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#715 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix

2022-02-24 14:33

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#715 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix

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The great thing about driving a Ferrari is that other drivers back off, even if you're going 30 km/h, and they do so with a kind of loving respect. The power of everyone's favourite legendary brand. Let alone if you're behind the wheel of the 612 Scaglietti: the Cavallino's fascinating new granturismo reinvents the 2+2 formula, a must in Maranello since 1948, to offer four real seats in a car that is almost 5 metres long and exudes dynamism and elegant sportiness (once again, the Pininfarina design is wonderful). Presented in January 2004 in Detroit (the American market will absorb 30% of the 550 cars budgeted for this year), seen in Geneva as a European preview, the 612 Scaglietti is ready: first deliveries at the end of the month in Europe, in July in the USA. We are proud of it, says Luca Montezemolo in Switzerland, who has personally proposed the fundamental elements of the project. Amedeo Felisa, general manager of Ferrari GT (the industrial side), sums it up as follows:

 

"We wanted a car that would be different from the past in terms of performance and liveability, and which, because of its highly innovative character, would open the way to a new generation of Ferrari Granturismo".

 

A challenge that the team dedicated to 12-cylinder models, led by Maurizio Manfredini, carries out with all the passion and ability typical of the men at Ferrari. The fundamental points are quickly stated: full use of aluminium in the chassis and structure to create a light, rigid structure; adoption of a unique architecture for this class of model, placing the engine in a central front position and moving the gearbox to the rear, together with the differential; study of a spacious, functional cabin. The result is this exciting car whose name wasn't born at random: 6 for the displacement, 12 for the number of cylinders and Scaglietti as a tribute to the Modenese coachbuilder, who built some beautiful Ferraris in the 1950s and 1960s and was a true expert in handling aluminium. Its small factory, acquired by Ferrari and entirely transformed, is now a state-of-the-art technological centre, where the 360 Modena and, in particular, the 612 Scaglietti are produced. A model establishment, on the doors of Emilia's capital, which, in keeping with Ferrari tradition, combines human skill with the most sophisticated production systems. The use of aluminium brings significant benefits in terms of performance (acceleration, braking efficiency, handling, dynamics, driveability in general), comfort (quietness) and safety. And, of course, it is the key to reducing the car's weight.

 

Naturally, the other elements of the project come into play: the optimal weight distribution (46% front and 54% rear, with 85% of the masses located within the wheelbase), the refined aerodynamics, the exceptional performance of the engine, which is an evolution of that of the 575M Maranello, the use of a 6-speed gearbox available in both manual and Formula 1 versions ( levers on the steering wheel, lightning-fast gear changes or use in automatic mode) and electronic stability and traction control that interacts with the suspension. A full set of solutions that give the driver an incomparable driving pleasure, even in the convulsive traffic of the Modena ring road, on the Autosole or on the winding roads of the Emilian plain. Perfect absorption of all road bumps, a feeling of total control, easy and natural cornering. It is clear that you only end up exploiting the 612 Scaglietti's potential to a very small extent (you might have to go to the track, but the Fiorano circuit was closed due to snow), but you fully appreciate the fluidity of the 12-cylinder engine (540 horsepower and a magnificent maximum pair), the acceleration that creates a vacuum behind you, the efficiency of the F1 gearbox and the possibility of adjusting the car's set-up in a more or less rigid way, the manageability. And that's a really strong point: the 612 Scaglietti has incredible small-car agility.

 

If the performance is that of a Ferrari super sports car, the interior space, the elegance of the cabin and the wealth of equipment are those of a car born for great journeys. Colours, leathers, tissues of a limousine. The two hinged doors allow easy access to the rear seats. Compared to the 456M, Maranello's previous queen, the space is much larger. For example, the heads of the passengers sitting at the back have 7 cm more room. How can we be surprised, then, that this superb car (price €218,200, €226,200 for the version with F1 gearbox) is already a success? Giuseppe Bonollo, product strategy manager, says it all:

 

"We have already sold all 550 units of 2004, of which approximately sixty in Italy, and collected over 800 orders. Anyone asking for one now will have to wait 18 months. Our customers are enthusiastic about it".

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Thanks in part to the innumerable successes achieved, on Thursday 11 March 2004, the Confindustria (Confederation of Italian Industry) chose Luca Montezemolo as its leader, and regained its cohesion. The handover will take place at the meeting on 26 May 2004, thanks to the 81.3% consensus achieved by the Ferrari President. Almost on tip-toe, Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo entered the council chamber after his appointment as president of Confindustria, which was taken for granted but with an exceptionally large consensus. Umberto Agnelli and Marco Tronchetti Provera, Leopoldo Pirelli and Giampiero Pesenti immediately stood up. With them were young Anna Maria Artoni and Matteo Colaninno. Then the president of Bergamo's Assindustria, Andrea Moltrasio, and all the others. The entire business world seemed to join in, and for a minute they clapped for Montezemolo. He looked a little stunned, then began to speak:

 

"I am very excited, but I would still like to say something..."

 

He confirmed his intention to be everyone's president, then thanked Nicola Tognana who, by retiring his nomination, allowed a strong cohesion.

 

"From Ragusa to Rovigo, I found a great desire to redeem myself and to react in a difficult economic moment. A great desire to roll up one's sleeves".

 

Montezemolo also thanked Antonio D'Amato, the departing president. He will return to the Eur headquarters on 29 April 2004 to propose the programme and the team to the extraordinary commission, in anticipation of the election at the congress on 26 May 2004: 126 votes out of 155 voters (with 10 absent) represent a clear yes to the idea of a Confindustria that promotes dialogue. It has found immediate attention from outside, from the political world to the trade union world. Maurizio Sella, president of the Banking Association, expressed his warm good wishes and his full agreement with the warm statements on bank-business relations. On a day overshadowed by the terrible attack in Spain, which made everything take a back seat, as Montezemolo said, the president-designate and the president nearing the end of his term of office held a press conference together. D'Amato spoke of great support for Montezemolo and evidence of union.

 

He then argues that the nomination isn't my losing, defends the battle to change Article 18 on dismissals, and recalls the labour market reform. Since he will not become president for three months, Montezemolo cannot go into the merits of the issues. With self-irony he began by saying that he was here to be D'Amato's assistant. He considered it important that Confindustria should be united, strong and synonymous with authority as never before. He insists on respect for the institutions and the need for a climate of cooperation at all levels. For him, he explains, it is a day of emotion, satisfaction and reflection. In the future, his number one commitment will be Confindustria with Ferrari. Asked to comment on the intention expressed by the Minister of Labour, Roberto Maroni, in an interview to find out his views on social security before taking office, Montezemolo replied:

 

"Minister Maroni has made many statements in the newspapers, but he has never spoken to me. And I am not used to talking in the newspapers".

 

Comments were mixed on the clear indication of the board, which recorded the absence of Cesare Romiti, Guidalberto Guidi and (for serious family reasons) Michele Perini (and appointed Nerio Alessandri and Giuseppe Morandini to the board). The vote's result is unifying, what is needed, says Agnelli, sharing the need for a Confindustria that works with other institutions and social partners for development. And look ahead, as Giuseppe Morchie underlined. For Vittorio Merloni, the votes for Montezemolo were higher than expected, so it was a great success for unification. Such a broad convergence, notes Andrea Pininfarina, helps in the difficulties of the coming years.

 

The future president, according to Luigi Abete, will certainly give Confindustria a positive role both in terms of business development and in terms of service to the country. Tronchetti considered Montezemolo's designation as a demonstration of the cohesion between small, medium and large enterprises, in the name of confrontation with government and social partners. Edoardo Garrone underlined the great unity. It's a good day,' continued Emma Marcegaglia, with an important result, added Giancarlo Elia Valori. In Giorgio Fossa's opinion, the premises for a good job are all there. Paolo Scaroni liked Montezemolo's mention of not disputing, a scourge of the country. Alberto Bombassei pointed out the broad identity of views. Carlo De Benedetti envisaged a Confindustria as a point of reference for all entrepreneurs but also for the country. Gianmarco Moratti considered it right to have replacement parts in an association.

