Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, Sepang, 2006

Fisichella leads Renault one-two

Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, Sepang, 2006The finely-poised qualifying session promised us a great race. But, after the high of Bahrain, the Malaysian Grand Prix failed to deliver anything in the way of thrills. Giancarlo Fisichella took the win, but you wondered what might have happened had the Renault bosses not defused his team-mate’s charge.

As the 22 cars formed up on the dummy grid the sense of anticipation was palpable. Up front, Fisichella and Jenson Button, the latter wringing every last drop of speed from his Honda to get on terms with the flying Renaults. Behind, star rookie Nico Rosberg who had narrowly edged out qualifying specialist Mark Webber, in a pair of Williams-Cosworths that the team promised would be wielded more aggressively than in Bahrain.

Behind them, Juan Pablo Montoya narrowly ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, wielding the yet-unrealised potential of their new McLarens; Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso, held back to seventh after taking on too much fuel in qualifying; and the man he beat in Bahrain, Michael Schumacher, 14th after an engine change, and ready to pounce.

But when the red lights went out the chance of an entertaining race rapidly unravelled in a manner the Formula One fans have become used in the refuelling era.

Alonso sprinted past the McLarens and Williams cars to third, chasing Button. Raikkonen was bundled out of the race by Klien at turn four on the first lap and Montoya, as in Bahrain, simply didn’t figure – strongly suggesting that he had in deed been dealt a slow engine for the first two races of the year.

Both Williams drivers had retired by lap 17, and Schumacher made only slow progress forward in his Ferrari. He was aided by a passive and disinterested Jarno Trulli, who practically pulled over to let the former champion through on lap Jacques Villeneuve and Felipe Massa also motored past the Italian without difficulty.

Scott Speed, Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth, Sepang, 2006Thus there was rapidly little left of a race to watch tat was worthy of the name. Button simply couldn’t keep Fisichella in sight and was falling into Alonso’s clutches. Sure enough, Alonso snuck past at the final stop.

Jenson Button, Honda, Sepang, 2006At this point the race took perhaps its most disappointing turn. When Alonso scorched out of the pits on lap 46 he began to savage Fisichella’s advantage – 1.8s faster on his first lap out of the pits, 1.3s on the second leaving an 8.5s gap to eradicate in the final nine tours.

Whereupon Alonso immediately backed off and began lapping at his team-mate’s pace, Renault having dictated – as Ferrari did in 2004 – that that was enough excitement for one day, and their boys should motor home in their current order. After a frustratingly dull race, this was a most unsatisfactory outcome.

More surprising was Michael Schumacher’s apparent disinterest in passing Felipe Massa for sixth, which became fifth when the fast-but-unspectacular Nick Heidfeld suffered an untimely BMW engine failure with eight laps remaining, just as he was beginning to look as if he could take fourth from Montoya.

Ralf Schumacher justly claimed the final point for Toyota having been quicker – and more engaging – than Trulli all weekend. But the TF106 still looks some way off being the miracle Toyota were hoping for.

Has the bubble burst?

Bahrain thrilled us: Formula One came back on a high with drama in qualifying, a gripping battle for race victory, an astonishing rookie debut, and plenty of overtaking. But Malaysia was a tedious damp squib. So which one was the one-off?

Malaysian Grand Prix 2006 StartIt’s easy for an F1 fan to let their head drop after a race like Malaysia, when all the weekend’s big storylines simply failed to materialise:

How quick is Kimi Raikkonen? No idea – Christian Klien ham-fistedly bundled him out of the race on lap one.

Do Williams have the pace to win this year? It’s academic if they Malaysian Grand Prix reliability is anything to go by – two engine failures totalling 21 racing laps for two cars.

Is Giancarlo Fisichella on terms with Fernando Alonso? No idea – Alonso was decimating Fisichella’s advantage after the Spaniard’s third stop, but his team ordered him to turn on the cruise control.

Now, there’s a funny turn of phrase, ?????ǣteam ordered him????????????something about that in the rules??????can’t quite put my finger on it??????Ah! Here we go:

FIA Sporting Regulation #147 ?????ǣTeam orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited.??????

That’s it, verbatim, black and white. Did Renault interfere with the race result? Well, one could certainly argue that they prevented it from being changed – they imposed their will upon it. And they’re by no means the first team to do so – it was par for the course for Ferrari in 2004 when that regulation was still on the books.

Michael Schumacher & Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari, A1-Ring, 2002It’s fair to say that if the ‘no team orders’ rule were being interpreted a little more aggressively by the FIA, we might have seen a bit of a battle at the end of the race. But I digress – what of the next few rounds?

Melbourne is a bit of a wild card – a virtually unique parkland circuit for the F1 calendar, outside of its regular slot when the teams would ordinarily not know their cars so well. It can be expected to mix up the order a little, even if the track is not conducive to overtaking.

Nico Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, Sepang, 2006Nor is Imola, at least until they straighten out the Variante Bassa as is planned for 2007. For 2006, Renault have already publicly predicted a Ferrari walkover – which could just be cunning reverse psychology, but pre-2005 form strongly suggests they aren’t bluffing.

But even if these races do jumble the order up a little, will this necessarily produce good racing? This is where we have to take a look at the rules, and many are already grumbling about the return to ‘sprint-stop-sprint’ racing since the re-legalisation of tyre stops.

That may be so – but at Imola last year a fresh set of tyres may well have aided Alonso’s cause in staying ahead of Michael Schumacher. Alternatively, if the circuit were as easy to overtake on as, say, Silverstone, Schumacher would have blasted past and there would have been no nail-biting climax.

You can go chasing after tiny little reasons why things aren’t perfect, but perhaps lets give this season a chance to bed in before anyone starts grabbing copies of the FIA Sporting Regulations armed with a pen and Tipp-Ex.

Although perhaps someone could underline rule 147??????

Ferrari wing protested

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Sepang, 2006Eight teams have given the FIA notice of their intent to protest Ferrari running what the other teams believe is an illegal wing – but it is their front wing, not their rear wing, which is coming under fire.

The teams believe the uppermost part of the Ferrari wing deflects too greatly at high speed and is therefore a ‘moveable aerodynamic device’ prohibited by the rules. Ferrari’s rear wing had previously come under scrutiny for the same reason. The new aerodynamic package including the current front wing was introduced immediately prior to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

It is expected that, if Ferrari perform very well in Malaysia, the eight teams will lodge a formal protest. It is understood that the two non-protesting teams are Red Bull Racing, who receive Ferrari engines, and their junior team Scuderia Toro Rosso.

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