Already the championship battle is looking promising if McLaren can sustain the threat to Ferrari. But was the Scuderia’s disappointing day in Malaysia a one-off, or a sign of things to come?
Having wrested victory from the Ferraris in Sepang Fernando Alonso returns to the scene of a similar victory last year. When the Ferraris and Renaults looked evenly matched at the desert track in 2006, Pat Symonds’ strategic nous helped Alonso score a strategic knockout.
With Alonso and McLaren leading both titles races they have struck an important psychological blow against Ferrari, who appear to have the faster car but not the points to show for it.
In just two races Lewis Hamilton has distinguished himself for being rapid, confident, and imperturbably cool. After his killer starts at Melbourne and Sepang his nearest rivals are all aware from first hand experience what he can do off the line.
But the last stint in Malaysia, when he was up to a second of a lap slower than team mate Alonso on the harder rubber, shows there is still progress to be made. That is both good and bad news for those trying to beat him.
Renault’s expectations that they had turned a corner in understanding the Bridgestone compound did not appear to be realised in Sepang. Having only got Giancarlo Fisichella through to the last round of qualifying in Australia, neither driver made the cut in Malaysia.
Well-managed heavy fuel stints brought both Fisichella and rookie Heikki Kovalainen into the points. But unless either can get on the podium soon serious questions will be asked about whether the maximum performance is being elicited from the R27 in the absence of Alonso.
I can offer two explanations: first, that a combination of problems held the Ferraris back: Raikkonen’s stressed engine, the Saturday night rain at Sepang changing the track surface in unexpected ways, and Felipe Massa’s mistakes in the race.
Either that, or the much-vaunted ‘flexi-floor’ restrictions have hit the team harder than expected.
I’d put my money on the former – but if they struggle again at Bahrain it could be a sign that their wings have indeed been clipped. And it also raises the question of whether these problems would have occurred under the Michael Schumacher/Ross Brawn regime.
Speaking of Ross Brawn – Honda are after him, according to Autosport. Which is heartening because it at least proves that they acknowledge radical change is needed having failed to build on the promise they showed back in 2004.
It’s not clear what the present team are doing about the car – besides screwing up race preparation, according to Rubens Barrichello. But it’s unlikely to have any effect in the week between Sepang and Bahrain. Barrichello and Jenson Button just have to brace themselves for the worst.
Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica faced similar races in Sepang to what they had in Melbourne. Heidfeld qualified well, took some solid points and finished ahead of Massa. Kubica surprisingly didn’t match his team mate in qualifying and then suffered reliability problems in the race.
For a team that are targeting fourth in the championship, comfortably running third and nipping at the heels of the leading teams is not to be sniffed at. But can they deliver more?
From complete anonymity in pre-season testing Toyota have started both races so far from the top ten.
Equally baffling is the subsequent race pace of their cars – Jarno Trulli drove a solid race to seventh in Malaysia while Ralf Schumacher plummeted towards the back of the field.
So how will they fare in Bahrain? I have no idea. Neither the team nor drivers seem to exhibit much in the way of consistency. All I’m prepared to predict is that they’ll be there and the cars will be predominantly white and red. And no-one will care.
At Sepang, both drivers made it through the first phase of qualifying. Good. In the race, David Coulthard fell foul of another niggling design fault with Adrian Newey’s RB3, when the brake pedal and steering column began fouling each other. Bad.
But there are clear signs of progress. Webber finished tenth and still on the lead lap. Not only did he prove the package can do back-to-back races – including the heat of Sepang – he was pushing Alexander Wurz hard at the end. With a decent qualifying position in Bahrain this car could finish in the points.
The grim spectre of Williams’ nightmare 2006 reliability reared its head in Sepang as both drivers lost potential points finishes to car failures.
Alexander Wurz’s occurred in qualifying and left him 20th on the grid, from which he recovered brilliantly to ninth. Nico Rosberg’s car failed as he was within a handful of laps of bringing it home in the points.
Is this a one off? Whatever happens the drivers must keep the faith, particularly Rosberg who was scintillating in Bahrain last year.
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari
Vitantonio Liuzzi got the car through the first phase of qualifying for the first time, but team mate Scott Speed beat him in the race.
The team seem to be coping at least as well with the RB3′s closest relative (i.e. identical twin) as Red Bull senior are managing, but surely Gerhard Berger will be expecting his drivers to take the fight to Webber and Coulthard soon.
But not having tested at Bahrain in the off season will hurt them compared to closest rivals Super Aguri and Toro Rosso. Getting both cars to the finish ahead of at least one rival will be a result.
There was no repeat of the dizzying highs of Melbourne for Super Aguri last weekend – in fact, both Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson had rather ordinary races.
It remains to be seen whether their refined RA106 is a better option than the RA107 – at the moment it’s a no-score draw. If the team really are going to spend the season in the lower midfield it will be a letdown after the promise of Melbourne, and Interlagos last year.