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The 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix
After a start in Melbourne where the two BMW drivers gently touched as Juan Pablo Montoya tried to gain places, Ralf Schumacher admitted that he would race his team-mate to the point of taking the pair of them off if there was a chance of a win. Their off-track relationship, however, remained strong and it was only the competitive spirit which got the better of them when points were at stake.
Meanwhile, Spaniard Fernando Alonso was deeply affected by the recent Madrid bombings, which occurred 11 March. Having achieved pole position in qualifying at Sepang he said that if he won he would dedicate the race to his countrymen in memory of those who lost their lives. He wore the Spanish flag on his helmet and arm as a mark of respect to those touched by the event.
Two teams faced problems during the week running up to the race as Ferrari suffered a fire at their Maranello headquarters which destroyed several prototype cars and Jordan admitted to getting hate mail relating to their choice of new driver. Ferrari stated that nobody was injured in the fire and the damaged work was moved to another building. Jordan, on the other hand, continued to receive hate mail which began to arrive after they chose to give the drive to Giorgio Pantano and not Jos Verstappen. The campaign was kept quiet to begin with but as the mails got more menacing Eddie Jordan decided that he had no choice but to make the matter public. Verstappen's management stated that they were trying to calm the situation so the Jordan team were able to concentrate purely on race matters.
After its first week on the go the new qualifying format was already under fire from fans and teams alike, mainly for the time it took - even the governing body wanted changes to be made. Some suggested that the second half should begin at 2pm in order that the television companies could concentrate on broadcasting just the crucial second half. This minor amendment was discussed with teams and when given the go-ahead came into action at the Bahrain Grand Prix that year.
As was the case the previous year, tyres were expected to be a decisive factor, as is usually the case in hot races such as Sepang. If Bridgestone had made the advancements they claimed then Ferrari would be unstoppable; however, if they still did not perform as well as the Michelins then the race for the championship was well and truly open. Bridgestone had been testing heavily over the winter and were confident that they had produced a tyre suitable of rivalling the previously dominant Michelins. Vasselon of the French tyre manufacturer was more cautious saying and explained that tests in Malaysia had been impractical and so most had been done in Europe.
The forecast for the weekend predicted rain which was unfortunate as it would mean that Bridgestone's advancements wouldn't be apparent. The temperature was forecast at four degrees lower than that for qualifying - only 30 degrees Celsius.
Ferrari's strongest competitor so far that year was BMW though Montoya didn't feel that even they would be able to throw down the gauntlet to them this time round. He had said that the team would be stronger than they were in Melbourne but knew there was still a long way to go. However, there was still an element of doubt introduced by the tyres and there was the possibility that this might just give them the edge to win.
McLaren also cited improvements made during testing in Valencia, though they admitted that it would not be enough for Kimi Raikkonen to win. The team said that they were not at the pace they had aimed for in Melbourne and were hoping to catch up quickly - reminding us that the championship is about all 18 races and not just one.
Jordan were hoping to continue Nick Heidfeld's luck with this track since he had scored points there during the last two seasons. However, it was likely to be a little more daunting for his team-mate as it was his first time at Sepang. Giorgio Pantano had already travelled to Kuala Lumpur in order to acclimatise himself to the heat and the humidity.
The Ferrari team looked as strong as they did in Melbourne, dominating the first practice and showing that Bridgestone had made the advancements they had been boasting about. With most of the other drivers a second off the pace, only test drivers Davidson and Zonta could get near them. McLaren had to make do with Raikkonen in sixth which indicated there may be some chance of finding a set-up which would allow them to offer more of a challenge than they did in Melbourne.
The Renaults were languishing in tenth and 13th this time, leaving Mark Webber and Jenson Button to show off for the middle ground teams with the Jordans 19th, 20th and 21st and Minardi taking up the rear in 22nd, 23rd and 25th sandwiching the Sauber of Felipe Massa.
The second practice, however, seemed to play into the hands of McLaren as Raikkonen managed to set the fastest time, leaving Ferraris in fourth and tenth. This may well have been due to the rise in track temperature which topped 50 degrees Celsius, suggesting that Bridgestone still had a way to go before they could fully claim to be at the same standard as the Michelins in the hotter climates.
It was noted the McLarens only completed 30 laps between them which indicated they may have been trying to save their engines for qualifying and the race.
