Two races into the F1 season – and already the hottest topic is which of F1’s leading championship contenders is keeping his nose ahead in the points battle.
And, after the Malaysian Grand Prix, the momentum undoubtedly lies with Kimi Raikkonen.
Following a messy qualifying session that saw the third- and fourth-placed McLarens each moved backwards five grid slots for impeding other drivers, he managed a serene race that saw him lead easily, untroubled from the first pit-stops and collecting a full 10 points.
In stark contrast was his team-mate Felipe Massa, who found himself beached in the gravel very shortly after being overtaken by Raikkonen in the pits.
After scoring just one point in the Australian GP (and that by default after the disqualification of sixth-placed Rubens Barrichello for leaving the pit lane under a red light) Raikkonen now has 11 points, in joint second place with his old buddy from Sauber, Nick Heidfeld.
Massa has surely put himself out of contention by scoring an unlovely nil points for the second race in a row, leaving BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica cruising home to a largely unchallenged second place and eight points of his own.
Lewis Hamilton made the best of a bad start by working his way up the field – only to get stuck behind the characteristically wide (and uncharacteristically reliable) Red Bull of Mark Webber and the unbelievably on-form Toyota of that seasoned old campaigner Jarno Trulli.
A horribly compromised first pitstop cost him 20 seconds meaning that he was never likely to get a podium, and was on balance lucky to come away with four points for his fifth place – leaving him with a total of 14 world championship points.
His colleague Heikki Kovalainen managed to hang on to his original third-place qualifying spot to occupy the bottom step on the podium – and to suggest that his car was always slightly more on the pace than Hamilton’s this weekend.
Hamilton said: “I got a really good start and was pretty happy as we jumped four positions from ninth to fifth. I was pushing Mark for a very long time, but being behind someone, no matter how quick you are, it is really difficult to get past.
“We were in a good position for a shot at third place at least, but then I had the problem in my first pit stop which lost me a lot of time. So I did the best job I could.
“However we take away the fact that the car ran very reliably in these extreme conditions, and I was able to push Jarno right until the last second. I have to say that both Mark and Jarno drove really well today, and it was great to fight them out on track today.”
Kovalainen added: “I am pretty happy with my third place today, considering yesterday’s penalty, and it was probably the best possible result for us in these circumstances. Our strategy worked really well and it meant that I was able to be in clean air for most of the race.”
Team principal Ron Dennis praised strong performances from both his drivers “following an eventful weekend.” He continued: “Despite the problems [it] yielded sufficient points to keep us ahead in both championships.
“Heikki had a great race dealing well with the traffic and achieving a well-deserved first podium position with the team. Lewis’ race was hampered when a wheel nut locking mechanism failed during his first stop, costing him valuable time at a critical part in his race.
“The true pace of our cars was masked today by the inherent understeer that comes when driving in traffic. We now look forward to the Bahrain Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.”
At Red Bull David Coulthard managed to turn 12th on the grid, six places back from team-mate Mark Webber, into a ninth-place finish. But it was undoubtedly seventh-placed Webber’s race and DC never really seemed to find his feet following the incident where his car came to bits and triggered a stewards’ inquiry into its road-worthiness during Friday practice.
This left his failing to meet the team’s goal of a points finish and his post-race quotes seem to reflect this: “There was too much graining on my first set of tyres, so I lost nine seconds in the first part of the race, which was frustrating.
“It was very hot out there, but thankfully it was also a little bit overcast, so that improved things.”
Team boss Christian Horner added: “David put in a very gritty drive, especially after not feeling one hundred percent this morning, and was very competitive in the second half of the race. It’s good to go away from here with some points on the board.”
At Honda Jenson Button turned a P11 grid slot into a tenth-place finish after an untroubled race, much to the delight of the team.
It said, post race: “Both drivers improved on their grid placings during the course of the 56-lap race and lapped consistently with the cars around them, giving the team a valuable indication of the RA108’s current level of competitiveness.
“The cars ran reliably in the tough conditions and both drivers delivered a solid race performance.”
Button added: “It was good to finish the full race distance today and we will get a lot of very useful information from this weekend.
“I’m pretty satisfied with 10th place as that is where the performance of the car is right now. With the majority of cars ahead of us also finishing, it is a good reflection of our overall position.”
“We’re going in the right direction and learning more about the car all the time, so we need to keep up the hard work and continue to develop ahead of the next race in two weeks’ time.”
Team principal Ross Brawn said: “To see Jenson finish the race in 10th place with Rubens just behind, in spite of his problems in the third free practice session, is very encouraging and a real indication of the car’s pace.
“There is still a great deal of work to do but we are really starting to make improvements one step at a time.”
At Super Aguri Anthony Davidson brought his car home 16th after qualifying 22nd. Well, as far as this car goes, it’s all experience, isn’t it?
He said: “It was a good race for the team and for me today. It was great to do my first full-distance race since Brazil and I think it went well.
“The boys did an excellent job and the car ran reliably all the way through the race. There were no problems whatsoever and the tyres worked well. I felt comfortable in the car and I could push whenever I wanted to improve the lap time.
“I just stayed out of trouble and brought the car home in a very respectable position for the situation that we are in at the moment.”
To give a bit of an insight into that situation, Davidson put in a fastest lap time of 1:38.171 for the team on lap 55. The fastest of the race was set by Nick Heidfeld on the same lap – 1:35.366, nearly three seconds faster.
However, team principal Aguri Suzuki remains optimistic: “I am very happy to have a two-car finish here in Malaysia because it is a very hot, humid and difficult race. The whole team has done an excellent job and for both cars to finish means that we have finally started the 2008 season.”
Apparently Davidson’s team-mate Takuma Sato added: “It was good to finish the race.” We merely reproduce this comment without adding any further remarks of our own.
Maybe he could pass that thought on to Felipe Massa…