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Fast starters or backmarkers? The 2008 story so far - part two 14 Apr 2008

Robert Kubica (POL) BMW Sauber F1 on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 6 April 2008 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Toyota TF108.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Rd 2, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 23 March 2008 Third placed Nico Rosberg (GER) Williams celebrates on the podium.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 16 March 2008 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/23.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Qualifying Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 15 March 2008 Pole sitter Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari leads out team mate Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari and third placed Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren in parc ferme.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Rd 2, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday, 22 March 2008

Three races in and the 2008 world championship has a very different complexion to that which was being predicted pre-season. BMW Sauber lead Ferrari and McLaren in the constructors’ table, the German-Swiss team having already recorded their first fastest race lap and a maiden pole position.

There are surprises too in the midfield, with an improved Toyota squad leapfrogging Red Bull, Williams and Renault relative to their final 2007 standings. As the teams head to Europe we look at how the top five are shaping up…

Toyota, 5th, 8 points
Best result: 4th, Best qualifying: 5th

Toyota’s 2008 season has certainly started in more positive fashion than their 2007 campaign. Both Jarno Trulli and newcomer Timo Glock made it safely into Q3 in Australia thanks to some highly respectable pace from the TF108, and they did it again in Malaysia, Trulli ultimately starting a heady third on the grid thanks to penalties for the two McLarens. He came home fourth in the race, splitting the silver cars and giving the Japanese squad their best result since France 2006.

He followed that up with another top-ten grid slot and a sixth place in Bahrain, putting the team in optimistic mood as they head back to Europe. Glock, meanwhile, has had his fair share of misfortune, but despite that spectacular crash in Melbourne, he has proved more than capable of keeping Trulli honest, making Q3 in two out of the three rounds and going from 13th on the grid to finish ninth in Bahrain, where a gearbox glitch almost certainly robbed him of a point.

Williams, 4th, 10 points
Best result: 3rd, Best qualifying: 7th

Cynics would suggest that Williams’ fourth place in the standings is unrepresentative of the team’s true form - after all, nine of their ten points came in Australia, where only six cars took the chequered flag. However, that masks the fact that Frank Williams’ squad have been genuinely competitive. After the success of Melbourne, where Nico Rosberg secured his first F1 podium, results did indeed take a dramatic downturn in Malaysia. The team struggled to get the best from their tyres, but a number of other factors also worked against them. Kazuki Nakajima was carrying a grid penalty for a collision in the previous round and was then hamstrung by a puncture after making a great start, while an early accident scuppered Rosberg’s chances. Neither finished on the same lap as the leaders.

In Bahrain, something resembling normal service was resumed. Rosberg qualified eighth and finished eighth, but Nakajima’s race was compromised by an anti-stall glitch at the start and a spin on oil on lap two. Overall, reliability has been good and Rosberg’s fifth- and sixth-fastest race laps in Australia and Bahrain respectively prove the FW30 has potential. Now the team just need a bit more pace and a bit more luck.

McLaren, 3rd, 28 points
Best result: 1st, Best qualifying: 1st

McLaren were very much the team to beat at the season opener in Australia, where they made a clean sweep of pole, victory and fastest lap. Only misfortune prevented Heikki Kovalainen joining Lewis Hamilton on the podium - safety car timing went against the Finn, who then managed to hit his pitlane speed limiter during a dice with Fernando Alonso. But a week later in Malaysia both Ferrari and BMW Sauber had superior pace. Admittedly, McLaren’s race wasn’t helped by the five-place grid penalties handed to both drivers for impeding others during qualifying, nor by a lengthy pit stop for Hamilton, but third and fifth was not the result the team had been expecting.

And there was little sign of improvement in Bahrain. They were again kept off the front row by their Italian and German-Swiss rivals and on Hamilton at least the pressure seemed to tell. He made a procedural error on the grid, causing the anti-stall to kick in and losing him several places off the line. He then compounded his mistake by tangling with other cars and running into the rear of Fernando Alonso after his front wing failed, almost certainly as a result of earlier contact. While the Briton trailed home a lowly 13th, it was left to Kovalainen to keep McLaren in the hunt, taking fifth place to put himself level on points with his team mate. The Finn set the fastest lap at Sakhir in the process, but Ron Dennis’s men know they have plenty of work to do if they are to stop Ferrari and BMW Sauber pulling away from them in the coming races.

Ferrari, 2nd, 29 points
Best result: 1st, Best qualifying: 1st

In contrast to McLaren, Ferrari’s season started in lacklustre fashion, but has since regained its sparkle in convincing fashion. In Melbourne, Felipe Massa scraped onto the second row of the grid, while world champion Kimi Raikkonen was forced to start from 15th after technical problems. Engine woes then meant neither made the finish, though Raikkonen had at least completed enough distance to be classified eighth and bag a solitary point. What had happened to Ferrari’s legendary reliability? Nothing, hinted the team - the problems most likely stemmed from the new standardised ECU.

Come Malaysia and it seemed those problems had been solved. Massa and Raikkonen locked out the front row, the latter then cruising to a comfortable win. Massa, however, blotted his copybook by spinning into retirement halfway through the Sepang race, leaving him pointless and under pressure with two rounds gone. The Brazilian’s critics were quickly silenced though by a dominant victory in Bahrain, where he had the upper hand on Raikkonen all weekend. Ferrari may still trail BMW Sauber by a point in the standings, but as the calendar switches to Europe they remain firm favourites to go on and retain their constructors’ crown.

BMW Sauber, 1st, 30 points
Best result: 2nd, Best qualifying: 1st

It goes without saying that BMW Sauber have been the revelation of 2008 to date. Yes, they have benefitted from Ferrari’s stuttering start and McLaren’s faltering form, but the progress they have made is remarkable nonetheless - in particular that of Robert Kubica, who has given the team two of their three podiums and a maiden pole in Bahrain. Kubica laid down the gauntlet with second on the grid in Australia, only to be shunted from behind by Nakajima during the race. Team mate Nick Heidfeld had the better Sunday down under, starting fifth and finishing second. Only the two McLarens were quicker.

Qualifying was less impressive in Malaysia, but it didn’t stop Kubica capitalising on his P4 start (after McLaren’s grid penalties) to match Heidfeld’s second place from round one. The German, meanwhile, came home sixth, giving BMW Sauber their first fastest lap in the process. When Kubica then clinched pole at Sakhir, despite a less-than-perfect lap, it looked as though the team might achieve their target of a first win in 2008 a little sooner than expected. Such hopes quickly evaporated, however, when Kubica was swallowed up by both Ferraris within three laps. Encouragingly, though, the red cars didn’t walk away and Kubica was within five seconds of second-placed Raikkonen at the flag, with Heidfeld also staying in touch for fourth. The result gave BMW the lead in the constructors’ championship, something almost no one would have predicted four weeks earlier.

BMW Sauber admitted they took a gamble with the design of the F1.08 and its performance looked patchy in pre-season testing. Some said they were sandbagging, a theory to which the team’s excellent results have since lent credibility. Whatever the truth, the outcome is the same - the gamble is paying off. They have put McLaren on the back foot and have Ferrari on the run. Now for that maiden win…