Webber improved on his morning performance to become the third fastest on the track, whereas Montoya followed Michael Schumacher's Ferrari to become fifth-fastest and this time the Renaults were up in the top ten.
The results did not seem to disturb Rubens Barrichello who still felt that Ferrari had an edge over the other teams on the track since they had been running in race configuration. His team-mate and technical director spoke slightly more cautiously, stating that they had come a long way since last year but that the signs were that it would be close competition throughout the weekend.
McLaren's Kimi was delighted to be back in the game after topping the afternoon but was still wary about the rest of the weekend. David Coulthard, in ninth by the end of the afternoon, had been struggling with an accelerator pedal problem which impacted on his lap times, according to Ron Dennis.
Webber was glad to be able to impress, stating that it wasn't fluke and stated that his R5 felt 'very well balanced' and have him 'a great feeling of confidence, allowing you to really push.' He was particularly pleased with the consistency of the lap times he achieved during the afternoon.
Button was sure that he could get more from his BAR 005 than was shown during this practice session and though he claimed not to be worried about the times he felt that there was still a lot of work to be done.
The first practice returned M Schumacher to top of the time board almost half a second ahead of second place man Alonso. As the drivers limited the number of laps they covered to preserve their engines for the rest of the weekend the Ferrari driver only completed seven laps.
Webber slipped down the sheets to a slot in eighth and Button climbed up into the top ten. Cristiano Da Matta spun his car into the gravel on turn eight, which led to him leaving the session, a continuation of what had already been a bad week. Pantano also lost control of his Jaguar EJ14 at turn nine.
Michael continued to top the sheets in the second practice session, though this time the competition was fiercer as Montoya was just three-hundredths of a second off the German's pace followed by his team mate Ralf in third. Jarno Trulli found his way up to fourth after a relatively calm first session and was followed by the other Ferrari - half a second behind its team-mate.
Button made good of comments and managed to get himself up to sixth ahead of the McLarens. Alonso and Webber completed the top ten closely, all within a second of the leading driver.
First qualifying was dominated by the Renaults who filled the top two slots and Raikkonen - who was last out - was fastest in the first two sectors, only to lose time in the final part of the lap, leaving him in third place. The Ferraris came in next, sandwiching Webber between them.
Although the Williams looked challenging in Practice they were only able to manage ninth and 11th during the first session. Coulthard and Button filled the gap between them while Pantano continued his bad weekend when his car wasn't ready for his run. As a result he was left timeless - meaning he was out first in the second session.
Michael fought back in the second session to grab the pole position by more than six-tenths of a second. His main competition came from Webber in his Jaguar who forced the other Ferrari into third position.
The Renaults, who had promised so much, ended with only Trulli in eighth after Alonso spun off, leaving him at the back of the grid for Sunday's race.
Takuma Sato managed to spin his car off at turn 11 making Montoya abandon his out lap while the car was cleared away, though the Columbian didn't seem to lose too much from it and took fourth place on the grid.
Heidfeld came in 25th and after him there was a two-second gap to the Minardis and the second Jordan.
Alonso admitted that it was an under-braking mistake which made him lose it at turn 14 and Trulli knew that his lap was marred by several minor mistakes though both remained optimistic about what Alonso predicted would be 'an aggressive, attacking race.'
Ferrari's Schumacher described his pole winning lap as 'perfect' and 'mind-blowing,' saying that there was much more grip during the second session than in the first. Barrichello was happy that they had worked hard for the race though he was disappointed at the gap between himself and his team-mate.
Button had wanted to be higher up the grid but suffered from over-steer during the final sector, making him lose two-tenths from his fastest practice time - though he was surely glad not to be starting with his team-mate at the back of the grid.
The Renault team had decided that since Alonso was starting from the back of the grid, they would replace his engine for the one that was currently in the spare car. This would normally involve dropping ten places on the grid, but due to the situation it wouldn't make any difference. Jordan's Pantano would also be at the back of the grid since he used his T-car to qualify.
This race seemed to offer more hope that Ferrari weren't going to steal the season since, although Schumacher finished comfortably in first, he was followed by Montoya and Button who both offered a good race.
Webber, however, failed to make good use of his starting position, leaving the Ferraris to make a clean getaway and get a good distance in the first few laps. However, the rain set in and although not heavy it altered the running enough to make life interesting. Michael wasn't troubled too much by the water since it cooled the track but Barrichello - who was on the harder tyre compound - dropped quickly to fourth after handling problems.
