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2004 Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix
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Reports & Results from the Malaysian GP

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 Track Layout (from the FIA)


What Change?

I'll be the first to admit that the results from the first race of the 2004 season caught me by surprise as I was expecting some close competition to Ferrari to say the least. When the lights went out at Albert Park, it was obvious after the first few laps that Ferrari were in a class of their own. 
Despite that, I predicted that we'll see a change this season and I still believe that we will. One race cannot and does not determine a season. Sure Ferrari look very strong but Renault and Williams are strong too. McLaren have major problems it seems while BAR appear to have made a leap forward.
After analysing the Australian Grand Prix, a few factors played right into the hands of Ferrari that allowed them to produce that stunning result:

  • The modified pit entry and the increased pit speed limit made the optimum pit strategy to be 3 stopper (McLaren went for 2 out of desperation). This meant that the Bridgestone tyres had a reduced number of laps per stint making them look on par with the Michelins.
  • The low ambient temperature helped the Bridgestone runners
  • The evolutionary nature of the Ferrari meant that they are bound to improve their car while Williams and McLaren with revolutionary cars still need time to develop their new cars. Their improvement at the first race wasn't great but over the season expect them to improve at a quicker pace than that of Ferrari

One can safely assume that last year the Michelin runners had around 1 second per lap advantage on a dry track. If the conditions and pit stops allowed Bridgestone to close that gap then we have the 1 second advantage that Ferrari had in Australia. (This of course assumes that both tyre companies have made similar progress through the off season)
The warmer conditions in both Malaysia and Bahrain will help the Michelin runners and the gap will be much smaller.

In addition to the stunning form of the Ferrari's, Fernando Alonso was equally stunning. With an underpowered car it was surprising to see him ahead of the Williams. In 3 or 4 races, Renault will have a major update to their engine and don't be surprised if they are challenging for a win in Spain.

Sepang is a high downforce track (following the latest aero regulations) and will be very demanding on the car and the driver due to the extreme heat. Cars are usually configured for maximum cooling and the drivers have to be ultra fit to sustain the heat. Watch for a few rookies struggling towards the end of the race.
The track has low grip but is smooth. It is more abrasive than Melbourne.

A number of teams were testing last week at Valencia. McLaren, Ferrari and Williams all set competitive lap times but as pre-season testing proved, there tests don't mean much when gauging a team's performance.

Here is a team by team review:

Ferrari: They proved that they are the team to beat in Melbourne. Apart from Barrichello's brake problems, they had a perfect weekend. It won't be as easy in Sepang but they will be very competitive. 
Reliability 9.5/10 - Speed 9.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Michael Schumacher won the race in Melbourne, in fact he won everything!. Last year he struggled here starting from 3rd and tangling with Trulli at the first corner. If the Bridgestone tyres perform as they did in Melbourne, he is likely to win it.

Rubens Barrichello managed second in Melbourne despite having brake problems as there was no competition to mention. It would have been interesting to see him fight with Michael but on many occasions we have seen Barrichello's car fail him for whatever reason. A podium finish is likely if the Bridgestones perform.

Williams: Despite a relatively poor performance in Melbourne, they are only one of two teams who have a chance of fighting with Ferrari. It appears their car still needs a bit of development work but the Michelin tyres should help them close the gap. 
Reliability 9.5/10 - Speed 9.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Ralf Schumacher drove an ordinary race in Melbourne and didn't show any signs of brilliance. Perhaps he was too demotivated by the pace of the Ferraris or because he can't get enough money out of Sir Frank. He still finished ahead of Montoya though!. This is typical Ralf Schumacher. Expect the same in Malaysia with a points finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya managed to entertain the fans with a few overtaking moves on the track but it was mainly due to his stuffed up start and a delayed pit stop. Himself and the team cannot afford to make such mistakes, if those mistakes are avoided, he could challenge for a win with the help of Michelin.  

Renault: The second team that could have a chance of challenging Ferrari here. Yes their car is underpowered but appears to be aerodynamically superb and if the Michelin tyres deliver, they will be up there. In a few races time, Renault will be fighting for the front row at every race.
Reliability 9.5/10 - Speed 9.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Fernando Alonso finished a superb third at Melbourne. He can repeat or even better that performance here. 

