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Saturday, 28 March 2015

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX - THE VERSTAPPENS AND THE FERRARIS

Jos Verstappen in the dying stages of 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix, unfortunate to finish outside of top 6 by a whisker
As soon as the chequered flag was waved, the timing screen had the rookie teenager on the time screen placed sixth in the qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix . This sensational drive by Max Verstappen reminded me of a race which had his father Jos Verstappen display amazing driving skills in Malaysia under similar conditions.

My mind went back in time, 14 years to be precise and recalled one of the best Malaysian Grand Prix races I witnessed. On the back of Ferrari's domination after a brief setback, one also witnessed the prowess of Jos Verstappen moving up places rapidly and was in 6th place at the end of lap one, after having started way down in 18th position. He finally finished seventh in the race - but had done enough to impress his team and many others who watched that race.

That race, it was on the race day when teams had prepared for dry conditions and team crew, most notably Ron Dennis openly stating 'it will be a dry race'. Mother nature was smarter than most gadgets and short burst of rain caused mayhem, spoiled team plans and what happened next was sheer class driving by Michael Schumacher, who was aided immensely by the strategy of choosing intermediate tyres while rest of the pack went for more gripping wet tyres.

THE START
It was dark, gloomy and yet many predicted it would stay dry for the race. Just when the cars assembled and waiting for the five red lights to go, Fisichella had incorrectly placed his Benetton. The race start was aborted. Sigh of relief for some while many hearts still pounding, so were mine at the start of the race. A few breather moments as many of the pit crew assembled next to their cars, shielding the machinery by stuffing dry ice onto the side radiators to prevent it from further heat loss. As expected, Fisichella would lose his grid position owing to his error and would now start the race from the back of the grid. The race distance was cut-short by one lap as a result of this aborted start and now effectively, the race would be re-started fresh and race for 55 laps.

THE RE-START
All that delay was put aside, and now cars were ready for the warm-up lap. More drama! Juan-Pablo Montoya stalled on the grid as cars around past his BMW-Williams. He would now lose his 6th position on the grid. While the cars are parading along the circuit to complete the warm up lap, Juan Pablo Montoya was having a race to quickly reach the pit garage and get on to the spare car.

The re-start had no such drama as Michael Schumacher pulled away from his team-mate and rest of the pack in his usual style. Ralf had a great start and narrowly took the second place at the first corner only to slip, do a 360° and join the track. Both Williams effectively were behind the rest of the pack.
As the cars approached second turn of the track, the race had its first retirement - Kimi Raikkonen out with driveshaft problems. And seconds later, Oliver Panis of BAR-Honda spins off the circuit  from a oil leak, leaving behind a trail of oil on the track. 

OCEAN OF RAIN
Lap two - Two Ferraris out of the track, one followed the other onto the gravel traps. In an awkwardly manner both kept the engines running, ambled onto the grass and rejoined the track. Jarno Trulli and his team Jordan led the race and to time it, clouds opened up and rain started to pour in. By the time safety car was called on and lap three was completed, four cars had spun off and Eddie Irvine retired on the pits with water leakage!

Fifteen cars out of the twenty-two lined up behind the safety car, moving slowly across the damp conditions of Sepang. It was chaos in the pitlane as cars waited for their turns to change the tyres. Barrichello stood in the pits with Michael Schumacher waiting behind him for a good one minute 12 seconds! 

Fans and followers of McLaren were ecstatic. They were praising Ron Denis's strategy to bring Coulthard quickly while people criticised the lack of planning from Ferrari's team management. On lap five, when the two Ferraris re-joined the track, they were placed 10th and 11th respectively whereas Coulthard and Hakkinen were 1st and 4th on the grid.

FERRARI HAS THE LAST LAUGH

Ferraris dominated as though they were on a different planet altogether 
The safety car leaves the pack to race on lap 10 and Coulthard in lead takes advantage and pulls away from the second placed Jordan of Frentzen. Jos Verstappen and Arrows Asiatech looked a better team under wet conditions and were placed in second place at the end of lap 10. At the start of lap 12, Michael Schumacher had moved five places up and was now in sixth position charging his way to regain the top spot. A lap later, he was in top three with just Verstappen and Coulthard ahead of him. 4.4 seconds faster than anyone on track, he was two seconds away to take the top position. While rest of the cars were on full-wets, Ferrari took that long time in the pits to decide between intermediates and wets; the option to go for intermediates paid off as Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello made a mockery of everyone with the sheer advantage they gained over a better thought out strategy. That was the game, set and race for Ferrari! They gained all of it and more in just five laps!  

Michael Schumacher would race another 40 laps and finish a good 23 seconds clear from his Ferrari mate Barrichello to win the 46th Grand Prix of his career. Ferrari took time during that long pit-stop, discussed at length and finally decided to go for intermediates instead of full-wet weather tyres. You can call that stroke of luck - but little do people knew, Ferrari ran in intermediates on the race morning warm up to gather performance data while other teams were happy with doing rounds in fully-threaded tyres.

That was 2001 and I hope tomorrow's race has some exciting moments just as it was 14 seasons ago. Will Verstappen Jr. emulate his father's performance at the same track? it remains to be seen!