Two wins from two for Schumacher 21 Mar 2004
World Champion Michael Schumacher made it two in a row in Kuala Lumpur, with another commanding drive taking him to victory from pole position on the grid.
Juan Pablo Montoya followed Schumacher home in second place, having started in P4 in his Williams. A strong performance during the early stages of the race, in falling rain and on a wet track, set the Colombian up for eight much-needed Championship points, putting him just one point behind Rubens Barrichello in the Drivers Championship.
The race looked closer than it was. The only time that Montoya truly seemed to have Schumacher under pressure was in the opening laps when a brief rain shower left parts of the track slippery. Then, the Colombian slashed the lead Schumacher opened up, but once the damp section dried out again it was the world champion and his Bridgestone-shod Ferrari all the way.
Both made three pits stops, and most of the time they were first and second. There was one spell when Rubens Barrichello's different refuelling strategy saw Michael leading and Montoya down in third place. The Colombian was seven seconds adrift of Schumacher on the 41st lap, just after their final stops, and they were separated by Barrichello. On the one occasion when the Colombian tried to pass, the Brazilian slammed the door, "so after that I just decided to back off and cruise," Montoya explained. "I knew there was no way I was going to catch Michael."
They were followed home by Jenson Button, who delighted himself and the entire BAR team by scoring the first podium of his Formula One career. It came two years after he had been denied it by suspension failure in the closing stages when he was driving for Renault. In the opening stages, and again after their pit stops, he fought energetically with Jarno Trulli's Renault, the former team mates passing and repassing, but eventually BAR's superior strategy saw the Englishman well ahead by the finish. He did have a problem, however, with the oil system, and after team mate Takuma Sato had lost the final point when his engine blew up with three laps to run Button was told to take it easy. That allowed Barrichello to close in, but this time nothing was going to stop Button getting that well deserved podium spot.
"It won't sink in for a while," he said, "but it is a great feeling so far, especially after coming so close here back in 2002. We knew we had a good car during winter testing, and now we have proved it yet again. It's been a great day."
Trulli survived to bring his Renault home fifth ahead of David Coulthard, whose McLaren was the only one to make it to the finish. Team mate Kimi Raikkonen was set for a possible podium finish as he and Button scrapped, but engine failure took him out of the contest on lap 41. After starting from the back row of the grid with a fresh engine, Fernando Alonso rocketed through the field to eighth place, on Coulthard's tail, by lap four. But a problem with his car obliged Renault to fill it with fuel during his second stop on lap 24, and after that he was forced to chug home in seventh place. Sato's engine failure promoted Felipe Massa's Sauber to eighth place and the final point, two years after he scored his first here in only his second Grand Prix. The Brazilian had a hairy moment on the 42nd lap when he went skittering across the tricky Turn 13, and when he rejoined after Turn 14 Schumacher was lucky to miss him.
The Toyotas had a miserable time. Cristiano da Matta finished ninth ahead of Christian Klien, who battled both Japanese cars throughout the race. Giancarlo Fisichella was 11th after losing ground in the first two corners, and then more when a clutch problem stalled his engine in his second and third pits stops. Olivier Panis would have finished ahead of all three of them, but a misunderstanding over pits stops on the closing stages lost him all his advantage.
Ralf Schumacher failed to finish after dropping from fifth place with engine failure on lap 28, but perhaps the unhappiest man in Sepang was Mark Webber. It all went wrong for the Jaguar driver at the start, when his R5 bogged down on the front row and he dropped to 15th place. He battled up to seventh in the wet/dry period, and then a collision with Ralf Schumacher left him trailing to the pits with a punctured right rear tyre. As he rejoined he incurred a pit lane speeding fine, and subsequently he spun mightily out of the contest in Turn 15 after 24 laps. It was a bitterly disappointing ending to a day that had held much promise.
It was also a disappointment for Jordan. Giorgio Pantano was due to start from the penultimate row of the grid, but when it was adjudged that his Jordan had used an unsealed engine after he switched to the spare EJ14 following problems in the first qualifying run, he was moved 10 places back - or at least to the back row. Meanwhile, Renault had taken the opportunity to change Alonso's engine since being on the back row meant the 10 grid place penalty no longer applied. "We did it not for performance but just in the interests of maximising reliability," technical director Pat Symonds said. Just to reshuffle things further, Sato also went to the back after receiving and engine change in his BAR Honda. The Italian had a lacklustre race in a difficult car that was brimmed with fuel from the start, but at least finished 13th, ahead of the Minardis of Bruni and Baumgartner. Nick Heidfeld, however, fell from a brilliant 11th place in the early laps, ahead of both Toyotas, when his pit stops didn't work out, and later retired with a gearbox upshift problem.
At the other end of the results, Michael Schumacher was ecstatic. "You should not read too much into the situation at this early stage of the season," he had said after winning in Melbourne. "It could be a different situation in Malaysia in two weeks', as it was in 2002, so we should wait until then. If we are still as far ahead then, well, it would look good for us!"