Schumacher's dominance all too familiar

Malaysian Grand Prix: World champion again leads the way but hope rises for Jaguar as Webber splits the reds
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The Independent Online

For Ferrari's rivals, all that has been missing in Malaysia are the creepy tones of Vincent Price. They have been living in some sort of Formula One horror movie. The Red Menace. The Pits and the Pendulum.

On Friday afternoon they had taken comfort from squeezing Michael Schumacher down to only fourth place after he had dominated the morning session with sidekick Rubens Barrichello riding shotgun. But while Ron Dennis savoured Kimi Raikkonen's resurgence and fastest lap time for McLaren, what they didn't know was that Ferrari had been running with a high fuel load all afternoon. They discovered that on Saturday morning when the champion slashed into the 1min 33secs, springing smoothly back to his customary place atop the timing screens.

The nightmare of the Australian Grand Prix had begun to fade. Formula One is so fast-moving that you never dwell on these things. But here was incontrovertible proof of what everyone had feared as they left Melbourne on the Sunday evening, after Ferrari had sped to a crushing one-two. Then they had consoled themselves with the fact that the cool conditions in Australia had been better suited to the Ferraris' Bridgestone tyres.

Things will be different for Michelin in the heat of Malaysia, they had all told themselves. But here was the heat - all 55C of it at track level - and there were the red cars. Fastest again. And in qualifying, things got worse. Like all horror films, there was a need to suspend disbelief. So forget that some cars may have been running heavier fuel loads than others, and try to take things at their face value and pretend that what we saw was what we really got. It is the only way to get through the turgid current format.

Of the front-runners, BMW-Williams's Juan Pablo Montoya was the first to set the fastest time, with 1:34.054. Team-mate Ralf Schumacher did 1:34.235, and then they were split by the on-form Jenson Button, who once again proved the inherent pace of the BAR and its Honda V10 engine as he worked down to 1:34.221. David Coulthard couldn't beat that. But then came Barrichello, who wound his Ferrari round in 1:33.756.

That lasted only a short while, however, before the Australian Mark Webber whisked his Jaguar round in a remarkable 1:33.715, only to have Schumacher cut that by a huge margin with a 1:33.074. That resisted Kimi Raikkonen's efforts for McLaren and Jarno Trulli's for Renault, and when last year's pole-sitter Fernando Alonso made a rare mistake and dropped his Renault into the gravel, the show was over. Qualifying these days is like teenage sex: hours of expectation for five minutes' excitement.

The Jaguar team was the place to be if you wanted to see happy people, but for the rest Ferrari's performance was confirmation of their worst dreams. The Michelin tyres had been expected to dominate in Malaysia's heat, but Bridgestone's rubber - and the aerodynamics of the Ferrari F2004 - had set the pace. Hold on to your hats, it looks as though we may be in for another red-tide season.

Jaguar's performance was therefore a breath of fresh air. There are other team principals who don't believe the team are spending enough to deserve their place in F1. But Webber's efforts in an R5 that was carrying a reasonable fuel load proved the folly of such arrogance. "We are all very happy here at Jaguar Racing today," Webber smiled. "The car has been good all weekend and my engineers and mechanics have done an amazing job in preparing it for this circuit. We did not expect second today, but I am more than pleased with the outcome. We have all been working so hard on the R5, and to start to see some of the results of this work pay off is fantastic motivation."

Team principal Tony Purnell is not the most demonstrative man in the paddock, but there was no mistaking his satisfaction. Not so long ago Jaguar's performance was a joke; now, under his leadership, the team are turning the corner. Unpretentious behaviour and solid engineering are beginning to leave their mark. "That was fantastic!" Purnell said with almost schoolboyish glee. "But second is ridiculous. We were maybe hoping for sixth... And our race pace isn't too bad, either."

They might not be able to sustain their second position come the race, but nobody would really expect them to. At a time when most of their rivals were ready to start slashing their wrists at the possibility of a repeat of Ferrari's 2002 steamroller season, it was uplifting to see some good old-fashioned racers cutting through the hyperbole of modern sport, and a decent, no-nonsense bloke like Webber sticking it to some of the big guns. Even if Ferrari do dominate, the David v Goliath battle in their wake holds the promise of some serious entertainment as Williams and McLaren fight to restore their reputations.

Grid positions

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:33.074

2 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:33.715

3 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:33.756

4 J Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:34.054

5 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Merc 1:34.164

6 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:34.221

7 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:34.235

8 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:34.413

9 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.602

10 C Da Matta (Br) Toyota 1:34.917

11 Felipe Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:35.039; 12 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:35.061; 13 C Klein (Aut) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:35.158; 14 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:35.617; 15 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Ford 1:36.569; 16 G Bruni (It) Minardi-Cosworth 1:38.577; 17 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi-Cosworth 1:39.272; 18 G Pantano (It) Jordan-Ford 1:39.902; 19 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda no time recorded; 20 F Alonso (Sp) Renault no time recorded.

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