Fernando Alonso could barely stand after racing in the furnace that was Sepang yesterday, but there was nothing shaky about his domination of the Malaysian Grand Prix, nor about the clear claim he staked to a troubled Michael Schumacher's crown.
After finishing 24 seconds clear of Jarno Trulli's Toyota, Alonso recovered his composure quickly. "Physically, it was a very demanding race and I really felt how hard it had been on the podium," he admitted. "But it's a great feeling to win here and the way I was able to do it demonstrates that we are competitive. At this stage I think we have a real chance to fight for the title."
While Renault and Toyota sprayed the champagne, it was a toss-up who was more disappointed, Ferrari or their closest 2004 rival, BAR-Honda. But where Michael Schumacher was philosophical about another disappointing race in which he struggled to finish seventh on Bridgestone tyres that were no match for his rivals' Michelins, Jenson Button could not contain his frustration with his team's failure. After some aggressive moves took him from ninth on the grid to sixth, his BAR-Honda expired on the third lap with a recurrence of an oil leak he experienced on Saturday.
"Compared to last year we have made a huge step back in every area," he said. "It's not good enough. Engineering an engine to do three laps is not hard. We are quick, that's the annoying thing, we had the pace and we had a good strategy. This has to change and the thing is I know it is not going to change soon. I'm very angry."
His team-mate Anthony Davidson, called up on Saturday when Takuma Sato fell ill, retired on the same lap with an identical problem. "It's a shame but that is what these new regulations are for," the 23-year-old said. "But I don't get angry. I waved my arm a bit aggressively, but that is about as far as I go."
It was a slow-burn race, which finally exploded into life with some proper racing that led to incidents involving Ralf Schumacher and Mark Webber, and then Giancarlo Fisichella and Webber. The Australian was the victim on both occasions.
Nothing much happened between the first-lap sort-out and the first pit stops, between laps 19 and 24. But on the 32nd lap Schumacher Jr tried a feeble move on Webber and wobbled into him in the final corner. Webber's Williams-BMW team-mate Nick Heidfeld slipped through into fourth, but Webber recovered momentum and Heidfeld had to surrender as the Australian slipped back through on the inside. Schumacher Jr also pushed his Toyota back ahead, but three corners later Heidfeld shouldered past and set after Webber again.
Both soon caught the Melbourne winner, Giancarlo Fisichella. Going into the final corner on the 37th lap Webber, conscious of Heidfeld, went for the outside. He got half-way round before Fisichella braked on the dirtier inside line and slid into him. Both ran wide before the Renault vaulted gently over the Williams and took both into retirement. Fisichella, one of the sport's cleanest drivers, was later issued with a warning.
That left Heidfeld to take third place after an aggressive drive, while superior pit work from McLaren got Juan Pablo Montoya up to fourth. David Coulthard put his Red Bull in the points with another strong drive, though his team-mate Christian Klien was unlucky in traffic and had to settle for eighth.
After a tyre-valve failure on the 25th lap necessitated another pit stop, Kimi Raikkonen fought back to make this a nose-to-tail trio as the flag fell.
Ferrari will almost certainly take their new car to Bahrain. It is faster than their updated 2004 model, but whether it will be fast enough until Bridgestone sort out their tyre design is a moot point.
"It's not bad now, is it?" Bernie Ecclestone mused. "I think we need to leave things a little longer before we think of making any changes. Let's just see what happens next."
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX (Kuala Lumpur): 56 laps: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 31min 33.736sec; 2 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:31:58.036; 3 N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:32:05.836; 4 J Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes 1:32:15.336; 5 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:32:25.536; 6 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull 1:32:46.236; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:32:53.636; 8 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull 1:32:54.536; 9 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:32:55.236; 10 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas at 1 lap; 11 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan-Toyota at 2 laps; 12 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan-Toyota at 3 laps; 13 C Albers (Neth) Minardi-Cosworth at 4 laps. Not classified: 14 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 49 laps completed; 15 G Fisichella (It) Renault 36 laps; 16 M Webber (Aus) Williams-BMW 36 laps; 17 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-Petronas 26 laps; 18 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 2 laps; 19 A Davidson (GB) BAR-Honda 2 laps; 20 P Friesacher (Ger) Minardi-Cosworth 2 laps.
Drivers' standings: 1 Alonso 16pts; 2 Fisichella 10; 3 Trulli 8; 4 Barrichello 8; 5 Coulthard 8; 6 Montoya 8; 7 Heidfeld 6; 8 R Schumacher 4; 9 Webber 4; 10 Klien 3; 11 M Schumacher 2; 12 Raikkonen 1.
Constructors' standings: 1 Renault 26pts; 2 Toyota 12; 3 Red Bull 11; 4 Ferrari 10; 5 Williams-BMW 10; 6 McLaren-Mercedes 9.
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