Alonso victorious, takes championship lead for the first time in his career.
Fernando Alonso was unlucky in Melbourne, but in Sepang nobody could touch him as he raced his Renault to a comfortable victory. With Jarno Trulli an excellent second for Toyota and Nick Heidfeld a fighting third for Williams, however, this was anything but a predictable Grand Prix.
From the moment the race started, Fernando Alonso was completely in control as he out-accelerated Jarno Trulli into the first corner. But the fact that they only changed places during pit stops should not be taken as a sign that this was a dull affair. Far from it. There was enough going on down the field to keep everyone occupied.
As Alonso and Trulli pulled clear, chased by Giancarlo Fisichella, Mark Webber reversed his Melbourne start and sprinted up to fourth, followed by Ralf Schumacher and Jenson Button, who passed car after car on his way up from ninth on the grid. But the Briton’s charge was short-lived. On the third lap his BAR rolled to a halt with a smoking engine – the repair after his practice problems had come undone – and before the lap was out team mate Anthony Davidson’s third grand prix ended for exactly the same reason.
Soon the race settled into a pattern, with Schumacher chasing Webber for fourth as Nick Heidfeld challenged Kimi Raikkonen for sixth ahead of the Red Bulls of David Coulthard and Christian Klien. Behind them Juan Pablo Montoya tagged along, heading Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. As expected, the Ferraris were in deep tyre trouble and could never fight their way through.
The pattern was interrupted by the flurry of pits stops, which started with Christijan Albers on the 16th lap and Klien on the 18th. By the time they were over it was still Alonso from Trulli, Fisichella, Webber and Schumacher, but Raikkonen’s race was damaged on the 25th lap, just after his pit stop, when his right rear Michelin exploded. The Finn sped round to the pits for a single replacement, and settled into a change from the back of the field.
Then, going into the final corner on the 32nd lap, Schumacher Jnr tried a desperate move on Webber which resulted in contact. They had been gaining on Fisichella, and Heidfeld had been able to catch them all. Now he had the chance to dive into fourth place, but Webber recovered momentum by Turn One and Heidfeld had to surrender as his team mate pushed neatly through on the inside. Schumacher also got the Toyota back ahead, but three corners later Heidfeld shouldered cleanly back ahead of his fellow countryman and set after Webber again.
This gave Fisichella some much-needed breathing space as his Renault was suffering a handling problem in the second stint, but Webber and Heidfeld were upon him again by the 37th lap. Again going into the final corner, Webber went for the outside line. He got halfway round, his Williams sliding into oversteer, when Fisichella’s Renault understeered into him, pushing him wide. In a trice the Renault spun over the Williams’s nose, leaving both men to walk unhappily home from what was a clear racing incident. Fisichella was subsequently given a warning by the stewards.
This gifted third place to Heidfeld, who accepted it gladly and sped home to match his previous best result from Brazil 2001 with Sauber.
It was also good news again for Red Bull, as Coulthard found himself in sixth place. Klien wasn’t quite so lucky as he lost a place to Michael Schumacher during his last stop, and couldn’t make it up. Both men had lost a lot of time when they came out of the pits behind Rubens Barrichello, whose Ferrari was troubled by serious oversteer caused by debris on its rear wing. By the end of the race, Klien was sandwiched between Schumacher and the fast-closing Raikkonen, but managed to hold on for another point.
As a result Alonso, who could barely stand on the podium, now heads the world championship with 16 points, from Fisichella on 10 and then Trulli, Barrichello, Montoya and Coulthard on eight apiece and Heidfeld on six. In the constructors’ standings Renault have a healthy 14-point advantage over Toyota, with Red Bull an impressive third.
Fernando Alonso after his race win:
“Physically, it was a very demanding race and I really felt how hard it had been on the podium afterwards. But it’s a great feeling to win here, and the way I was able to do it demonstrates that we are competitive with our rivals this season, on every type of circuit. Everything went well from start to finish: the car, the engine and the Michelin tyres. A big thank-you to the whole team: they did a fantastic job this winter in Enstone, Viry and Clermont-Ferrand at Michelin. At this stage, I think we have a real chance to fight for the title.”