 

For Montezemolo, voted as the new leader of Confindustria, the many victories obtained in Formula 1 speak for themselves, which obviously also obscure the many tensions. For example, in Maranello, at Ferrari's headquarters, a meeting has been called to deal with some delicate technical issues. Someone is nervous. President Luca Cordero di Montezemolo arrives. He walks towards his seat. He meets a close collaborator and holds out his hand: "Pleased to meet you Montezemolo", he replies. The fake introduction with a person he has known for years immediately lightens the atmosphere. Montezemolo loves to joke, even at work, even at the most difficult times. However, Jean Todt, since July 1, 1993 at his side as general manager for sports management, confesses to feeling on many occasions under pressure despite the jokes:

 

"Montezemolo is anxious. And sometimes he imputes to me that he wants to calm him down too much".

Having the perception of a tendency of the president to a certain agitation, Jean Todt tries to remedy it by hiding some problems:

"I try not to offer pretexts for possible anxiety by downplaying some of the difficulties that inevitably arise. I don't want to put him on edge. After all, these are solvable issues".

Todt's confession of trepidation at certain moments only partially balances the widely held idea of a Montezemolo always ready for a smile or a joke even in the face of the toughest commitments.

"The use of jokes and irony is frequent in Montezemolo, but when one enters into the merits of work problems, one immediately perceives the determination and concreteness with which he is used to operating".

This is what Maurizio Costa, managing director of Mondadori, has been saying since 2001 as vice-president of Fieg (the federation of publishers) of whom Montezemolo is president. Costa therefore invites us, in order to understand how the president of Ferrari works, to look beyond the usual smiling air:

"Behind the apparent lightness is a man who is efficient, attentive, quick for whatever is needed. I was immediately struck by the fact that I can always find him, despite his busy schedule. When I need something, I can talk to him without difficulty; he is always available".

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Available and sometimes rather quick, according to Franco Meschini, president and major shareholder of Frau, in which Montezemolo entered through the Charme fund, becoming vice-president:

"One of the last important meetings with him took place around a round table. It was an improvised solution, but what counts is the substance. And I can assure you that working together is always stimulating, you really create. At other times we opt for the table: we work while we eat to save time".

Moschini speaks as a partner and as a friend. He appreciates Montezemolo, with whom he shares the entrepreneurial challenge: he doesn't waste time, he has learned to manage time. So much so that he makes his presence felt, according to Todt's testimony, even though he is far away. Reveals the Scuderia Ferrari team principal:

"I always have the impression of being together with him. The contact is continuous, strong. If we don't see each other, we talk to each other a few times during the day".

An essential tool for anyone with responsibilities, the cell phone in Montezemolo's hands is subject to fatal wear and tear. His secretary in Maranello knows something about this, nagged by the frenetic web of calls received, made, requested, expected and always in action. On a small squared notebook, he writes down the latest numbers he has learned and perhaps formed on his own while waiting to have them transcribed in the office. A co-worker reports:

 

"Late one night I had speculated to him about the advisability of seeking a certain person on the phone to sound out his moods. He was perplexed, but early in the morning I learned that the phone call had already been made; he had thought it over and as soon as he was convinced, he set off".

So Montezemolo talks a lot and, says Moschini, listens a lot. Even when he appears distracted, like the day he heard a sentence about Sicily by Johann Wolfgang Goethe read on the plane: the week after that sentence was pronounced in a speech in Palermo and also reported by Ansa. Points out Jean Todt, very pleased but warning:

"He has a great memory. When he doesn't remember something he usually doesn't want to remember".

Listening and memorizing other people's observations and statements is obviously a way to select ideas and solutions. But also, in practice, an opportunity to be valued for those who work alongside the Ferrari president. Costa notes:

"Montezemolo really has a special ability to motivate those who have to work with him. At Fieg, the structure has been greatly stimulated by his arrival and I would say that it has been able to turn out at its best".

 

In a composite reality such as an association of companies, the ability to make the team work well concerns both the employees, an expression of continuity too, and the top management, an expression of the companies. Costa adds:

"At Fieg, Montezemolo has truly built an internal consensus promoting harmony despite the diversity of needs to be considered".

Will the Fieg model be followed by the Confindustria (Confederation of Italian Industry) of which Montezemolo will be president in three months time?

"Teamwork is one of his fundamental characteristics, as well as a particular aptitude for evaluating people and, therefore, for identifying talent".

Team means Ferrari, of course. Todt doesn't hide his pride in their long journey together:
 
"When I was first contacted by Montezemolo, Ferrari hadn't won for many years. He guaranteed me autonomy and trust. We remained humble and we pursued and then achieved successes".

 

Successes that turned into five Formula 1 World Championships won. Todt doesn't talk about the triumphs achieved alongside Montezemolo. Teamwork is more than a slogan repeated endlessly for the president of Ferrari: it's a way of life. But how can you make a team? By giving the charge, as Moschini says. By being irreverent but always present, as Costa says. By assigning very precise roles, respecting them and taking into account the professionalism of each one, adds Todt. Very precise roles, therefore. Except for the jokes that are obviously centered on the roles. Like the one that happened to one of the company's top executives, introduced by Montezemolo, before a key appointment, such as the Questore in Bologna. Even the escort officer took the bait. Maranello's sports management director:

"Despite the many commitments I always have the impression of being together with him. If we don't see each other, we talk to each other several times a day".

The activity of the new president 's Confindustria knows no limits. And so, on Monday 15th March 2004, Montezemolo's fund buys Ballantyne: cashmere  enters the Charme network too. Old looms and electronic machines, handwork and automation. In the historic Ballantyne cashmere factory in Innerleithen, Scotland, the prestigious past coexists with the pleasure of setting trends. Now the future is called Charme: the investment fund created and led by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Charme acquires Ballantyne. Dawson International, listed in London, sells 70%, allocating the remaining 30% to its allies in the operation: Alfredo Canossa (the entrepreneur responsible for the birth and success of Malo) and Massimo Alba (creative director of Ballantyne). For Montezemolo it is a new entrepreneurial bet: Charme will be directly involved in the management. Montezemolo explains that:

"After Poltrona Frau, Ballantyne represents our second important investment, fully in line with Charme's logic aimed at creating value in the beauty sector through the innovative use of entrepreneurial finance. Ballantyne also represents one of the brands with the greatest history and appeal on the market".

 

History and appeal are therefore the starting point. But adds Matteo Montezemolo, head of management company of Charme:

 

"Our goal is to link tradition to be preserved with innovation to be developed further".

In part, this is a continuation of work already begun. A press release recalls the results obtained for the brand Ballantyne, synonymous with quality cashmere around the world for almost a century, with the relaunch project conceived by Canessa and Alba and implemented since September 2002. Charme proposes to give its entrepreneurial contribution to accelerate the development strategy. Canessa says he is convinced that with a strategic and international partner as Charme is possible to point to the growth with even more conviction and credibility. Alba sees the possibility to further strengthen the new image of Ballantyne, characterized by the choice of strong colors. Ballantyne means both production and distribution. In addition to the factory in Innerleithen (220 employees), the Japanese distribution subsidiary (60 employees), sales outlets and, of course, the Milan headquarters are acquired with the brand.

In practice, production in Scotland and strategies in Italy, in the capital of fashion. Cashmere is therefore Montezemolo's new stage with his Charme. The fund is three years old. Together with the Ferrari president, Diego Della Valle, Vittorio Merloni, Deutsche Bank, Unicredit and Monte dei Paschi have set it up. The first steps were taken with Acqua di Panna perfumes and bath products for a sophisticated public. Then, in the fall of 2003, the entry into Frau, the Tolentino company famous for its armchairs, of which Montezemolo became vice president. The announcement of the acquisition of Ballantyne arrived on the day of his meeting in Bologna with the protagonists of the long journey that led to his appointment as president of Confindustria. Montezemolo must present his program and team on April 29, 2004 at the extraordinary meeting of the council, in view of the election on May 26, 2004.

