There was an irresistible inevitability about Kimi Raikkonen’s Malaysian Grand Prix victory.
No distractions deflected him from his course – not the embarrassment of running out of fuel during first practice, not his team mate’s fuel-aided pole position.
It was McLaren’s turn to feel the pain Ferrari suffered in Melbourne as both their drivers were penalised after qualifying and Lewis Hamilton was delayed by a wheel gun problem.
Massa leads away
McLaren’s penalty robbed us of a four-way fight to the first corner, as neither of the new occupants of the second row, Jarno Trulli or Robert Kubica, were able to get close to the Ferraris. In fact they fell back to the clutches of the chasing pack, while Felipe Massa kept Raikkonen behind.
The big winners of the first-corner scramble were Mark Webber and Hamilton, who emerged fourth and fifth. Hamilton tried for a line around the outside but was blocked by Alonso, so switched to the inside of the Renault and found a way through.
Ahead Nick Heidfeld tried the route around the outside of the pack that Alonso exploited so effectively in 2006, but was scuppered when Trulli understeered into him. He fell to tenth behind Alonso and David Coulthard.
The trio circulated together for three laps until Alonso got a run on Coulthard coming onto the back straight. Heidfeld meanwhile carried more momentum than the pair of them and passed both down the inside of the final turn. Alonso followed him through on the next lap.
It was a much tidier first lap than at Melbourne but there were a couple of casualties – Nico Rosberg tagged the rear of Timo Glock’s Toyota, knocking his compatriot into a second consecutive retirement. Rosberg completed a second lap before pitting for a new front wing. Another rookie in trouble was Sebastien Bourdais, who got off-line at turn six and spun out on the first lap.
Problems for Hamilton and Webber
On soft tyres, Hamilton fell back from Webber – the McLarens again suffering as overnight rain had washed the build-up of rubber off the track. But as the tyres wore down he rallied to chase the Red Bull driver and was half a second off his rear wing when the Australian pitted on lap 17.
Released, Hamilton lapped much quicker and was poised to move ahead as his first stop approached on lap 20, thanks also to Webber losing two seconds behind Takuma Sato’s lapped Super Aguri.
But Hamilton’s first pit stop was ruined by a sticking front-right wheel nut – the same corner of the car that caused his crash at the Nurburgring last year. He lost around ten seconds and emerged 12th behind the similarly delayed Webber, who had also lost his rear light and had developed a problem with his air pump.
Their problems promoted Trulli and Kovalainen up the running order. On soft tyres once again, Hamilton went through the same cycle of falling back from and then catching Webber, but still could do nothing to pass him on the track.
Raikkonen leads, Massa loses
The Ferrari drivers remained in close company, though Raikkonen struggled to get close to Massa due to the turbulence coming from his team mate’s car.
But after Massa pitted on lap 18 Raikkonen unleashed his real pace and the outcome of the duel by pit stops was never in doubt. Just as in France last year, Raikkonen happily let his team mate take the lighter fuel strategy, comfortable in the knowledge that his raw speed would prevail on race day.
Massa compounded the loss of the lead by losing every other place when he spun out on the 32nd lap. Replays showed the car snapping out of control quickly and it was hard to avoid the impression that, as at Melbourne, he’d lost the rear of the car under acceleration.
Up and down the field
Rosberg’s problems were half of Williams’ troubles. Kazuki Nakajima started last following his penalty from the last race but picked up a puncture in his second stint and was delayed further by a spin.
He ended the race last behind the two Super Aguris, Anthony Davidson over a half a minute in front of his team mate. Giancarlo Fisichella gave Force India their first finish in an excellent 12th ahead of Nico Rosberg and Rubens Barrichello, the latter picking up a penalty for speeding in the pits but at least avoiding disqualification this time.
Also finishing a race for the first time was Nelson Piquet Jnr, 11th and 22s behind Fernando Alonso.
There were far fewer retirements than at Melbourne but Toro Rosso once again saw both their cars stop – Vettel’s engine expiring on lap 39. Adrian Sutil retired his Force India on lap five.
A settled finish
The end of the race lacked drama. Hamilton rather inevitably moved back ahead of Webber at his last pit stop and had caught Trulli by the chequered flag but was a lap short of being able to try to pass.
Kovalainen had leapt ahead of the Toyota driver to third behind Robert Kubica, the BMW driver a very comfortable second. Heidfeld was sixth after an eventful race while Webber scored two points for Red Bull after the team started the weekend poorly.
Close behind Webber was Alonso, scoring the final point, six sceonds ahead of Coulthard. Jenson Button, tenth, said that was as much as the Honda was capable of.
Raikkonen’s dominant win does much to allay fears about the competitiveness of Ferrari – although the fact remains they have only had one car running at the end of the first two races.
Hamilton retained his championship lead and catching McLaren in the constructors’ race will be difficult for the Italian team if Massa doesn’t start bringing the car home.