A perfect finish for Raikkonen


A week after winning the first race of the season in Australia, Lewis Hamilton found himself reduced to a supporting role as Kimi Raikkonen strode to a commanding win for Ferrari. By Alan Henry.

Lewis Hamilton struggled home fifth at Sepang, rounding off a weekend in which McLaren-Mercedes had been beset by a succession of problems. For the 23-year-old British driver, who had predicted that the torrid tropical conditions in Kuala Lumpur would make this the toughest event on the World Championship calendar, the contest degenerated into a damage-limitation exercise, and it left his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, to claim third place on the podium behind Kimi Raikkone n and the runner-up, Robert Kubica.

A week after winning the first race of the season in Australia, Hamilton found himself reduced to a supporting role as Raikkonen strode to a commanding win for Ferrari, five years since the sun-baked race here in Sepang in which he had posted the first of his 16 Grand Prix victories — at the wheel of a McLaren.

Raikkonen vaulted into the lead ahead of his team-mate Felipe Massa at the first round of refuelling stops and the last vestige of a challenge to the Finn’s domination disappeared when Massa spun off, ending up beached in a gravel trap midway around lap 31.

“We had quite a difficult weekend in Australia but I didn’t really expect to have such difficulties,” said Raikkonen. “We were not 100% sure things would be different here. We knew speed-wise we would be fine; even in Australia the speed should have been fine.

“Everything worked perfectly here and we took it easy to make sure nothing went wrong. We saved the engine. It was a perfect job by the team to come back. I would have been happier with Felipe in second, but things go wrong.”

Kubica, in a BMW Sauber, was elated after achieving the best result of his career. “It’s a fantastic day for the team,” said the Pole. “I almost lost control at the first corner but I managed to squeeze through to take third place and from that moment on I was able to increase the gap from the cars behind me. The Ferraris were too quick. After the second pit stop I reduced the revs to save the engine and took it easy.”

Hamilton now leads the championship on 14 points, with Raikkonen and BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld, who finished fifth, sharing second place on 11 points.

After setting the pace during free practice, McLaren’s challenge unravelled when Kovalainen and Hamilton were demoted from third and fourth on the grid to eighth and ninth respectively after a stewards’ investigation found them guilty of blocking rival drivers by running slowly on the racing line on the slowing-down lap.

But Hamilton staged a brilliant assault in the opening phase of the race and was holding second place behind Kubica when he came in for his first scheduled refuelling stop at the end of lap 18.

The Briton’s distant prospects of victory ended there. Refuelling completed, the mechanics, apart from those working on the right-front wheel, snapped to attention and signalled for the car to leave. Agonisingly, the nut securing the wheel had jammed, leaving Hamilton stationary for 19.9sec rather than the scheduled eight or nine.

That dropped him to 11th but despite struggling with a lack of grip he got his head down, chipping away relentlessly at his rivals until he settled into fifth place, finally setting his sights on Jarno Trulli’s Toyota which was just under nine seconds ahead of him with 10 laps to run. Trulli, however, proved himself up to the task and was 0.716sec ahead of the McLaren at the chequered flag.

Qualifying had been expected to take place in heavy rain but the tropical storm clouds just held off until the chequered flag, by which time the Ferraris had demonstrated the sort of form which they had conspicuously failed to deliver the previous weekend in Melbourne. The engine problems that triggered their retirements in the opening race now behind them, Massa and Raikkonen buttoned up the front row of the grid with half a second between them.

Massa was delighted after a performance that countered suggestions he could not compete effectively without the benefit of the now outlawed electronic driver aids. “I managed to put together two really good laps in the final part of qualifying after struggling slightly in Q2,” he said. “Right at the end there were a few drops of rain but it had no effect whatsoever on the performance.”

Raikkonen was disappointed not to have taken pole position from Massa but consoled himself with the thought that it was still possible to win from the front row. He knew he had the speed — he had made a slight mistake in the third sector — the McLarens appeared out of contention and he was carrying slightly more fuel than Massa for the opening stint.

The reshuffling of the grid promoted Trulli to third in his Toyota ahead of the BMWs of Kubica and Heidfeld — who had been held up by the McLarens — and Mark Webber in the best-placed Red Bull. Webber’s team-mate, David Coulthard, who had experienced an unwelcome wake-up call in free practice when his front suspension broke spectacularly, sending him careering off the road, qualified 12th behind Jenson Button.

In the race Webber and Coulthard finished seventh and ninth, sandwiching Fernando Alonso’s Renault, while Button rounded off the top 10 after a strong race in his Honda.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008