It was a Renault one-two on the podium at the Malaysian Grand Prix, the first for the team since it returned to F1 in 2002 as a works outfit, with Giancarlo Fisichella taking the victory from pole position. Teammate Fernando Alonso, who started seventh, worked his way up and beat Honda's Jenson Button for second in the last round of pit stops. In what was an interesting, if fairly sedate, race Button finished third.
It was a slightly cooler day than previously, a little overcast and with a possibility of rain later in the race. The track and air temperatures were in the mid thirties but the humidity was still very high for 56 laps of the Sepang circuit.
At the start pole-sitter Fisichella made a clean getaway, as did second-placed Button.
The Williams drivers were having a little battle of their own, Nico Rosberg pushing Mark Webber wide as he tried to defend his third spot, and a flying Alonso took advantage as they squabbled. The Spaniard went round the outside of turn one to take third.
Kimi Raikkonen was a first lap casualty when his McLaren rear ended into the barriers with a suspected suspension failure, thanks to a nerf from behind by Christian Klien's Red Bull. It was hard to see what happened but Klien was in the pits quickly afterwards with suspension damage to the front of his car.
"I cannot change anything about it and it wasn't my fault, but these things happen," said a remarkably philosophical Raikkonen. "I think Klien hit me from behind and broke my rear suspension."
Meanwhile, those relegated to the back with engine penalties were making swift work of moving up the grid. Red Bull's David Coulthard was up to 11th from 19th, the Toyota of Ralf Schumacher from 22nd to 13th, Ferrari's Felipe Massa from 21st to 14th and Rubens Barrichello moved his Honda up from 20th to 15th.
Michael Schumacher, who dropped 10 places in qualifying due to his engine change, started 14th and got his Ferrari up to 10th in the opening laps. At the front it was Fisichella leading Button and Alonso, then came Webber and the remaining McLaren of Juan Pablo Montoya.
BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld had a good start and had improved to sixth, followed by Rosberg, who had dropped down a little after the skirmish with Webber at the start.
Toyota's Jarno Trulli made up a couple of places and completed the points-scoring positions in eighth.
Rosberg got past Heidfeld but the move and his efforts in qualifying came to nothing when the Cosworth V8 let go in a cloud of smoke and flames a couple of laps later. "It started off well but I can't change anything," Rosberg echoed Raikkonen. "Maybe I can improve my first lap performance (next time) as I had a bad start."
Webber was closing on Alonso and Heidfeld was back to sixth, with Montoya still between him and Webber. Rosberg's exit had promoted the second BMW Sauber of Jacques Villeneuve into eighth, while Michael and Coulthard had moved up to complete the top 10.
Ralf and Massa were also still improving, 11th and 12th respectively, but for Red Bull it was game over. They had managed to get Klien back out on track after the incident with Raikkonen but he had problems. Meanwhile, Coulthard had gone into the pits stuck in sixth gear and their respective woes ended in a double retirement for the team.
"It was a hydraulic leak," Coulthard explained. "I lost power assistance going through the chicane. Of course, the gearbox is controlled by the hydraulics and I lost sixth gear." The cause of Klien's retirement was also an eventual hydraulic failure.
Back on track Michael had dispatched Villeneuve for seventh and Fisichella was belting out fastest laps at the front. Behind Ralf and Massa, 10th and 11th by then, was the Toro Rosso of Scott Speed and Barrichello, who was struggling to make up ground as quickly as his fellow back-of-the-grid starters had done.
Trulli, who was running sixth, hardly seemed to put up a fight as he was overtaken by Michael, Villeneuve and Massa all in successive laps at the same corner, turn one.
Webber and Ralf were the ones who kicked off the first pit stops, around lap 15, but Webber then exited the race with a hydraulic problem.
"My start wasn't too bad, but Fernando's was phenomenal," Webber said. "He closed up really quickly from behind me and passed me. This was a shame because it prevented us from running at our own pace. The hydraulic problem came on as I was on the start-finish line. My engineers confirmed it was terminal, so we had to stop."
Fisichella went in for his first stop a couple of laps later, leaving Button in the lead until the Honda also dived in. That promoted Alonso to the front, but while the Spaniard went 10 laps further into the race than teammate Fisichella did before visiting the pits, he was still on a two-stopper.
Further down the field MF1's Christijan Albers was up to 13th, followed by the Super Aguri of Takuma Sato and Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso. The second MF1 of Tiago Monteiro was next and the last of the remaining cars on track was Yuji Ide's Super Aguri. They were all having their own little fights but the attention was firmly on the front.