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As far as the Formula 1 World Championship is concerned, the challenge in Maranello goes through the match between Michelin and Bridgestone. Ferrari isn't afraid of the heat: in Malaysia the cars produced in Maranello want to win the tire war. After the Australian Grand Prix, which took place on Sunday, March 7, 2004, and which marked Ferrari's absolute domination, some people are asking themselves a question: is it only the F2004, or have the Bridgestone tires given the wings to the single-seaters produced in Maranello? A first answer can be derived from the result of the race. If Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello almost ridiculed all their rivals, the other cars with Japanese tires certainly didn't  show great competitiveness. It was legitimate not to expect exceptional performances from Jordan and Minardi, but Sauber could and should have achieved something more than Fisichella's tenth place and Massa's fifteenth.

 

If, indeed, the tires had had a decisive weight, the final ranking of the two drivers of the Swiss team should have been brighter than it was. It has to be said, however, that success in Formula 1 is almost always achieved when you have the best overall package. That is, car, engine, tires, drivers and team, and Ferrari certainly put a flawless set of components on the track in Melbourne. Opponents claim it was helped by favorable weather, with mild temperatures. So everyone (even the Scuderia Ferrari men) are waiting for the race on Sunday 21 March 2004 at Sepang, in Malaysia, to look for revenge on one hand, and confirmation on the other. For these reasons, the tire war also breaks out. Michelin, thanks to the successes achieved on the Malaysian circuit in the last two years (in 2002 Ralf Schumacher with Williams and in 2003 Kimi Raikkonen with McLaren), thinks it can overturn the situation that emerged in the first round of the championship. Pierre Dupasquier, director of Michelin, affirms:

"The next race will be a very important one. It should give us a better idea of the values on the track. I believe that one of our partners, Williams, McLaren, Renault, Jaguar, BAR and Toyota, will be able to win. We are very well prepared for the high temperatures we will find in Sepang".

 

But Bridgestone feels it has made significant strides, and answers with its technical manager Hisao Suganuma:

"We have carried out countless tests simulating the conditions that will be found over the weekend in Malaysia. The results have been excellent, so we feel we aren't overly concerned. Ferrari and the other teams supplied by us will be able to give their best".

This statement is reflected by Rubens Barrichello's statement, released after the Valencia tests:

"Many people think that we will be in trouble in Sepang because of the heat. I am convinced of the contrary, Ferrari can win again".

It shouldn't be forgotten that there is always rain lurking. The forecasts speak of a series of thunderstorms that will last all week until Sunday, and this would be an additional unknown factor, remembering however that on wet asphalt until 2003 the Bridgestones and Ferrari were more competitive than their rivals. Not surprisingly, Ralf Schumacher is worried:

"Let's stop the Ferraris, or there's trouble for everyone".

The second race of the Formula 1 World Championship, represented by the Malaysian Grand Prix, is complicated and will have to give many answers. Ferrari hopes to confirm itself as the most competitive team, while its rivals must reverse the situation that emerged in Australia. There are four decisive elements: the heat (33 °C ambient temperature and about 50 °C on the asphalt), the high probability of rain forecast for the whole week, the performance of the tires, the reliability of the engines. Michael Schumacher states in this regard:

"Sepang isn't among the tracks that are best suited to our cars".

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Looking back, the five races held so far at Sepang haven't gone so badly for the Maranello cars. Three victories (one with Irvine, two with Schumacher), four poles always with Michael Schumacher, with the addition of two fastest laps. Perhaps the last two years suggest caution: in 2002 Ralf Schumacher won, after his brother's collision with Montoya and Barrichello's retirement due to a technical problem. In the 2003 season Schumacher crashed into Trulli after the start and was forced to make two unexpected stops at the pits, first to change the nose, then for a penalty imposed by the stewards. In spite of so many inconveniences the Brazilian driver managed to get the second place, behind Raikkonen, and his teammate completed the follow up getting the sixth place. In any case, the opponents, Renault in the lead (but also Williams, while McLaren are more cautious) are convinced they can stop the Ferrari escape. Fernando Alonso, who in Sepang obtained his first pole in 2003, is optimistic:

"Our car is very balanced and the Michelin tires should give us a small advantage. I'm convinced that Ferrari won't be able to repeat the performance of Melbourne, when they imposed huge gaps on everyone. I have as a minimum objective the podium, but I hope to do something more".

The Williams-Bmw driver duo, Ralf Schumacher, thinks positively too: 

"We feel obliged to do everything to stop Ferrari. If it were to confirm its superiority in Malaysia as well, it would become tough".

 

And Juan Pablo Montoya:
 
"We studied a special setup. I don't think Schumacher and Barrichello will start in front and overtaking will become a problem".

Against Ferrari there are also the 50 °C of Sepang. The Bridgestones behave better on very wet asphalt, the Michelin ones prevail on wet surfaces. In 2002, Ferrari was content with a third place, but won 14 of the next 15 Grands Prix. The Malaysians' reception of the event is lukewarm. The center of the capital was adorned with coloured flags, some advertising the Circus, others the four parties that, on Sunday 21 March 2004, at the same time as the Grand Prix, were taking part in the elections for the renewal of the parliament of the Democratic Republic of Malaysia. The decision to host Formula 1 is political and economic, having already been supported in 1999 by the ruling People's Party and financially backed by the Petronas oil companies. This year, in 2004, the expansion to the East continues with the Grand Prix of Bahrain and China. And soon India. Says Michael Schumacher:

"Don't worry, the tires are fine. It will be us drivers who will suffer the heat. But I adapt quite well".

A focus on the temperatures in Sepang, a suburb of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur: 35 °C constant during the day with 90% humidity, as always in this equatorial land. In the cockpit of a single-seater the heat rises to 50 °C, in the 90 minutes of a race a human being at the wheel loses up to 4 kilos. After the victorious debut in Melbourne, Schumacher went to acclimatize in a secret location in the tropics, Alonso and Trulli of Renault were together in the Maldives, Coulthard and Raikkonen (McLaren) preferred Thailand. They all stayed in the area except for Rubens Barrichello, who was called back to Europe by Ferrari to test tires and other components. However, Barrichello tried to recover by running the 5543 meters of the circuit at noon. Bridgestone engineers say the Brazilian's work, added to the grueling winter testing, yielded excellent results: 

"We found the right tire for these temperatures".

And Schumacher confirms:

"Rubens said he was very satisfied".

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Another element in advantage of Ferrari is reliability. The adversaries, all Michelin tires, hope on the other side to have maintained the advantage of the previous year 2003 in extreme weather conditions. Moreover, there is the unknown rain: at these latitudes the clouds suddenly discharge water with the intensity of a shower. Rain is expected over the weekend, but when? Experts from Meteo France, which Ferrari and Williams usually consult, forecast downpours around 1:00 p.m. on Thursday 18 March 2004 and Friday 19 March 2004, cloudy skies are expected on Saturday 20 March 2004 during qualifying, while the data for Sunday 21 March 2004 remains uncertain.

 

However, according to Malaysian meteorologists, there is a 45% chance of scattered rainfall around Kuala Lumpur on Sunday 21 March 2004, while on Saturday 20 March 2004 it could rain in the afternoon (so the challenge for pole position would be affected). With uncertain weather predictions are very difficult. In the meantime, we play the game of the couples: in war the great enemies of Williams, at Ferrari only smiles. Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher hate each other and they repeat it more and more often. They finished fighting at the end of the Australian Grand Prix and hung up in Malaysia, always for the same reason, a risky overtaking. In Melbourne, Juan Pablo Montoya accuses his teammate:

"He got in my way, he almost knocked me off the track".

