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Race analysis - advantage McLaren 09 Apr 2007

Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 celebrates his win with teammate Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 8 April 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 8 April 2007 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.07 followed by Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2007 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 8 April 2007 David Coulthard (GBR) Red Bull Racing 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday, 6 April 2007 Jenson Button (GBR) Honda RA107.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday, 7 April 2007

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! And even Fernando Alonso seemed surprised by his Spanish Imposition after McLaren took their first one-two in Sepang since the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix.

In truth, McLaren were probably the only people who thought they really had a chance of winning in Malaysia, and though their success owed much to some rash moments by Felipe Massa it was a richly deserved product of teamwork, commitment and the sort of relentless development that today’s top teams must embrace if they are to win.

Analysed coldly, Ferrari should have won, especially with Massa on the pole and the red cars’ known performance over race distances. But the McLarens won track position with the quick starts by Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, and never surrendered it. Then Massa and Kimi Raikkonen tripped over themselves in Hamilton’s wake early on, before Massa compounded his weakness in the first corner by making mistakes in Turn Four, which ultimately led to him sliding into the gravel.

Raikkonen admitted afterwards that Ferrari had to make a series of compromises with his engine, and with reduced straight-line speed the Finn was in no position in the first part of the race to do much about either of the silver arrows.

Alonso was able to build his lead prior to each refuelling stop, and generally had little to worry about apart from a radio that didn’t function properly until after the first stop. There was some graining on the front tyres (he started on medium, stayed on them in the second stint, then used the hard tyres at the end), but more front wing in the first stop cured that, and thereafter he had a relatively easy run.

Hamilton also had a front wing adjustment in his first stop, then set fastest lap while running a two-lap lighter fuel load than Alonso. His real problems began in the third stint, when he struggled on the hard tyres just as Raikkonen was beginning to fly. The Finn had a new set of hard tyres for his last stint, and the F2007 prefers them to old tyres. But even Kimi was unable to shake Hamilton’s confidence and rattle him into an error. Regardless of who should have won, McLaren did, and the success was richly deserved. It was a team victory, just as Ferrari’s was a team loss.

Massa’s other problem was that he didn’t have any more new tyres for the race after his two sets of mediums were replaced by one hard set at the end, and he simply couldn’t muster the speed down the straight to get close enough to challenge Nick Heidfeld.

BMW Sauber continue to impress, and the fact that Heidfeld qualified fifth yet stopped later than any of the front runners (on lap 22, while leading) speaks volumes for the form of the F1.07. Fourth place was a strong and deserved result, despite a brush between Heidfeld and team mate Robert Kubica in the first corner. The Pole later suffered a puncture and a gearbox problem, and lamented the handling which swung from understeer to oversteer. So good and bad news for the Munich-Hinwil alliance.

Renault desperately needed some points, and came away with four, which was a stark contrast to their performance here for the past two seasons. Giancarlo Fisichella had a terrific opening lap, but later admitted that at a time when Renault are underperforming so seriously, sixth place felt like a podium finish. At least there are no airs and graces here; “This is our level at the moment,” admitted Flavio Briatore, taking it on the chin.

While Ralf Schumacher’s race soon faded to nothing for Toyota, partly thanks to a tardy start and then a slow puncture, team mate Jarno Trulli was in the hunt for points all afternoon. He stayed ahead of Fisichella in the first stint, but could do nothing to redress the situation once pits stops had taken the Renault ahead. Another two points, then, but signs of progress for the Japanese squad.

Williams would thoroughly have deserved sixth place after Nico Rosberg’s excellent drive, and the FW29 certainly looks a pretty serious proposition. It was thus cruel to see Rosberg suffering a suspected engine failure with 13 laps to go. Alex Wurz was also wound up at one stage, but had to settle for ninth. He had soft-tyred Mark Webber right on his tail in the closing laps before the Australian slipped back. Again, there was resignation here that 10th was what could have been expected. Even less satisfactory was a recurrence of David Coulthard’s practice problem where the brake pedal fouled the steering column, compromising both systems.

Eleventh and 12th places were little for Honda to shout about, but at least they were ahead of Super Aguri this time. But not by much. Rubens Barrichello started from the pit lane after being put to the back of the grid in qualifying because of his switch from race car to spare and back, and a short first stint helped him to leapfrog up the order a little. Jenson Button, meanwhile, had his RA107 damaged when Adrian Sutil drove into it on the first lap. As he subsequently suffered from serious oversteer, Button had some front wing taken off in an attempt to enhance the car’s balance. He thought that this, together with a more forward brake balance and less tyre pressure, brought a small improvement to the Honda’s behaviour.

Takuma Sato damaged his Super Aguri in the opening lap traffic after hitting Tonio Liuzzi’s Toro Rosso, while Anthony Davidson’s car suffered serious understeer as its driver battled flu. Compared to last year, their race was a major improvement; compared to Melbourne it was a bit of a disappointment.

So was Toro Rosso’s, with Scott Speed sticking like glue to Sato but unable to do anything about overtaking. Liuzzi, delayed by the need for a new nose after the Sato brush, rued the lack of fast gearshift software on his car, and found that no matter how close he could get to Davidson in the corners he was always outgunned on to the straight. He set some quick lap times in the car, however, which showed improvement this weekend under new technical director Giorgio Ascanelli’s direction.

Finally, Spyker will want to forget this one, with Sutil crashing out on the first lap, and Christijan Albers’s F8-VII sticking in first gear. In the intense heat there was also a brief fire as the Dutchman brought the car into the pits.

McLaren’s surprise success puts them into the lead of the world championship with 32 points to Ferrari’s 23, while BMW Sauber are third with 10 from Renault on eight. Undoubtedly, this is going to be a very long season and a tough battle between the two top teams.

David Tremayne