Penalty leaves Lewis scratching head

Ferraris roar back as Hamilton is demoted five places on grid after falling foul of controversial 'Coulthard Rule'
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Within the sport it is known as the "Coulthard Rule", and yesterday it was the McLaren drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, who fell foul of it.

The rule concerns so-called impeding of other drivers in qualifying, when you are on a slow lap and somebody else is on their quick one, trying to earn themselves the best grid position. It was introduced early in 2006 when David Coulthard complained that somebody had balked him, and later that year it cost Fernando Alonso dearly at Monza when the stewards ruled that he had inadvertently impeded Felipe Massa.

The cynics had a field day, but one steward explained: "To be honest, we hate the rule, but the [footage] showed that Alonso had got in Massa's way so we had to apply it fairly."

In qualifying here yesterday it was Nick Heidfeld who had to run the gauntlet on his quick lap and thread his way past Hamilton and Kovalainen, the Ferrari drivers Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, and his own BMW- Sauber partner Robert Kubica, who were slowing down. The situation is not helped by the fact that drivers habitually now go as slowly as possible at this juncture, to conserve fuel for the race.

Massa and Raikkonen had put a lock on the front row of the grid, with Kovalainen heading Hamilton on the second row. Heidfeld fancied his chance of jumping ahead of at least one of the silver arrows, but then he came across the McLarens. "I'm very disappointed," he said. "The first corners of my last lap went smoothly, but then there were several cars driving very slowly on their in-laps.

"Apparently they had no information the qualifying was still going on. Before Turn Four I lost a lot of time because both McLarens were cruising on the racing line. This cost me about two tenths of a second, which would have meant being third instead of seventh. I just couldn'tdrive on the line I wanted and, even more importantly, could not brake where I wanted."

Subsequently the stewards ruled that both McLarens had got in the way, and each was moved back five grid places. Thus, as Kovalainen faced an eighth-place getaway, Hamilton dropped to ninth.

Given the divided feelings about what really happened in 2007, it would have been easy to see an FIA conspiracy against McLaren, but it was just one of those things, and the team's chief operating officer, Martin Whitmarsh, was smart enough to see it that way. "We accept the stewards' decision, but would like to add that neither Lewis nor Heikki impeded any of their competitors deliberately," he said.

"It was an unfortunate incident – nothing more, nothing less. We look forward to [this morning's] race."

It was an unfortunate welcome for McLaren's team principal, Ron Dennis, who had arrived in Malaysia after all, having been expected to stay in the UK. His elder brother Michael died suddenly while he was in Australia last week, and Dennis had returned home for the funeral. It was yet another chapter in his ongoing spate of recentill-fortune, but he flew to Malay-sia with his youngest children, Christian and Francesca.

On his arrival, McLaren confirmed that, inspired by the performance of his protégé Hamilton in 2007, Dennis has recentlyinvested a significant sum in setting up his own foundation, Dreamchasing, to foster and support gifted young people with talent but insufficient funding in their chosen fields.

Hamilton did not make any comment on his penalty, but had earlier said: "There didn't seem to be as much grip in the tyres during the final session, and I just struggled a bit. Also it was tough finding a gap in the traffic, which had an effect on my ability to warm up the brakes and manage the tyres. To be honest I didn't do a perfect job today, and I will study the data to see how I can go faster. We have to stay positive, though, as we are still in a good position and anything can happen in the race."

Neither Massa, who took pole position for the second year in succession, nor Raikkonen seemed happy afterwards.

The Brazilian was clearly running a lower fuel load, whereas the general feeling was that Hamilton had enough for a long opening stint.

Some of you may already know the result of the race as you read this article over your morning cornflakes, but for the rest it remained to be seen whether the world champion-ship leader could make up his disadvantage and pull an Easter bunny out of the hat.

The grid

1 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari, 1min 35.748sec

2 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari, 1:36.230

3 Jarno Trulli (Ita) Toyota, 1:36.711

4 Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber, 1:36.727

5 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber, 1:36.753

6 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull, 1:37.009

7 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault, 1:38.450

8 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mecedes, 1:36.613*

9 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:36.709*

10 Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota, 1:39.656

11 Jenson Button (GB) Honda, 1:35.208

12 David Coulthard (GB) Red Bull, 1:35.408

13 Nelson Piquet (Bra) Renault, 1:35.562

14 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Honda, 1:35.622

15 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso, 1:35.648

16 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams, 1:35.670

17 Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Force India, 1:36.240

18 Kazuki Nakajima (Jap) Williams, 1:36.388

19 Sebastien Bourdais (Fra) Toro Rosso, 1:36.677

20 Takuma Sato (Jap) Super Aguri, 1:37.087

21 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India, 1:37.101

22 Anthony Davidson (GB) Super Aguri, 1:37.481

* demoted five places for impeding