And Ralf Schumacher replies:

"One more maneuver like that and I'll throw him out for real".

 

At the end of 2004 the two drivers will take different roads: the Colombian will go to McLaren, the German who knows: with Williams he is on the verge of the breakup for economic reasons and in 2005, according to rumors, he could go to Toyota or Renault. Therefore, they still have 17 races to make each other the spite and possibly take to fights.

"When a guy goes into a corner with the intention of coming at you if you don't move, well, in my opinion he's doing the wrong thing. We were at the beginning of the race and I didn't want to ruin everything right away".

Says Ralf Schumacher, while his rival lowers the tone of the discussion:

"We don't have a great relationship".

The heat doesn't help to calm the spirits: on Thursday, March 18, 2004, the temperature reaches 36°C, and the humidity is close to 100%. Along the paddock of the Sepang circuit, crowded for the most part by mechanics at work, enormous fans spray air mixed with water, while in all the closed rooms freezing air conditioning blows. Tempers, however, boil. Ralf Schumacher is also severely harsh with the team:

"I simply said that we aren't where we could be expected to be if we want to fight for the World Championship. My future? As soon as there is any news we will communicate it. As always".

Witnessing his rant, David Coulthard bursts out laughing:

"I thought one had to call you an idiot to make you react like that".

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In this way Ferrari's adversaries are dissolving: at the beginning it is McLaren to put on track a slow and unreliable single-seater (second consecutive failed project: the 2003 version, code name MP4-18, has never competed, while the current MP4-19 is destined to early decline waiting for a B version). Now for Williams and its two hotheads. That leaves Renault, which is a growing team but still within striking distance of Ferrari. While waiting for the opponents to rise again, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are acting as protagonists. Both say of the other that he is the most dangerous adversary, and both claim to have an extraordinary car and are disappointed with the competition. An almost sickening picture, if the two of them hadn't sparked the challenge. Rubens Barrichello tries:

"In my contract it isn't  written that I have to give way to my teammate. The important thing is the interest of the team. This year I feel I have the chance to become World Champion. It has always been my dream and now it can come true".

Not even the provocations move the Brazilian driver's enthusiasm. The media asks if he is sure that his Ferrari and Schumacher's are the same:

"The team guarantees me that they are, and I have no reason to doubt it".

As hungry for victories as ever, Michael Schumacher sniffs out the danger:

"Yes, Rubens has improved year after year. We have to see if he will be able to take another step forward: I hope not".

There is also talk of safety. In two weeks, the first Middle Eastern Grand Prix will be held in Bahrain.

"I'm not afraid, it will be one of the safest Grands Prix, because the country has invested a lot to have it and I'm sure it will have arranged every detail so that everything takes place in the best possible way. And in any case, nowhere is safety absolute".

In the meantime, Fernando Alonso pays tribute to the victims of terrorism by racing in Sepang with mourning on his arm and the design of the Spanish flag striped in black on his helmet:

"It would be the best moment to win, because I would dedicate the success to Spain and in particular to the families of the victims of terrorism. I know it's difficult, because Ferrari is very strong, but I will try with all my strengths".

Alonso learns about the attack while he is on vacation in the Maldives with his partner Jarno Trulli. The Spanish driver says he phoned home immediately and was shocked and saddened.

"People died who were going to work, children on their way to school. I give my condolences to everyone. The world is going through a difficult time, not only in Spain".

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Taking our attention away from the Malaysian Grand Prix for a while, great news awaits Ferrari and Maserati. After a raid on the roads of the Great North, both brands land in Moscow, the new mecca of luxury and style made in Italy. The event, which began on Friday 5 March 2004 from Maserati's headquarters in Modena, culminates on Friday 19 March 2004 with the arrival of Ferrari in the shadow of the Kremlin. They have called it the Russian and Northern European Tour, and it announces the opening of the first Ferrari-Maserati dealership in the Russian capital. This is the first step towards the conquest of a market that in 2003, as part of a more general boom in the automotive sector, absorbed 4,000 super-luxury cars, an indispensable status-symbol for the emerging protagonists of post-Soviet neo-capitalism. The initial objective set by the men from Maranello is to enter this segment with a hundred or so Ferrari and Maserati grand tourers in 2004, and up to 150 in 2005.

A respectable amount if one takes into account that Ferrari and Maserati don't produce more than 4000 models per year each, but that Russia - where the first Ferrari of which there is certain evidence has been in circulation since 1995 - appears to be able to absorb them without difficulty. This is confirmed by the interest aroused by the four cars that appeared in Moscow: a red Ferrari 575M Maranello, the most extreme and sporty of the lot, a Ferrari 360 Modena, a Maserati Quattroporte sedan and a Maserati Spyder Cambiocorsa. They crossed Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, passed through St. Petersburg and finally arrived in Moscow: 10,000 kilometers, including the return journey, on the route between the Baltic States and Poland. And, as Gigi Barp, leader of the expedition, states:

"A challenge to prove that design and high-powered engines can go hand in hand with reliability even on difficult terrain and in severe weather conditions".

 

Going back to Malaysia, in Sepang the times of the first tests are conditioned by the fuel load. Friday 19th March 2004 Kimi Raikkonen surprisingly reappears but nobody believes in miracles. The Finnish driver, who confirms that in August he will marry his girlfriend Jenni, former Miss Scandinavia, would like to give her the victory: if nothing else, the McLaren-Mercedes driver starts well, beating the track record, almost as if to disprove the impression of a team in trouble. Nevertheless, no one believes in the Finnish driver's exploit, and in fact some suspicion is legitimate: in the first session he is two seconds slower than Michael Schumacher, in the second he runs a record lap and then returns to bland rhythms.

On the opposite, Ferrari seems to want to camouflage its potential: Schumacher and Barrichello go immediately fast and dedicate the afternoon session to the preparation of the race. The pretactics are done in a very simple way: by putting little (or a lot) of gasoline. With 25 kilos (35 liters) of fuel less, performance improves by one second per lap, and a driver makes a good impression. Then comes the moment of qualifying, when everyone starts with a full tank of fuel and it's clear who has worked best. Pole position is less important than elsewhere, however, because the Sepang track is very wide and allows overtaking. Schumacher seems calm, arrived at the circuit riding a Harley Davidson to save himself from the heat and avoid the air conditioning. For the first time since his debut in Melbourne, the best time of the day does not belong to him; he is only second, with a gap of 0.042 seconds.

"On Fridays there is a lot of speculation. We have completed our program and we are satisfied. Is McLaren bluffing? Good question. We'll see in the race, but let's not underestimate them. It's too early to make predictions".

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Barrichello is late, and in the second session he is unable to improve and slips to tenth place: the Brazilian driver complains of difficulties in finding the feeling with the car and of set-up problems, but nothing to worry about. But he warns:

"Our opponents, however, have come closer than in the Australian Grand Prix".

Nevertheless, not even the Brazilian driver believes in Raikkonen's lead.

"I'm more worried about Ralf's third time, who has been running at a good pace for a long time. In this hot weather it is important to have consistent tire performance".

And speaking of temperatures, the debate about Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, the separates within the Williams-Bmw team, is still hot. In this regard, Rubens Barrichello admits:

"In the press conference you say so many things that you interpret in so many ways. It's a war of words, with us in Ferrari it has never happened like this. Even on the track there will never be a duel between Michael and me. Of course, if I had the chance to pass him I would try. In Melbourne I was close to him, I was keeping up with him, but I never had the chance to overtake him".

Scuderia Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, compliments him:

"Rubens is very good. He just has the luck or misfortune to race alongside the strongest driver in the world".

At the end of practice, talking about what happened between Montoya and his teammate, Jarno Trulli - sixth behind Montoya - recalls a skirmish with his teammate:

"We immediately cleared up. Dirty laundry is washed at home".