Jarno Trulli suffered from a hit by Sato at the start of the race so it remains to be seen how close to Alonso he can be. The rumour that Ralf Schumacher was joining Renault - strongly denied by Flavio Briatore - may have been a warning shot to Trulli.
A points finish is likely with a podium finish a possibility.

BAR: In Melbourne they took McLaren's place but that is unlikely to remain. They were reliable which was a surprise and they were reasonably fast. Sepang will be a tough test for BAR and it will be really impressive if they manage to finish both cars.
Reliability 8.5/10 - Speed 8.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Jenson Button drove a strong race in Melbourne and finished 6th and ahead of a Renault and a McLaren. If his car lasts he'll finish in the points.

Takuma Sato did reasonably well finishing 9th in only his second appearance in Melbourne. He should be closer to Jenson in Sepang. Points though will depend on the failure of the cars ahead of him, if he manages to finish that is!.

McLaren: They are clearly struggling but they appear to know what needs to be done so it is only a matter of time before we see them challenging the other top teams. For the time being though, they'll hope they are reliable enough to salvage some points.
Reliability 8.0/10 - Speed 9.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: David Coulthard managed to score a single point. That is what the car could do in Melbourne. If the car can score more points in Sepang then Coulthard will do just that.

Kimi Raikkonen retired with an engine failure (the only failure among the top 4 teams!). We didn't see him for long on the race track but he will extract more than what the car is able to. He'll fight for points and possibly a podium if his car lasts.

Sauber: The top speed during the Melbourne GP was set by Giancarlo Fisichella and given that he uses a rebadged Ferrari engine we can conclude that the Sauber has some weakness in its chassis and aero. With the state of the art windtunnel about to produce results, they should improve from San Marino onwards. For the time being they'll hope that the Bridgestones will work for them.
Reliability 8.0/10 - Speed 8.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella struggled behind Nick Heidfeld in the Jordan in Melbourne. He should have been able to pass him more easily. Another sign that Fisichella doesn't seem to try hard in a poor car. Points will be hard in Sepang.

Felipe Massa appears to be as wild as he ever was spinning numerous times on the track in Melbourne but without severe consequences. His Ferrari engine managed to fail, something Sauber and Ferrari will be looking at closely. If he can control himself a bit more, he could be a serious challenge to Fisichella. Points difficult.

Jaguar: They appear to be improving quietly. Webber proved to be very strong but his car failed him. 
Reliability 7.0/10 - Speed 8.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Mark Webber proved yet again that he deserves to be in a better car. Starting from 6th on the grid in Melbourne with a reasonable fuel load, he could have finished in the points. If the car is reliable he has an outside chance of finishing in the points.

Christian Klien finished 11th in his first race of the season which isn't bad. He needs to be as close as possible to Webber. Points on Sunday will be next to impossible.

Toyota: They haven't been as competitive as expected but they will improve under Mike Gascoyne. It will take at least until mid-season though. At this stage they'll just hope to be reliable and the ones in front fail so they can score points.
Reliability 8.5/10 - Speed 7.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Cristiano da Matta finished 12th in Melbourne!. That would have been a disappointment. That won't improve by much in Sepang. Points will be next to impossible.

Olivier Panis had yet another dose of bad luck when his car failed to start up for the second qualifying session forcing him to start from the back. He managed to finish 13th. Not too impressive. Like da Matta he'll struggle in Sepang. 

Jordan: They qualified and raced at the back just ahead of Minardi. That is where they are expected to be. 
Reliability 6.5/10 - Speed 7.0/10  (Team Preview)

Drivers: Nick Heidfeld gave Fisichella a hard time (he used to be a Sauber driver) and that was the highlight of his race!. He will and should do better than the other Jordan and the two Minardis and that is about all the cars he can be ahead of.

Giorgio Pantano finished last in Melbourne but the 2 Minardis that competed with him had problems so it is hard to gauge his performance!. Don't dream of points.

Minardi: Both cars started from the back and struggled in the race. But - and like Jordan - that was expected! 
Reliability 6.0/10 - Speed 6.5/10 

Drivers: Gianmaria Bruni had a fantastic start passing several more capable cars but his car soon gave him troubles and he only managed 43 laps. Watch out for him, he could be a future star.

Zsolt Baumgartner was lucky that Bruni didn't set a time on his second qualifying lap. Otherwise his qualifying time from the second part would have been embarrassing just like the first part. Enough said!

Bridgestone Preview - Michelin Preview

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