Giancarlo Fisichella put his myriad 2005 disappointments behind him here yesterday, scoring the third grand prix victory of his career. But it was a close-run thing as his world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso pushed hard in the closing stages and finished only 4.6 seconds behind to give Renault the perfect result.
Jenson Button, as usual, played down his prospects but had to fancy his chances after qualifying second. Things picked up even more for him on the opening lap when likely threat Kimi Raikkonen was forced out after contact with Christian Klien's Red Bull. But things began to go wrong when Alonso made a demon start from seventh place to grab third by the first corner.
The Spaniard started down the grid after suffering a fuelling rig malfunction in the final round of qualifying, his overloaded Renault proving no match for his lighter rivals. The error cost him the race.
Somehow, however, he went past the duelling Williams of Mark Webber and the rookie Nico Rosberg and the two McLarens, even though he was running a greater fuel load than most of them. Fisichella and Button quickly broke clear of the pack as Alonso kept Webber bottled up behind him, but Rosberg had little chance to shine as his Cosworth engine exploded in a spectacular sheet of flame on the seventh lap.
Button took over the lead when Fisichella refuelled on the 17th lap, and held it until his own stop two laps later. Alonso, however, was able to go until lap 26 until he surrendered the lead to refuel. Crucially, Button had rejoined the race behind Juan Pablo Montoya's McLaren, which did not need fuel until lap 23.
When the first round of stops was over, Button was back in second place, chasing Fisichella from a distance of around nine seconds, but it was clear that the Italian would only lose this one through misfortune.
Both he and Button refuelled again on lap 38, and again Button fell behind Montoya who did not stop until lap 42. Alonso came in on lap 43, but this time was able to rejoin ahead of the delayed Englishman's Honda. Renault's 1-2 was sealed. For Fisichella, the win was redemption for what many saw as a less than robust defence of the lead against Kimi Raikkonen in Japan last year, when the Finn overtook him on the penultimate lap to win.
There was perhaps an echo of that memory when he said: "It was a very tough race physically and mentally. It was really, really hot out there and I began to feel it from mid-race onwards. I knew it would be hard but there was no choice but to push all the way to the end." The need to push came because Alonso was not about to settle for second when a win might still be possible. "I have a special feeling for this circuit, it is a fantastic track and has always been good to me," Alonso said.
While the Renault boys were smiling, Button's post-race face betrayed his complete disappointment as that possible second place finish became third. Plenty of others would have been satisfied with that, but Jenson's days of excitement over lower podium positions are long behind him in a year when he needs to get his first victory.
"I'm obviously pleased to see us back on the podium but it was the top step that we had in mind. We want to be winning races and today showed that we are in the fight, but there is still a lot of work to be done before we can achieve that target." He was also angry after losing time behind the American rookie Scott Speed. "I was held up in traffic a few times," he said, adding, "not least of all by Speed."
Montoya finished fourth in a race that seemed to lack life. Just be thankful that the season opened the way it did in Bahrain.
Ferrari lost their edge in Malaysia. As Montoya finished fourth, Michael Schumacher found his two-stop strategy inferior to upcoming team-mate Felipe Massa's single stop and had to follow the Brazilian home in sixth place. That was sufficient, however, to keep him in joint second place with Button as Alonso stretched his championship lead.
"We can accept this result considering everything that has happened over the weekend," said Schumacher philosophically.
Grand Prix of Malaysia (Sepang): 1 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1hr 30min 40.529sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +00min 04.585sec; 3 J Button (GB) Honda +00:09.631; 4 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes +00:39.351; 5 F Massa (Br) Ferrari +00:43.254; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +00:43.854; 7 J Villeneuve (Can) BMW-Sauber +01:20.461; 8 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota +01:21.288; 9 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1 lap; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +1 lap; 11 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +2 laps; 12 C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota +2 laps; 13 T Monteiro (Por) Midland-Toyota +2 laps; 14 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +3 laps.
Dnf: N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber (8 laps); S Speed (US) Toro Rosso-Cosworth (15 laps); Y Ide (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda (23 laps); C Klien (Aut) RedBull Racing(30 laps); M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth (41 laps); D Coulthard (GB) RedBull Racing (46 laps); N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth (50 laps); K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes (56 laps)
Championship standings: Drivers: 1 Alonso 18pts; 2= M Schumacher 11; 2= Button 11; 4 Fisichella 10; 5 Montoya 9; 6 K Raikkonen 6; 7 Massa 4; 8 Webber 3; 9= Rosberg 2; 9= Villeneuve 2; 11 R Schumacher 1; 12 Klien 1. Constructors: 1 Renault 28pts; 2 Ferrari 15; 3 McLaren-Mercedes 15; 4 Honda 11; 5 Williams-Cosworth 5; 6 BMW-Sauber 2; 7= Toyota 1; 7= RedBull Racing 1.