 

As for Alonso, he doesn't appear as brilliant as usual: just the eighth time, while in 2003 he obtained an exceptional pole position. The Spanish driver hopes to make up for it in the race, mindful of having promised a success to be dedicated to the victims of terrorism in Spain. Still in evidence Mark Webber, fourth with the Jaguar with an almost empty tank. Negative note to the meteorologists: after a series of mistakes, clouds were forecast for Friday 19 March 2004, but instead the sun shone, 34 °C maximum temperature, but instead it reached 38 °C, and 70% average humidity, against the real 50%. For Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 March 2004 rain is announced in the afternoon, but no one is wearing a raincoat. Once the tests are over, Michael Schumacher goes to the Ferrari box to talk with the technicians; it is the delicate phase of the single-seater tuning. While on the eve of the Malaysian Grand Prix, Frank Williams issues a cry of alarm:

"If Ferrari continues to win it will be a disaster in Formula 1, TV ratings will drop and we will all have less money".

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The English builder, who from 1992 to 1997 won five world titles, skipping only the 1995 one, winning 44 races and 71 pole positions out of 98 races held, forgets the periods in which he dominated the championships and allowed himself to drive away the drivers who had won the title (for example Mansell, Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve), so much so that his single-seaters were so superior that whoever drove them could cross the finish line first. If Ferrari wins and outclasses its opponents, it is certainly not its fault, if anything it is a merit. To claim that a team or an athlete that is too strong debases the show is heresy, and to change the rules of the game to try to make it difficult for the best is also dishonest.

If Williams' is another attempt to get the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile to once again change technical and sporting rules, it is a sign of extreme weakness. It means that neither he, nor his engineers, nor even his partners think they can manage on their own, making the cars more competitive through commitment, research and skill. On the contrary, there is strong pressure from the televisions, which consider the new qualifying formula long and boring. After the first three races there will be a verification with the teams. Not Ferrari, which is against continuous changes in the race. Whoever wants to beat the Maranello team must do it in the workshop and in the circuits, without creating false alibis. If in England or elsewhere the fans are bored to see Ferrari first at the finish line, in Italy the majority of people like it very much. But in the meantime, Frank Williams admits:

"We follow the rules of television because that's how you make money. If it is better to change, the teams will all agree".

At the second race away from Europe, held just a short distance from the previous Australian Grand Prix, most of the teams didn't bring any substantial news, concentrating mainly on the problem of disposing of excess heat due to the hot and humid Malaysian climate. An exception is made for McLaren, which brings to the track a new front wing with strongly curved main profiles, a solution tried at Imola. The Anglo-German team is also forced to intervene more on the single-seaters to avoid cooling problems, drilling holes in the sides on Friday afternoon. BAR also shows some innovations, with a new bodywork designed specifically to limit the negative effects of additional openings in the sides, while the other cars have different solutions for cooling, mounting larger chimneys or opening all the slots on the sides.

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Saturday, March 20, 2004 the record of the Sepang Circuit collapses for the sixth time this weekend: two seconds less than the previous year, 2003, but in race trim, and therefore with a lot of fuel in the tank. Impressive both as a performance in itself and for the ease with which this performance was obtained by the same driver, Michael Schumacher, and the same car, the F2004. The on-board camera records Schumacher's lap without ever detecting sudden corrections or skidding. The others are struggling, while the German seems to be driving on a track. The driver is perfect, the F2004 is perfect. In the race only an unforeseen event can alter a too easy prediction. Behind, surprisingly, the Jaguar of Mark Webber, who in the race will start next to the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. After qualifying, the only one smiling - apart from Michael Schumacher - is the Australian Jaguar driver, Mark Webber. The latter is 27 years old, and for the first time he starts on the front row, with the bonus of being in the middle of two Ferraris. Rubens Barrichello, third, shows the face of the worst occasions. After challenging his teammate, he discovered that he was 0.7 seconds slower, both in qualifying and in free practice.

"I set up the car according to the race".

The gap?

"I made a mistake that cost me three tenths".

And the other four tenths?

"We have different tires; I have the hard, Michael the soft".

They are followed by Montoya and Raikkonen, downsized compared to the exploit of Friday 19 March 2004, with a second of delay. Sentence made and repeated: we are only at the second race and the championship is long. But if none of the rivals invent something, if none of the strongest teams, Renault, Williams or McLaren, are able to reverse the trend, besides being long, 2004 Formula 1 will be another red monochrome. Schumacher conquers pole number 57 in his career (168th for Ferrari), and continues the climb to the only record he lacks, held by Ayrton Senna at 65.

"I drove a perfect lap".

There remains the unknown of rain, which local meteorologists persist in announcing as imminent. A week of drought is still an anomaly in Malaysia. Reliability, on the other hand, is a strong point for Ferrari, which in the race can also afford to lower the maximum engine speed when the opponents are at a safe distance. The fight for second place is wide open. Mark Webber is dreaming ("I'd be happy to score points"), Rubens Barrichello is going further ("a Ferrari will win, I hope mine"), Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen are in the zone, Ralf Schumacher (seventh) and David Coulthard (ninth) are not. The two Renault drivers took themselves out: Jarno Trulli with a couple of mistakes that relegated him to eighth place on the grid, Fernando Alonso with a spin that forced him to start from the last row because the technicians decided to replace the engine. Flavio Briatore, team principal of Renault, admits:

"Too bad, they would have obtained the second and third time. The important thing is that the car is competitive".

Giorgio Pantano is the first victim of the new regulation (followed in the evening by Fernando Alonso) on the single engine. A clutch problem forced him to skip pre-qualifying, the Saturday session that serves to establish the starting order for the real qualifying. The Jordan mechanics are unable to solve the problem and the driver from Verona is forced to get on the mule. That however has a new engine, so that in the evening the race commissioners relegate the Paduan driver of ten positions. An almost virtual punishment, since he had not gone beyond thirteenth place and there were twenty cars on the track, while Fernando Alonso, even though he started last, could exploit all the power of a new engine with the possibility of finishing in the points zone. The second Grand Prix of the season will start on Sunday 21st March 2004 on the Sepang circuit, with a distance of fifty-five laps of the circuit of 5.543 kilometers, equal to a total distance of 310.408 kilometers.

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On Sunday 21 March 2004, a few minutes before the start, the track is wet with a light rain, but none of the drivers choose to start with wet tires. At the start Michael Schumacher takes a good start, keeping the lead, while Mark Webber remains almost stationary on the grid and loses many positions. In second place is Rubens Barrichello, followed by Montoya and Räikkönen, while Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button fight for the fifth position. During the second lap, while braking, Rubens Barrichello's car slips, and Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Räikkönen take advantage of it to pass him. Further back, Fernando Alonso quickly made a comeback, moving into the top eight. Behind the Spaniard, during the fifth lap, Ralf Schumacher crashed into Mark Webber, with whom he was fighting for the ninth position.

The German driver continues without problems until the seventh lap, while the Australian is forced to the pits with a punctured tire, further compromising his race. Michael Schumacher opens the first series of pit stops on lap nine: together with the Ferrari driver, David Coulthard and Fernando Alonso, who is now in eighth place, refuel. Juan Pablo Montoya remains in command for three laps before making his first stop. The Colombian was unable, however, to challenge Michael Schumacher, who continued to lead the race. Kimi Räikkönen maintains his third position ahead of Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button, who are fighting each other, and Rubens Barrichello.

Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya start a long-distance duel, setting several times the fastest lap in the race. During the course of the race the Colombian seems to be able to get closer to his rival, who maintains an advantage of between three and four seconds. Kimi Räikkönen loses ground, threatened by Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button, while during the 23rd lap Mark Webber is victim of a spin, which forces him to retire. During the 24th lap David Coulthard is overtaken by Fernando Alonso, losing the sixth position. The Scottish driver recovers it one lap later, when the two drivers stop at the same time at the pits, thanks to a faster pit stop. One lap later, Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button returned to the pits too. However, the Finnish driver's mechanics found a problem with the fuel filler, losing third place to his English rival.