The pitting began early and it was soon evident that many of the drivers were on three-stoppers. It was after this first round of stops that Montoya tried to close in on the German but had problems with his tyres overheating and Michael's lead was once again drawn out. There followed a game of catch-up - every time Montoya began to close the gap Michael pushed harder. This was all ended when the Columbian's final pit-stop let him out behind Barrichello who was not to pit for another few laps.
Webber tried to claw his way back from his dismal start but his day was finished when Ralf touched him, puncturing his right rear tyre. Raikkonen appeared to be holding onto third place fairly firmly, fighting off Barrichello and then Trulli, but Button got the better of them all with a late pit-stop that brought him out in third. Things went from bad to worse for the Fin and he ground to a halt on lap 40, with his car spewing smoke. Coulthard managed to get some points for the team by finishing sixth but it was a sad day for McLaren.
Alonso made his way from the back of the field to eighth place in just a few laps but misjudged tactics were to limit him to seventh and his team-mate to fifth. Had Sato not had engine trouble four laps from the finish it is likely he would have taken eighth place -but instead this went to Massa who had outshone his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella all weekend.
Much praise was given to the Bridgestone tyres that weekend, not least by Michael who said that they had done a fantastic job in helping the team win in such conditions. Barrichello had the harder compound and found he had a less successful race - when the gap for the podium place was narrowed down to just two seconds he had to overtake Zsolt Baumgartner and it was lost. Though he was still satisfied with the car and although he would have liked to win he was happy to be bringing in the points.
The Jaguar team were understandably disappointed with their results - after both drivers had bad starts the team said that they would be thoroughly investigating events before the next Grand Prix in Bahrain. Webber's race went from bad to worse when he passed the Williams of Ralf only to have it driven into the back of him and then suffered a puncture causing him to pit. That would have been bad enough but then he was caught speeding in the pit lane and was given the standard drive through penalty.
Montoya said that the Williams team needed to target consistency in order to rival the Ferrari supremacy. He felt he would have been closer to the leader at the end of the race had he not left the pits to find himself behind Barrichello, since he had been slowly closing the gap between them. After Ralf's shunt (where he sustained front wing damage on trying to overtake Webber) he suffered a technical fault which ended his race at only lap 28.
Raikkonen tried to look on the bright side of the weekend even though he failed to finish and said that he felt the team had made a step in the right direction and that he knew that the efforts would continue to improve further. Coulthard echoed his team-mate's sentiments, saying that satisfaction could be taken from the improvements even though he felt sixth place was not where they should be.
Olivier Panis blamed an unscheduled pit-stop on a radio communication problem; his disgust was made clear by a series of gestures made towards the team bosses on the pit wall. Like Webber's, his race just got worse when he too was caught speeding and penalised.
Minardi were pleased to have both cars finish especially since Baumgartner suffered from a chassis imbalance all race and Gianmaria Bruni lost power steering while there were still 30 laps to go. Team boss Paul Stoddart felt that 14th and 16th didn't do justice to his drivers' efforts but that it was the best result possible when competing against more reliable teams.
Post-race Weekend Fall Out
After four years, Button managed to get his first podium and was obviously aiming for more. Having missed out on the podium five times and settling for fourth as well as running in third place in Sepang the previous year only to have his suspension fail, 2004 finally gave him the chance to shine. He said that the finish was as much the team's as his and that it was really a step in the right - though they would always be aiming for more.
The team had worried when Sato went out with an engine failure that a similar fate might befall Button - however, the young Briton escaped to take third place. Boss David Richards was delighted with the result - the first podium the team had seen since 2001.
Montoya accused Barrichello of blocking him after his final pit-stop. The pair had an amicable relationship off-track but as always when racing, the team and the championship came first and what Rubens did was what any other driver would have done in the same position. Montoya said that once he realised the situation he backed off and waited for Barrichello to pit since it was better to take home the eight points than to go off trying to pass the Ferrari.
Michelin boss Pierre Dupasquier said that there would only be a chance of victory for the other teams if Ferrari made a mistake. He still believed that the Michelin tyres were better than the Bridgestones and that it is Ferrari that had the strengths, saying that if they were Michelin-shod there would no longer be a championship. However, Bridgestone were overjoyed to see Michael on top of the podium saying that it showed they had produced a tyre that was competitive even in these tough conditions.
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