Raikkonen's defence back on track as Hamilton struggles to keep up

The Australian Grand Prix might have been a nightmare for Ferrari, but a week is a long time in Formula One and yesterday Malaysia proved to be a dream as Kimi Raikkonen crushed his opposition and sped home to an easy 22-second victory.

What made the triumph sweeter still for the world champion, whose engine had blown up the previous week, was that his closest challenger was not arch-rival Lewis Hamilton, but Robert Kubica in a BMW Sauber. On a day when luck ran against him, Hamilton had to be satisfied with a fifth place finish that nevertheless maintained his lead in the drivers' championship table.

It was Raikkonen's team-mate Felipe Massa, starting from pole position, who took the lead at the outset, chased by Raikkonen and Kubica. Hamilton, starting from ninth place, after the five-place penalty he received after qualifying for inadvertently impeding Nick Heidfeld's best lap, made his usual brilliant start and surged alongside his former McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso in the sprint to the first corner. The Spaniard did him no favours and moved him over the kerb on the outside, but after what happened between them at Spa-Francorhamps in Belgium last year Hamilton was not having any of that and refused to back off. As they turned into the first corner he ducked behind Alonso's Renault and then boxed it in against Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli on the outside, a pair who were having their own time-consuming battle after the Italian's Toyota had touched the German's BMW Sauber. By the second corner Hamilton was fifth, right behind Mark Webber, who got a good run down the inside in his Red Bull from sixth on the grid. Trulli tucked in behind him, with Heikki Kovalainen in the second McLaren next up.

As Massa and Raikkonen pulled confidently away, Kubica also distanced himself from the scrap between Webber and Hamilton, the Briton unable to find a way past the Australian and losing ground as a result. He finally moved up when Webber refuelled on the 16th lap. When the Ferraris did likewise on laps 17 and 18 he moved up to second behind Kubica, but his chances of a podium evaporated when the wheelnut-locking mechanism on his McLaren's right front wheel malfunctioned when he made his own refuelling stop on the 19th lap. The 10-second delay dropped him back to 11th place, and thereafter he was fighting to recover for the rest of the race.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, was leading. "I could have had a chance of passing Felipe into the first corner at the start," he admitted, "but I knew that I had one lap's more fuel than Felipe and it is never worth taking a risk with your team-mate in the first corner, so I stayed behind him. I knew if I could stay with him I would have a good chance later during the pit stops."

His optimism was justified, and later Massa made a costly error when he spun out of the race on the 31st lap.

After that, Ferrari turned down the revs on Raikkonen's engine, just as BMW Sauber would when it became clear that Kubica was not going to be challenged by Kovalainen, who had moved up to third place after some good strategy and pitwork from McLaren.

The main interest after the second stops was whether Hamilton's relentless chase after Trulli's Toyota would yield fourth place. After he had refuelled for the second time on the 44th lap, with no further dramas, he set out after the Italian. From 7.3 seconds on lap 45, the gap between them shrank in successive laps to 6.3, 5.2, 4.4, 3.6, 3.2, 2.6, 2.3, 1.7, 1.1 and 0.6, but it was 0.7 seconds as they crossed the finish line. It had been a brave chase that enlivened an otherwise relatively dull race, in which Hamilton set his best laps, but Trulli kept his nerve.

"I got a really good start and was pretty happy as we jumped four positions from ninth to fifth," Hamilton said later. "I was pushing Mark for a very long time, but being behind someone, no matter how quick you are, it is really difficult to get past.

"We were in a good position for a shot at third place at least, but then I had the problem in my first pit stop which lost me a lot of time. So I did the best job I could. However, we take away the fact that the car ran very reliably in these extreme conditions, and I was able to push Jarno right until the last second.

"I have to say that both Mark and Jarno drove really well today, and it was great to fight them out on track today."

Ahead of them, Raikkonen simply cruised home, and Kubica was equally unchallenged in second.

"After I passed Felipe and was running in free air I had no problem and was able to pull away," the Finn reported. "It was a very easy race after that point. The car was good in the first and second qualifying sessions, but we couldn't find the grip in the tyres in the third.

"But I knew I was running a lap later than Felipe and that the car would be better in the race, so as long as I kept close I had the chance to pass him later. The team did a great job this weekend."

The result leaves Hamilton still leading the drivers' world championship with 14 points, ahead of Raikkonen and Heidfeld on 11 apiece and Kovalainen on 10. In the constructors' chase, McLaren lead with 24, ahead of BMW Sauber on 19 and Ferrari on 11.

"For sure we had quite a difficult weekend in Australia, but speed-wise we knew we were going to be fine here," Raikkonen said, "so everything worked perfectly. This is a good start for the season for us now."

With BMW Sauber also looking so strong, Hamilton's McLaren team will be working flat out to improve before the next grand prix in Bahrain in a fortnight's time.

Malaysian Grand Prix race details

1 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1hr 31min 18.555sec

2 Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber +19.570sec

3 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren +38.450

4 Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota +45.832

5 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercesdes +46.548

6 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber +49.833

7 Mark Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault +1min 8.130sec

8 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault +1:10.041

9 David Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault +1:16.220

10 Jenson Button (GB) Honda +1:26.214

11 Nelson Piquet (Br) Renault +1:32.202

12 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari +1 lap

13 Rubens Barrichello (Br) Honda +1 lap

14 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1 lap

15 Anthony Davidson (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 1 lap16 Takuma Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 2 laps

17 Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 2 laps

Retired: Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 17 laps; Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 26 laps; Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari 51 laps; Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota 55 laps; Sebastien Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 56 laps

Constructors

1 McLaren 24pts

2 BMW-Sauber 19

3 Ferrari 11

4 Williams 9

5 Renault 6

6 Toyota 5

7 RedBull 2

8 Toro Rosso 2

9 Honda 0

10 Force India 0

11 Super Aguri 0

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