Next, Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Schumacher pit together on lap 26: the Colombian's stop is quicker, but the gap between the two contenders for the win remains almost unchanged. One lap later Ralf Schumacher, momentarily up in fourth position, retires due to engine failure. The situation remained stable until the third series of refueling, opened once again by David Coulthard at the end of lap 38, except for Nick Heidfeld's retirement, due to a broken transmission on his Jordan-Cosworth. One lap later Juan Pablo Montoya stops, imitated on the next lap by Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Kimi Räikkönen and Jarno Trulli. The Ferrari driver maintains the first position without any particular problem, while the Finnish driver retires due to a transmission problem during the return lap.

Rubens Barrichello delays his last stop until the forty-fourth lap, getting the better of Jarno Trulli, conquering the fourth position. In the last laps Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya raise the pace a little bit, but the positions are now frozen and there are no further duels for the first places. At four laps to go Takuma Sato is forced to retire while he is in eighth place, betrayed by the Honda engine of his BAR; Felipe Massa moves up to eighth place. There aren't other particular events until the end of the race, which sees Michael Schumacher triumph again ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya, Jenson Button, at the first podium in his career, Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

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It is difficult to say which is the most beautiful victory of a sportsman like Michael Schumacher who has come first 72 times in his career. Among the best wins is the one in Sepang: not because it was particularly spectacular, it gave him a World Championship or embellished his career with some other record. It should be included because it testifies to the success of a perfect symbiosis: an exceptional driver on an extraordinary car. This 35 year old German driver, who improves year after year and has been compared by his team to a good Italian wine, makes a very hard race easy. At the beginning it rains and he is the outrider who, at every curve, has to guess where to lift his foot off the accelerator and press on the brake.

He always guesses, otherwise we would be talking about a race finished in the sand (like Webber's) or behind the leaders (like Barrichello). The cockpit of a Formula 1 car is an oven that reaches 50°C in Malaysia, the hottest race of the year. Inside, there is no air circulation, not even at 300 km/h. This explains the mistakes of many, because dehydration takes away lucidity, and justifies the tense nerves: Raikkonen mistreating a race commissioner, Panis sending his team to hell (who called him back to the pits by mistake). Schumacher never loses his calm, not even when Montoya becomes threatening, and he doesn't make the slightest mistake. It is a crucial race for Ferrari. The adversaries wait for it, sure to see it wavering, as the year before, on the warm circuits. Instead not even a crease. On the contrary, a second consecutive triumph, as at the debut in the 2000 and 2001 seasons.

Bridgestone has solved the tire problems, Ferrari the aerodynamic ones. The engine doesn't give problems. For 109 Grands Prix at least one Ferrari has crossed the finish line. The Maranello technicians achieved their objective in cool conditions, but the feedback from the track in extreme climatic conditions such as those of Sepang was missing. In the race there are four engines built in Maranello (with those of Sauber), and four arrive at the finish line, three of them in the points zone, while the rivals have big problems. Reliability is a boast for Ferrari, which makes Formula 1 the only form of advertising for its road cars. After the race, Scuderia Ferrari's team principal, Jean Todt, immediately receives a congratulatory phone call from Fiat's president, Umberto Agnelli.

"He called me while I was at the podium ceremony. Then President Montezemolo called to congratulate everyone".

Sunday 21st March 2004 would have been Ayrton Senna's 44th birthday. Sunday 21st March 2004 the only driver who has taken his talent and class from him wins. Michael Schumacher passes in front of the Sepang wall and celebrates his 72nd success, the 169th for Ferrari. For Ross Brawn, Scuderia Ferrari's technical director, the German driver is like good wine that improves as it ages.

"Michael is growing old and improving like a good Italian wine".

Schumacher accepts the comparison, but admits he's never had a car this perfect.

"Yes, it seems like a good comparison. I feel in great shape and the results confirm it. But with the F2004 you can't be wrong anymore, this success is for my son Mick".

Schumacher and the Ferrari F2004 are a perfect match, invincible at the moment. Wunderbar, marvelous, is the adjective with which he describes the single-seater that this year has allowed him to win the first two races. A perfect race?

"I would say so, but the merit is also due to the car. With the F2003-GA it was easy to make mistakes when we didn't find the ideal set-up".

Is Ferrari strong or are the opponents poor?

"We are strong. We have taken a big step forward in terms of both the car and the tires. But we must keep our feet on the ground because there are still sixteen races to go before the end of the championship. It won't be as easy as some people think and it would be a big mistake to relax".

The unknown factor was the heat: at this point we can assume that the Ferrari is good in any weather condition?

"We have to verify that as well. We had worked hard in the winter with Bridgestone to improve this flaw of ours from last year. I am happy to see that the effort is paying off".

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In two weeks in Bahrain Ferrari will find a climate similar to that of Sepang: a good omen?

"I don't make predictions. It's a track I don't know".

At the end of the race Schumacher didn't seem tired: how did he manage to keep cool despite the over thirty degrees, wearing a helmet and fireproof suit? 

"It's a question of preparation. It was never like I was lazing around during my vacations in the Maldives".

He may have encountered some difficulties today.

"At the beginning, when Montoya passed Barrichello, I was worried. In some parts of the track it was raining and in others it wasn't, so it was difficult to understand how hard I could push without making mistakes. I found the track wet in the corners suddenly, when I had already decided the braking point. In one section I almost went off the track. Being in the lead doesn't help in certain cases because you have no point of reference".

Didn't starting on pole position help Schumacher?

"Yes, of course, it was important: it allowed us to choose the best strategy".

Someone invites Ferrari to slow down for the good of Formula 1.

"It isn't our job to artificially maintain interest in the sport. It's up to our opponents to change the picture and I think they'll be able to do it quickly".

Button was on the podium for the first time - a new rival, perhaps underestimated so far.

"I'm happy for him because it's a fantastic experience to see your team and the fans from up there, although I'm sorry he took points away from Barrichello. I'm reminded of the 1992 Mexican Grand Prix when I finished third. On the podium with me were Mansell and Patrese. I also remember another episode, two years ago here in Malaysia: at the last curve I stole the podium from Button".

Did he remember that too?

"Yes, we laughed about it".

A first balance after the first two races of the season?

"I have 20 points compared to 8 a year ago. However, I know from experience how quickly the balance changes, especially at the beginning of the season when all the single-seaters have a great margin for development. It will be a hard-fought championship and we face it with a wonderful car".

A dedication?

"To my son Mick who will be 5 years old on March 22, 2004. I'm going back to Switzerland to celebrate. From Thursday I'll be back to work: I have a day of testing at Mugello and one at Fiorano. This time it's Rubens' turn to rest a bit. The old single-seater could facilitate mistakes if you didn't get the ideal set-up right".

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Celebrated by all, BAR-Honda driver Jenson Button discovers the thrill of the podium.

"Hi Mom, I did good".

In 2003 Villeneuve had welcomed him, saying:

"Wasn't there a stronger one?"

Now he's a star. Jenson Button's phone rings during the interview.

"Thank you, yes, everything went well. Can I call you back later?"

Pause.

"That was my mom".

Compliments also come from home for Jenson Button, who for the first time stands on the podium, where Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya christen him with champagne. He hadn't received so much praise since his first race in Formula 1: it was March 12, 2000, when he was a twenty year old rookie to whom Frank Williams gave confidence. Trust immediately repaid with a sixth place, that then was worth only one point. But a point at his debut is like a victory for grown-ups. His championship ended in eighth position and Jenson was sent to Benetton, which the following year became Renault. Two seasons to forget, like the next one, 2003, at BAR-Honda where Jacques Villeneuve ruled. At the end of the championship, however, the young Jenson has eleven points more than the Canadian driver. After Villeneuve's dismissal, BAR began to rebuild and entered the elite of the best. Button, 24 years old and 69 races behind him, enjoys his revenge on the skeptics. The word he repeats over and over again is fantastic: fantastic work by the team, fantastic race, fantastic day.

