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Race analysis - Renault take charge 20 Mar 2006

(L to R): Second place Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault and race winner Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Renault celebrate in Parc Ferme. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, 19 March 2006 Jenson Button (GBR) Honda Racing RA106.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, 19 March 2006 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 248F1 makes a pit stop.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, 19 March 2006 Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) McLaren Mercedes MP4/21.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, 18 March 2006 BMW Sauber F1 in Parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, 19 March 2006

Two races, two wins. 2006 has clearly been a good start for reigning champions Renault, and the signs are that they will continue to be the team to beat. In Malaysia, only Honda came close.

After all his problems in Bahrain, Giancarlo Fisichella had a perfect day and never really looked like losing even though Fernando Alonso closed in over the final laps. The Spaniard also had a trouble-free day, which made up a little for the gaffes the previous day. The champion knew that he could have won, had it not been for a refuelling rig problem that had obliged him to run heavy in qualifying. The rig did not appear to have fuelled his R26 so, in a rush, the team fuelled it again, only for it to transpire that the first load really had gone in. With no time to pump the excess out, he’d had his hands tied and hence had to be content with a fourth-row start.

Effectively he neutralised that by grabbing third with a blinding start from seventh on the grid, and then outlasting Jenson Button to move up to second place after the final stops. But he had wanted to win, of course. With 18 points already in the bag, he hardly had much to complain about. Likewise, Renault with 28.

For Honda, it was another race where one car did well, and the other didn’t. And once again the former was Button’s. Looking at the lap times, he wasn’t far off the blue cars, but the RA106 wasn’t quite quick enough when it mattered, and after falling behind Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren after both of his pit stops, Button paid the price when Alonso was able to run longer and move up into second place.

For Rubens Barrichello the race was another disaster. His one-stop strategy took a long while to pay off, but any hope of points disappeared when he was penalised for speeding in the pit lane.

Honda are Renault’s closest challenger at present, but they need to find a bit more speed.

Likewise McLaren. They were running heavy in qualifying, as Montoya’s lap 23 first stop testified, and that should have helped. But there was a front tyre graining problem in the first stint that hampered the Colombian’s progress early on. A change of tyres rectified that and he demonstrated good pace in comparison with Button on the closing stages, but by then fourth place was the best the team could hope for. As for the incident that accounted for Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap, McLaren laid the blame squarely at Christian Klien’s door.

Fifth and sixth places were a disappointment for Ferrari, on a weekend when they had to change no fewer than three of their V8 engines in their own cars (plus one on David Coulthard’s Red Bull after Bahrain). At times Michael Schumacher showed strong pace, but overall the red cars were not as quick here as they had been in comparison to their rivals the previous weekend. Nevertheless, their seven point haul leaves them joint second in the constructors’ table with McLaren.

There was good and bad news for BMW in Sepang. After disappointing performance in qualifying, the F1.06s looked strong in the race. Nick Heidfeld said that his car was as fast as the McLaren and faster than the Ferraris, ahead of which it ran, so his engine failure on lap 49 came as a bitter blow. Jacques Villeneuve drove strongly too, however, and his seventh place brought the new team their first points.

Toyota were still smarting after Bahrain, and Ralf Schumacher’s eventual eighth place finish was more the product of reliability (and the unreliability or bad luck of others). A point, however, is still a point, and Jarno Trulli’s car was also a finisher with ninth place so that counted as progress of sorts. The main problem seems to be understanding how to get the best out of the Bridgestone tyres, the way that Williams and Ferrari have.

In the disappointment stakes, it was Williams that took pole position. Nico Rosberg’s Cosworth engine lasted only six laps before exploding, though surprisingly it was one of only two to suffer that fate in the muggy heat. Mark Webber got the bad news of a hydraulic problem even before the start, and discovered in his first pit stop that it was terminal. But his pace in chasing Alonso was impressive, and clearly the heavier Renault was at that stage holding up the FW28. The Grove team have a good package on their hands, and sooner or later it should be on the podium. Fourth place was certainly a possibility here.

Scuderia Toro Rosso had to be satisfied with 11th place courtesy of Tonio Liuzzi. The Italian damaged his STR1’s nose on the first lap and thus had to fight back up the order. His task was made more difficult by too much downforce and erratic brake performance. Team mate Scott Speed had a similar aero problem, but actually retired after 41 laps with a clutch actuation problem.

It wasn’t a great day for the sister Red Bull Racing team, either. After Klien’s opening lap skirmish with Raikkonen his RB2 needed a new front left corner. Thus equipped after he had limped back to the pits, he rejoined the race six laps down (pretty good work from his mechanics in the circumstances) but then his car was claimed by a similar hydraulic fault to the one that stopped David Coulthard’s car on lap 11.

Midland got both cars home, after unspectacular but reliable runs, while Takuma Sato fought with anybody and everybody in his Super Aguri and made the finish for the second race in succession. Yuji Ide was brought down by the same mechanical problem that stopped him in Bahrain. Once again, however, they did not vouchsafe the nature of it.

Heading for Melbourne, Renault could scarcely have got off to a better start to the season, and it will take a lot to stop them Down Under.