Round 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang
TACTICAL MASTERSTROKE GETS FERRARI OUT OF JAIL
1 Michael Schumacher Ferrari
2 Rubens Barrichello Ferrari
3 David Coulthard McLaren Mercedes
4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Jordan Honda
5 Ralf Schumacher Williams BMW
6 Mika Hakkinen McLaren Mercedes
F1 TURNED up at the sultry Sepang circuit for round two of the 2001 championship, just a mere five months since it hosted the last event of the 2000 season. Following the tragic events of the curtain-raiser in Melbourne, which had seen the death of a marshal, it was safe to say that a dark cloud hung over this event. As things transpired, it was a dark cloud that threw the race into chaos and produced spectacular drama.
World champion Michael Schumacher was leading the championship again, following his Australian success and he was pole in Malaysia for the third year running. He was pushed all the way by an unexpected source, in the form of his brother Ralf, who took third on the grid in his seriously threatening BMW Williams. Rubens Barrichello was the meat in a Schumacher sandwich.
With humidity always very high on the agenda in this part of the world, there was a minor threat of some drizzle, but the teams weren’t overly concerned. What was guaranteed was this would be the toughest race of the year physically for the drivers and the mechanics, due to lack of fluids and liquids available. As the cars went around on the first formation lap, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was slowed by a computer software malfunction. It looked like an early demise for the German, but fellow veteran Giancarlo Fisichella bought him some valuable time. Somehow, he got confused and took the wrong grid slot! When he tried to correct the issue, he made things worse and had his Benetton Renault parked in the middle of the track. The start was aborted and this was definitely the most embarrassing moment of Fisichella’s career so far. He wasn’t the only one in trouble. Rookie Juan Pablo Montoya was struck down by a failed engine on the dummy grid. Frantic activity saw him run up and down the longest pitlane in Formula One, but he would use the spare car at the punishment of starting a lap behind everyone else.
When the race did get underway, Michael Schumacher made a beautiful start, as did Ralf Schumacher and the Jordan of Jarno Trulli. The latter pair crowded Barrichello, who tipped Ralf into a spin. Schumacher Jnr was narrowly missed by Mika Hakkinen and miraculously, by everyone else too. Eddie Irvine had also spun, in contact with Jos Verstappen’s Arrows and Kimi Raikkonen had already been grounded by transmission failure. Schumacher Snr led Barrichello, Trulli, David Coulthard, a lucky Frentzen and Verstappen, who had moved up 12 places.
On lap 2, Olivier Panis’s BAR Honda engine blew up and the Frenchman spun on his own oil. To make matters worse, it started raining on the back end of the track. Oil and water don’t mix well and both Ferrari’s went off in the process on the third tour. It was impressive synchronized formation from Maranello’s red chargers but the gravel trips left them back in third and seventh, allowing Trulli into a shock lead. Then the heavens really opened and panic set out in the pitlane. Barrichello, Fisichella, Verstappen, Fernando Alonso, Trulli and Coulthard all had time to spin and continue. Jacques Villeneuve, Nick Heidfeld, Enrique Bernoldi and Montoya weren’t so lucky and were all beached in the various gravel traps sprinkling the circuit. The track officials had seen enough and dispatched the Safety Car.
Ferrari’s farce of a race continued in the pits, when they made a late switch from the wet tyres which were already fitted onto Barrichello’s car to intermediates. Confusion reigned and Schumacher might as well had a cup of coffee, read a magazine and smoke a relaxed cigar before he was serviced. Eventually, both cars were on their way, but the shenanigans had cost them 1 minute 30 seconds. Fortune was on their side at the deployment of the Safety Car which meant they could join the back of the pack. The big question was now, were they on the right tyres?
The simple answer was yes by the way the pair comfortably dispatched with the hopeless Gaston Mazzacane in the Prost. Coulthard led off the restart, followed by Frentzen, Verstappen, Hakkinen, Trulli and Jean Alesi. Frentzen started tumbling down the lap charts like a pinball machine as Verstappen, Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and the storming Ferrari’s made light work of the Jordan. Ferrari’s tyre choice was further vindicated by the ease which both of their cars cruised by Hakkinen’s McLaren. Verstappen put a valiant fight in his under-powered Arrows, but simply didn’t have the tools against the power of the Italian cars and Coulthard had to face upto the inevitable, as both Ferrari cars breezed past him on the start-finish and backstraights respectively. In just over five laps, Ferrari had pulled out a tactical masterstroke and made the rest of the field look stupid.
As they drove into the distance, Coulthard looked comfortable in third, so the main focus was the dice for fourth involving Verstappen, Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and Frentzen. Frentzen had jumped Schumacher when the field started pitting for the dry rubber, but Schuey Jnr was determined and in side-by-side battle that lasted four corners, seized sixth place again. He used his BMW horsepower initiative to close in on an off-colour Hakkinen and knock him back a position. Verstappen was putting in the drive of his life, but he also had to give way to the hard-charging Williams. Try as he might, Hakkinen just couldn’t get pass the Dutchman. In one exchange, Hakkinen passed the Arrows, got re-overtaken, Jos pushed him wide and Frentzen took advantage to drop the Finn out of the points. Unfortunately, a late pitstop took Verstappen out of the equation for points. Yet again, Jordan’s pit work proved ultimately decisive in handing Frentzen fourth over Ralf Schumacher. As backmarker Tarso Marques had a tyre disintegrate on the backstraight, Hakkinen finally began to show mettle, setting fastest lap and hauling in Ralf’s Williams, which had been equipped with a poor final set of graining Michelin tyres.
Michael Schumacher cruised across the line to take another win, his sixth successive in F1 and by far, one of his more dramatic triumphs. Barrichello came second, but wasn’t very happy with a risky overtaking move that he felt Michael made on him in their fightback through the order. Coulthard was a satisfactory third, ahead of Frentzen, Ralf and a distant Hakkinen.
Yet again, Ferrari had made everyone look silly when it came to strategy. The dream-team had got them out of a huge sticky scenario and once again, Michael Schumacher had shown his impeccable class, not only as the rain master, but the storm king.