"I dedicate this third place to Mason, my sister Natasha's son who was just born. I hope it brings him good luck in life. There are no words to describe this emotion - I will carry it in my heart for the rest of my life".

With Schumacher, just before climbing the ladder leading to the podium in Sepang, he jokes about an episode two years earlier.

"I lost the podium here in Malaysia at the last corner. These are disappointments that you don't forget. Luckily today I made it. The last lap was endless. Over the radio from the pits they kept telling me to take it easy, because my teammate Sato's engine had just broken, but I said no, because I didn't have a big enough lead".

There was Barrichello making a comeback and it would have been too much to be mocked a second time in the same place by a Ferrari.

"I thank everyone: the team, the sponsors, the mechanics, Takuma. Everyone has worked so hard to achieve this result. And I'm even happier because we realized that the car is there. This Grand Prix will not be an isolated episode, we are at the level of the best. Today we are ahead of McLaren and Renault. At the debut in Australia we were not yet able to fully exploit the potential of Michelin tires. Here we arrived with more experience".

Of the race he underlines the hard-fought start and the head-to-head with Trulli.

"The wheels touched and I feared I had suffered damage. But no, everything went well. Fantastic".

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Juan Pablo Montoya isn't really able to enjoy the second place. The Colombian driver is also angry with Rubens Barrichello, whom he considers a friend. The Brazilian would be guilty, in Montoya's opinion, of damaging him in order to favour Michael Schumacher's victory. After the race, the Williams driver accused Barrichello of being unfair during the last pit stop:

"Rubens damaged me. It's a pity that I was behind him. He prevented me from overtaking and then he deliberately slowed down. There were still twelve laps left, I had new tires and I was very competitive. Barrichello played a team game, a bit dirty. As soon as I tried to make a move, he countered and there wasn't even a chance for me to overtake".

No family sparks this time between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. The latter is one of the great disappointments of the Malaysian Grand Prix. The younger brother of the multiple champion is forced to retire just after twenty-eight laps:

"I made a decent start but got caught in traffic, so I lost some positions and slipped to non-place. On the third lap I had a contact with Webber's Jaguar and my front wing was damaged. This resulted in a strong understeer, especially in the second sector, as you can see from my time. I tried to overtake Mark but there was not enough space, so I braked to avoid contact. In the end, I had a technical problem with the engine which caused my premature retirement from the race".

For Sam Michael, Williams-Bmw operations manager, the balance of the day is still positive:

"In qualifying and in the race it didn't go badly, although we still have a lot of work to do on the chassis, engine and tires. The whole thing needs improvement and we will have to push hard to close the gap in the championship".

Mario Theissen, head of BMW, analyzes the improvements compared to Melbourne:

"Juan Pablo Montoya was able to keep up with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari throughout the race, that's encouraging. The engine failure is unexpected and was not caused by the high temperatures but by a defective part that we will try to identify during the week in Monaco".

 

In Australia, the Colombian driver of the Williams had committed a couple of mistakes, while in Sepang he redeemed himself with an attacking race. He doesn't have a car capable of winning, but Montoya always believes in it. He dodges Webber at the start, who complains about problems with the starting system, from this year without electronic aids. Then he gets rid of Barrichello, who slips on the first drops of rain, and approaches Schumacher, but he can never get close enough to him, because the German of Ferrari increases his pace every time he sees him in the mirrors. With the new tires, Montoya makes the fastest lap, 1'34"223, 0.6 seconds less than the Ferrari's best performance, confirming that the Michelin tires degrade quickly. Nevertheless, Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, admits the supremacy of the Scuderia Ferrari cars:

"I only hope that the difference in performance doesn't depend on aerodynamics, because recovering such a gap requires a year of work in the wind tunnel".

Schumacher's race was perfect right from the start. At the end of the first lap his advantage over his teammate was two seconds. A question of tires, since the Brazilian chose a harder (and less suitable, since the sun granted a respite) compound. It's a matter of sensitivity on a track that is slippery at times, with the rain only starting to fall at certain points. It's a matter of class and talent that aren't only being discovered now. The German driver acts as an elastic band with his pursuers, with one eye on the gaps and one on the working parameters of the F2004, meticulous in asking for maximum performance with minimum mechanical effort. From the on-board video camera you can see how many buttons and levers around the steering wheel he is able to handle while he travels at 300 km/h. In particular, he adjusts the brake divider two-three times per lap, a shrewdness that allows him to have a better balance in curves and less consumption of the tires. Behind him, the Malaysian Grand Prix is fun. Trulli and Button overtake each other several times.

"I  touched him and I apologize to him too".

Says Trulli. There is also contact between Ralf and Webber, who suffers a puncture and from that moment on does not do anything right. In order: speeding in the pits, penalty, spin and goodbye in Bahrain. A wasted opportunity for the Australian, since on Saturday he had won a place on the first row. Schumacher's joy contrasts with Montoya's disappointment: second place for the Colombian is an unsatisfactory result. A perfect race, without smears, for Michael Schumacher and for the whole Ferrari team, impeccable also at the box. The Williams, that seems the more concrete and credible adversary, loses a car on the road, because of the breakup of the BMW engine (Ralf Schumacher); the McLaren, that does not seem a credible adversary anymore, recovers with the tow truck the smoking car of an angry Kimi Raikkonen.

With a consequent shove to the race commissioner who shows him the way to leave the track, obviously on foot: the heat has put a strain on the Finnish driver's nerves, protagonist even of a spin during the formation lap. In the official version provided by the British team, the gearbox is broken. According to the widespread hypothesis, there is a second consecutive breakage of the Mercedes engine, once again that of the Finnish driver, winner last year and candidate to succeed Schumacher. Remains the Renault, conditioned by disastrous qualifications because of the pilots, which recovers a fifth place with Jarno Trulli and a seventh with Fernando Alonso, who has the alibi (or the aggravating circumstance) of having started from the last row.

On the podium for the first time is the former enfant prodige Jenson Button. BAR-Honda was not a meteor, but one of the Japanese engines, that of Takuma Sato, exploded before the checkered flag, while the four engines produced in Maranello (the two official ones and the two branded by the Malaysian sponsor Petronas that drive the Sauber driven by Fisichella and Massa) arrived at the finish line. A few numbers give an idea of Ferrari's reliability: 35 Grands Prix without technical problems, 109 without a double retirement, 15 consecutive positive results for Schumacher. The one who doesn't give up is Juan Pablo Montoya, who should combine his South American flair with a pinch of German rationality to be more consistent.

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For McLaren it's a crisis without outlet, between reliability problems and tension between the team and Mercedes. Ferrari and Bridgestone tires are promoted with full marks. BAR-Honda goes beyond the sufficiency, all the others are postponed to the next race, with McLaren-Mercedes that risks a sound rejection. This is the response of the second seasonal test in the Formula 1 World Championship. The first survey, however, concerns the Scuderia Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, once again impeccable. There were no doubts about the intact qualities and determination of the German driver, the Malaysian Grand Prix also confirmed the qualities of the F2004, a car that adapts well to two different tracks, to almost opposite environmental conditions, with the mild climate of Australia and the torrid one of Sepang. A very competitive single-seater, the one produced by the technicians at Maranello, so strong that it isn't  yet clear what real weight the progress of the Japanese tires has had. Unfortunately, there is no realistic comparison on this level, as the other three teams that use them are too far away from Ferrari in terms of performance, and the eighth place conquered by Felipe Massa with Sauber is more due to the merits of the reliability of the engine from Maranello than to the performance of the Swiss car.