Alonso led Fisichella and Button rejoined behind third-placed Montoya after his stop. He was pressuring the McLaren, but not really too hard as Montoya was yet to pit.
Heidfeld was doing a calm and controlled job in fifth, followed by Michael, Villeneuve and Massa up into the points in eighth.
However, due to the different strategies the pit stop shakeout was not yet complete.
Next into the pits were Michael, Montoya and Villeneuve, which left Alonso, Massa and
Barrichello the last to go in. Alonso finally ducked in on lap 26 but evidently would have to stop again. He rejoined third behind Fisichella and Button.
Massa was up to fourth when he went in and rejoined eighth, and the Ferrari youngster did not have to stop again. Barrichello was also on a one-stopper and was last to make his way into the pits but the strategy was wasted when a few laps later he got a 10 second stop and go penalty for speeding in the pit lane.
Ide was the next to retire, with an unspecified mechanical problem, and the Super Auri pulled off on the grass. Barrichello, who had been held up by a scrap between Sato and Monteiro, went in for his penalty, and Button got similarly stuck behind Sato and one of the Toro Rosso cars who were then having a duel.
Fisichella took his second stop and Button dived in as well to escape the traffic.
They retained formation and rejoined in second and fourth with Montoya in between them. Alonso was back in the lead until his second stop and had just enough time in his pocket to charge through for a quick splash-and-dash and get out ahead of Button.
Michael went in for his second stop and it was a close call with teammate Massa as he rejoined the track. The Brazilian didn't back off and led Michael through turn one, although the German was very close. Massa stayed there to the chequered flag, with Michael tagging behind for the remaining 10 laps or so, unable to get past.
With only eight laps to go Heidfeld, who had been doing a sterling, if quiet, job for BMW in fifth, suffered an engine failure. A big disappointment for the German and a shame for the team, which had made a step forward this weekend.
In the final laps Liuzzi got past Albers for 11th, which will probably make MF1 start complaining about Toro Rosso's V10 again, and somewhere along the line Speed retired with a suspected clutch problem. Positions held to the flag and Fisichella took the victory ahead of teammate Alonso and Button.
"It was the perfect afternoon for me, but it was very tough mentally and physically," said the winner. "I found it hard! It was really, really hot. I began feeling tired from mid-race onwards, but I knew it would be tough and that I had to fight all the way to the end. There was no other option, because I had to attack. I didn't want to
lose concentration, and I am really pleased with the result."
Alonso was satisfied with second. "My only chance was to make up a lot of positions in the first corner, and I took some big risks on the first lap," he said. "That paid off and I was running third straight away. After that we fine-tuned our strategy so we could get past Button and finish second...Today was about damage limitation, and it
is a better result than I expected."
Button complained about backmarkers and, unsurprisingly, would have preferred the win.
"I'm obviously pleased to see us back on the podium but it was the top step that we had in mind, so we are a little disappointed," he remarked. "We want to be winning races and today showed that we are in the fight, but there is still a lot of work to be done before we can achieve that target."
A strangely subdued Montoya finished fourth -- the McLaren didn't really seem to have the pace to make any impact on the race, although Montoya didn't have any complaints afterwards. Massa led Michael in fifth and sixth respectively; a very good result for Massa after he started seven places behind.
The Brazilian drove a fine race from the back of the grid and scored his first points for Ferrari. Michael also did a good job from a midfield start but lost out to Massa's one-stop strategy. Given Ferrari's engine woes this weekend it was almost a surprise to see them finish at all.
Villeneuve bought his BMW home seventh, although it will be scant compensation for losing Heidfeld. Ralf gleaned one point in eighth for Toyota, from 22nd, and Trulli finished ninth with a broken diffuser. Barrichello struggled to the flag in 10th, followed by Liuzzi, Albers, Monteiro and final-finisher Sato.
Renault is making good use of its early strengths but Honda is not far behind. Well, Button isn't anyway. It's not easy to judge McLaren with only one car but the Woking squad didn't seem to be on the pace of Renault and Honda this time. It's difficult to compare Ferrari due to the start positions but they appear to be reasonably competitive.
Toyota didn't really live up to expectations, although Ralf did a good job to find one point, and Williams' double retirement was a let down. Problems aside, BMW appeared generally much improved but Red Bull wasn't on track long enough to find out.
The rest struggled on as usual. MF1 had the reliabilty to get both cars to the end but Toro Rosso was disappointed not to finish higher up. Super Aguri was happy enough to get one car to the flag. Final top eight classification: Fisichella, Alonso, Button, Montoya, Massa, M. Schumacher, Villeneuve, R. Schumacher.