson Button (GBR) Honda Racing F1 Team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 16 March 2006 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 16 March 2006 Scott Speed (USA) Scuderia Toro Rosso rides the circuit on a bicycle.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 16 March 2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, 16 March 2006

With only a week between races, few expect the order to change much here in Malaysia after Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Honda were the top dogs in Bahrain.

“There are four teams fighting for victories at any circuit at the moment,” says reigning world champion Fernando Alonso, the winner in Sakhir for Renault. “I think any of them can win races, and this would make the start of the season very, very interesting.”

Michael Schumacher and Bridgestone are convinced they will be even stronger this weekend, and that they can challenge for victory. “This year the fight for the championship will be very close,” Schumacher says. “There are several good teams, all of which are capable of battling for the title, and it’s great to be one of them.”

Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa has a tougher weekend in prospect, as the team have chosen to give him a new V8 for Sepang after examining his engine post Bahrain. This means the Brazilian gets a ten-place grid penalty, as does Red Bull's David Coulthard, whose Ferrari V8 cruelly failed just after the chequered flag at Sakhir.

McLaren had a difficult start to the season, with Kimi Raikkonen having to start from the back of the grid after his rear suspension breakage in qualifying. He fought through to third place, with team mate Juan Pablo Montoya taking fifth.

“People said we weren’t very good,” Raikkonen said, “but during the last month we really improved our position, and when we came here the car was pretty good. It was nice to see that we were strong in the race, and we could have been very strong in qualifying, also.”

While Renault and Ferrari were lifted by their performances, McLaren and Honda admitted to disappointment. Jenson Button’s race in Bahrain was compromised immediately by a problem with his clutch which dropped him from third on the grid to ninth at the end of the opening lap. He finished fourth. Team mate Rubens Barrichello experienced the loss of a gear and never figured after the opening stages.

“We come away from Bahrain disappointed with our final result but at the same time very encouraged by the performance of our car and drivers and looking forward to Malaysia,” says Honda’s sporting director Gil de Ferran.

The other team that are feeling bullish about their prospects this weekend are Williams, following Nico Rosberg’s storming drive and fastest lap in Bahrain.

“We probably underestimated our true performance and we ran a lot of fuel on the car and qualified probably too heavy,” admits engineering chief Patrick Head. “In truth we’ve got to take a more aggressive approach in Malaysia, but two cars in the points - we’re not too unhappy with that as a first-off.”

As one of the hottest races of the season, the Malaysian Grand Prix will exact a heavy toll on drivers and machinery.

“Everything that you do here is like operating in a sauna,” David Coulthard says, while Jenson Button added: “The most important thing is to keep hydrated. This is a really tough race on us, and your performance definitely goes down if you start getting dehydrated.”

Despite the heat, the drivers usually love the Sepang circuit. Those new to the track this year include rookies Rosberg and Scott Speed, as well as Swiss driver Giorgio Mondini, who is set to make his Formula One debut as Midland's third man in Friday practice.