 

If you look at the race classification, however, you can see that the gaps between Schumacher and his rivals have significantly decreased compared to the Melbourne race. Montoya is second at five seconds, Button third at eleven seconds, Barrichello fourth at thirteen seconds. On the other hand, the margins on Trulli's Renault become heavier, more than half a minute, fifty-three seconds on Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes and more than a minute on Alonso who, however, started in the last row and was very good at recovering. In theory the Williams-Bmw would have made progress, but it is all to be verified. Not so much in the next race in Bahrain, as at the arrival of the championship in Europe, on April 25, 2004 in Imola, when the race will take place on a circuit where every team has plenty of data to better set up their cars. Before this date, however, all teams will have prepared important modifications, so it will be very interesting and important to understand who will be the concrete adversary of Scuderia Ferrari.

Renault promises a new more powerful engine for the San Marino Grand Prix, the same will be done by Honda (already very competitive but not reliable, due to the breakage on Sato's car) for BAR and BMW for Williams. Difficult to understand instead if the McLaren-Mercedes will be able to recover. The best time obtained in free practice on Friday, March 19, 2004 by Raikkonen and Coulthard's sixth place in the race do not erase the doubts about the validity of the MP4/19, despite the adoption of a completely new front wing. This single-seater had already got off to a bad start at its debut in winter testing. The cockpit was too narrow for Coulthard and test driver Wurz. The car had to be widened. Then there were many reliability problems, in the transmission and in the engine. A broken engine in Australia, a suspected one in Malaysia, even if officially it was a technical fault in the gearbox. At McLaren they are already talking about a B version of the car, to be prepared as quickly as possible, after the previous MP4/18 was destined directly to the museum last year. The drivers, meanwhile, hide their disappointment behind phrases of circumstance. Admits Kimi Raikkonen:

"It's always unpleasant not to finish a race but I think we've taken a step in the right direction, I could have finished on the podium if I hadn't first had a problem in the pits with refuelling and then the transmission failure".

 

David Coulthard was also laconic:

"I felt some satisfaction improving on Melbourne, however the car was difficult to keep on track. Sixth place isn't a brilliant result, so for now we have to be content".

Similar speeches also come from Ron Dennis, team manager, and Norbert Haug, head of Mercedes engines.

"We have a lot of work to do, we have an extensive test program to improve".

However, there are those who say that between the British team and Mercedes, relations at the moment are very tense. And it seems that even one of McLaren's shareholders, Lebanese Mansour Ojjeh, is getting tired of negative results. Perhaps Ron Dennis risks his position and Mercedes meditates to take over the command of operations. Will it be enough to go stronger?

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In Formula 1, after the two triumphs obtained by the Scuderia Ferrari, the pitfalls will now be the heat and the sand of the track in the Arab emirate. The cars produced in Maranello fear only the desert. Ferrari seems without rivals, but there is the uncertainty of Bahrain. Two pole positions and two successes for Michael Schumacher at the beginning of the season. The German champion had never managed this, not even in the triumphant 2002 or in the Benetton period. The Ferrari driver, however, keeps repeating that the season is long, that the opponents will recover and that the balance in Formula 1 is precarious. Around (or better: behind) the German champion for now we have seen engines that explode and drivers that make mistakes or discuss. The pursuers change: in Australia Barrichello and Alonso climb on the podium, in Sepang it's Montoya and Button's turn. In this way the leader's position in the ranking is consolidated: Schumi has 20 points (in 2003 at this point they were 8), against the 13 of his teammate and the 12 of Montoya.

 

Ferrari cautiously argued that it's easy to lose the advantage, but the experience of the previous season taught them that it isn't easy to recover either since the score was changed: Schumacher needed six successes to break Kimi Raikkonen's resistance, who in 2003 won only in Sepang. 2000 (Australia and Brazil) and 2001 (Australia and Malaysia) also began with two first places. But now the impression of strength of the Scuderia Ferrari is greater. First of all it is accompanied by the best time in qualifying, always obtained with enormous gaps. This means that the car behaves well also on the single lap and adapts to the strategies most used by the top teams (little gasoline at the start for a pit stop after about ten laps). Moreover the victory of Sunday 21 March 2004 arrives in the most difficult conditions for Ferrari, that in 2003 showed suffering on hot circuits. The adversaries were expecting a drop and there was a drop: in qualification the advantage of Schumacher on the followers was not of one second per lap as in Australia but of 0.6 seconds and in race Montoya was always in the zone, without ever being able to approach. From now on the temperatures will drop. It will still be hot in Bahrain, then Formula 1 will return to Europe, to Imola, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Nurburgring, historic circuits that Ferrari knows well.

 

The unknown is Bahrain itself. The racetrack has just been inaugurated. It is located in Sakhir, about thirty kilometers from Manama, the capital of the Emirate. All around is the desert. The engineers are working on the simulators: they are worried about the sand, which could end up in the engines and damage them. The organizers will spray a foam on the desert around the plant to reduce the problem, but it isn't sure that it will be enough. Having passed the Malaysian test, the temperature should not be a problem. Prudent drivers. The only ones to have driven around the circuit are Williams test driver Marc Gene and Jean Alesi, both at the wheel of historic cars. Jenson Button visited it before it was officially opened. Turning there with a Formula 1 car is another thing. There are also aspects to which the Circus isn't accustomed: being a Muslim country, alcohol will be banned, so on the podium the toast will be with orange juice. Moreover, no bare-chested girls will be allowed around the paddock. The organizers pay well and no one has made a fuss. The track is 5417 meters long and has a straight of over a kilometer. The favorite is always Michael Schumacher, because he has established a perfect symbiosis with the car and has shown an extraordinary psychophysical energy.

"I don't know what the secret is: I'm just fine".

On Thursday, March 25, 2004, the German driver will be at Mugello to test; then, on Friday, March 26, 2004, he will move to Fiorano, because the rest shift this week is up to Barrichello. Also the Ferrari racing team is back home in a hurry, after twenty-five days of absence between Australia and Malaysia. From today, everyone is back to work as if nothing had happened. Todt explains:

"Our results don't depend on five people. They are the result of the commitment of 900 men and women that you don't see on the circuits, a group that is focused on always improving. After the victory, we were in a meeting for an hour and a quarter with Michael to analyze what was working and what needed to be improved. Our opponents aren't waiting: there is still a lot of work to do".

The strong points: the tires. The Bridgestones now guarantee reliability even in hot weather. The engine. New materials to withstand the 800 kilometers of the weekend. The aerodynamics, with a sloping nose, new front wing and improved lateral flow diverters. In the meantime, however, the president of the Scuderia Ferrari, Luca Montezemolo, rejoices: better than expected.

 

"I am extremely pleased. After two races we have taken 33 of the 36 available points. We didn't expect to be so far ahead, even though we knew we had improved the 4-5 areas of the F2003 GA that were not of excellence. With great effort we improved a car that had already won the World Drivers' and Constructors' Championships, winning 8 out of 17 races. The Bridgestone also worked very well, being very competitive in the comparison with Michelin. Maybe there is still something missing with the high temperatures, and in Malaysia maybe we would not have won if the F2004 wasn't the extraordinary car it is. I am satisfied because we have also confirmed great reliability, scoring points in Malaysia with two Ferraris and four of our engines, including the ones we lease to Sauber".

Now there is the unknown of Bahrain.

"The climate is torrid and there is the risk of sand; problems for everyone. Then there will be Imola, where in winter we lowered the track record, then Monte Carlo, a track on which we usually do well. I am optimistic. Schumacher? Those who thought he might be in poor shape have seen just how good he is".

So there you have it: who really believes in a slowdown of the Scuderia Ferrari, after these first two Grands Prix? It is true, in Formula 1 everything is possible, but at the moment it seems impossible for the Scuderia Ferrari, or its champion, Michael Schumacher, to slow down.

 

Martina Felloni

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