... . and this time it is Alonso

CARS crashed around him like fragile miniature toys in the hands of a whimsical five-year-old.

vijay parthasarathy

CARS crashed around him like fragile miniature toys in the hands of a whimsical five-year-old; but Fernando Alonso looked in no trouble whatsoever, and the gifted Spaniard won his second Grand Prix in convincing fashion, leading from start to finish, to give Renault its second consecutive victory of the season. For Alonso, the triumph no doubt evoked memories of the Hungarian GP in August 2003, where at 22 he became the youngest GP winner in the history of Formula One.

Considering how talented Alonso is, it really comes as something of a surprise that he'd only won one race prior to Malaysia. Then again, success in Formula One isn't necessarily a function of talent; it's a frustrating sport where very often there isn't any correlation between ability and results. For proof simply look at consistent underachievers like Jarno Trulli, for example — or even the brilliant Giancarlo Fisichella.

The problem doesn't quite lie with the drivers themselves; it lies in the nature of the sport. Formula One is a lightly camouflaged way of showcasing power and the latest advancements in technology, even if the goal appears rather esoteric. It's a bit like fashion straight off the ramps, really — who, besides an exclusive few, could dream of buying those designs?

Alonso takes the checkered flag to win the Malaysian Grand Prix with ease.-

Drivers are merely the human face for a gargantuan mechanical process. Some are genuinely fascinating characters, quirky and unpredictable, but in general the drivers' celebrity status is amplified in proportion to the power of their respective engines.

Here, Jarno Trulli stuck stubbornly behind Alonso, without really managing to challenge him, to settle for second place. His performance gave Toyota its first ever podium finish, and Tsutomu Tomita's team is finally beginning to earn tangible returns on the millions of dollars it has invested over the past couple of years in the sport. Nick Heidfeld, another vastly underrated driver, drove his BMW Williams exquisitely to leap seven spots, from tenth on the starting grid to third to equal his best GP showing. Trulli's team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, finished in fifth place and understandably a bunch of merry men in Toyota gear spent the greater part of the evening celebrating raucously outside the pit-area and spilling champagne.

Meanwhile Narain Karthikeyan had an eventful weekend during the course of which, a bird flew into his path nearly causing him to take off at approximately 270 kmph — downforce be damned — and then, in the middle of the big race, his two-way radio gave out on him. The communication breakdown led to a certain amount of confusion with Narain pitting one lap late, with barely half a litre in the tank. And yet, after settling for 17th in qualifying, he managed to finish an improbable eleventh in just his second GP — a creditable improvement of four positions over Melbourne.

For sure, Narain's cause was significantly aided by the mid-race withdrawals of seven drivers including Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello, Mark Webber, Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button — all, drivers otherwise guaranteed to finish ahead of him in the final standings. On the other hand, it would be unfair to harp on the theme that Narain finished 11th in an effective field of 13: in truth, he drove a conservative race but deserves a lot of credit for the way he conserved his tyres in difficult conditions to finish his second consecutive GP.

Jarno Trulli brought cheers to Team Toyota with his second placing.-

Temperatures rose above 35 degrees celsius, and the humidity was unbearable; then imagine being strapped in a suit and sitting in a cockpit where the air barely reaches you. It doesn't help that the Sepang Formula One circuit is one of the toughest in the world to negotiate. The track is wide, but you have a mix of high-speed and low-speed corners; and while a Ferrari or a Renault could easily pass the average Minardi, it's difficult to overtake an equally powerful car.

A couple of spin-offs occurred after botched overtaking manoeuvres, and midway through the race Fisichella (who had qualified third on the grid) collided with Webber in dramatic fashion. Webber tried to zip ahead only for Fisichella to cut into his line; and he appeared to brake a little late on a sharp turn, skidding in the process. Fortunately, neither sustained injuries.

For BAR Honda, the race ended almost as soon as it began. Anthony Davidson replaced Takuma Sato, who was put out of circulation with a viral infection, but his debut race was cut short in just the second lap after a probable oil leak. Jenson Button pulled out almost immediately afterward with the same predicament — which, incidentally, was a recurrence of the problem that had kept Button out of a practice session the previous morning.

As for Michael Schumacher, he's made better starts to the season. In Sepang the German started at the back of the grid but he managed to coax his under-performing Ferrari to push for a respectable seventh. His legend is most certainly intact; it isn't about to be stifled by a bunch of upstarts.

Nick Heidfeld, who finished third, celebrates on the podium.-

Still, the Ferrari machine is clearly struggling against the likes of Renault and McLaren; something we haven't seen in a long, long while. The Ferrari from last year appeared to be no match for the new and improved machines its competitors have entered. Add to that the rule changes for 2005, and Ferrari has lost at least a couple of seconds. Rubens Barrichello was forced out, and the team's technical director Ross Brawn confirmed the launch of the new Ferrari F2005 in Bahrain.

What happens in Bahrain could ultimately define the shape of the season to come. This year promises to be as exciting and unpredictable as 2003, when the drivers' championship wasn't decided until the last race of the season. If the first two races are any indication, this will be the year of the underdog.

Mark Webber and Glancario Fisichella (behind) are involved in a crash at the Sepang International Circuit.-

Malaysian Grand Prix at the 5.543-kilometre (3.445-mile) Sepang International Circuit:

1. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 56 laps, 1 hour, 31 minutes, 33.736 seconds (203.407 kph/126.391 mph).

2. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Toyota, 56, 1:31:58.063.

3. Nick Heidfeld, Germany, Williams-BMW, 56, 1:32:05.924.

4. Juan Pablo Montoya, Colombia, McLaren-Mercedes, 56, 1:32:15.367.

5. Ralf Schumacher, Germany, Toyota, 56, 1:32:25.590

6. David Coulthard, Britain, Red Bull, 56, 1:32:46.279.

7. Michael Schumacher, Germany, Ferrari, 56, 1:32:53.724.

8. Christian Klien, Austria, Red Bull, 56, 1:32:54.571.

9. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, McLaren-Mercedes, 56, 1:32:55.316.

10. Felipe Massa, Brazil, Sauber, 1 lap behind.

11. Narain Karthikeyan, India, Jordan, 2 laps behind.

18. Tiego Monteiro, Portugal, Jordan, 3 laps behind.

20. Christijan Albers, Netherlands, Minardi, 4 laps behind.

Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1 minute, 35.483 seconds (on lap 23)

Drivers' standings: 1. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 16 points.

2. Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy, Renault, 10.

3. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Toyota, Rubens Barrichello, Brazil, Ferrari, David Coulthard, Britain, Red Bull & Juan Pablo Montoya, Colombia, McLaren, 8 points.

7. Nick Heidfeld, Germany, Williams.

8. Ralf Schumacher, Germany, Toyota & Mark Webber, Australia, Williams, 4.

10. Christian Klien, Austria, Red Bull, 3. 11. Michael Schumacher, Germany, Ferrari, 2. 12. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, McLaren, 1.

Constructors' standings: 1. Renault, 26 points; 2. Toyota, 12; 3. Red Bull, 11; 4. Ferrari & Williams 10; 6. McLaren 9.