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Sepang 2001 - Ferrari pulls off a masterstroke

On paper, 'Michael Schumacher leads home a Ferrari 1-2' hardly reads like a riveting headline. But the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix offered all the ingredients of a wild race and a fabled triumph.

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Many still consider Sepang 2001 as perhaps Michael Schumacher's greatest drive, while others remember only the veil of suspicion spread over the great German's epic win. Regardless of where pundits and historians stand, the race itself was a not-so-subtle blend of chaos, disaster, brilliant strategy and crushing domination. And that was the fate endured by the Scuderia alone!

Changes to the F1 calendar scheduled the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix as the second round of the world championship, taking place just five months after its previous installment. The shortened gap between the two races was probably the sole factor which weighed on poor ticket sales and attendance figures.

Before proceedings got underway, Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen put a cat among the pigeons, alleging that the cars from Maranello, which had won convincingly in Melbourne two weeks earlier, were perhaps not all what they appeared to be. Frentzen alluded to an unfair advantage, in the form of an occult traction control, hidden deep down in the Ferrari's entrails. But as Sepang's blistering heat soared, the rumors evaporated while Frentzen persisted in seeing the fire beneath the smoke.

During the action-packed qualifying hour on Saturday, Ferrari pretty much picked up where it left off in Australia, with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello clinching the first row of the starting grid followed by Ralf Schumacher's Williams, Mika Hakkinen's McLaren, Jarno Trulli's Jordan and the second Williams of Juan-Pablo Montoya.

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Sunday morning the cars went out to warm up on a sodden track now basking in the sun following an impressive monsoon-like opening of the heavens. But when the cars came to the grid a few hours later, the Bridgestone and Michelin-shod pack rolled in on soft dry weather tyres, with the exception of Luciano Burti's Jaguar in a bold attempt to revalue the Brazilian's already meager chances.

Two start attempts were necessary to get the field underway with Frentzen, Fisischella and  Montoya all wreaking havoc on the initial procedure. When the lights finally went green, Michael  Schumacher shot into the lead and barreled down to the first corner followed by brother Ralf, Barrichello and Trulli. Vexed by being outrun by the Williams, Rubens took a tight line into Turn 1 and twitched Ralf Schumacher into a spin, the stranded German staring back in anguish at the entire field as it furiously took evading action.

Progressively, everyone got their act together and Schumacher led the pack at the end of the first lap from Barrichello, Trulli, Coulthard, Frentzen and the fast-moving Arrows of Jos Verstappen who had appeared from nowhere - or rather 18th - to put himself in the mix. On the second lap, Olivier Panis left the circuit backwards at Turn 6, trailing a huge flame ominous of an oil leak which, blended with the first drops of rain, suddenly transformed the slick track into a water slide. Both Ferraris arrived on the scene and promptly skidded off together  into the gravel trap and on to what should have ultimately been their demise, but miraculously, both drivers recovered - albeit way down the order - with Barrichello rejoining the circuit before Schumacher.

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The combination of oil and deluge had cars and drivers executing an un-synchronized ballet of twirling and pirouettes before the Safety Car was called out on lap 5. Chaos ensued, and a highly congested pitlane saw both Ferraris appear together with Schumacher forced to wait a massive 72 seconds behind his halted team mate as the Scuderia fumbled its pit stop! But in a stroke of genius commanded by strategy guru Ross Brawn, the red cars were fitted with intermediary rubber while everyone else played it safe and opted for full wets, evidently a wise choice given the persistent intensity of the elements.

The storm eventually blew over but it took a while for the water to irrigate as the Safety Car guided a downsized 16-car field led by Coulthard's McLaren. When the race resumed on lap 11, the Ferrari duo, down in 10th and 11th place, rushed through the ranks in unbelievable form.

As the pair charged up behind Jarno Trulli, Barrichello attempted to pass the Jordan on the inside, only to be blocked and watch Schumacher fly past both cars at the right-handed Turn 5, a risky maneuver the Brazilian later admitted had surprised and angered him. Schumacher, now third and lapping about five seconds faster than anyone else but his team mate, was on a roll and soon dispensed with Verstappen before fighting his way past Coulthard to take the lead with Barrichello in hot pursuit. Job done.

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From that point, the race was effectively signed, sealed and delivered. Schumacher progressively increased his lead over those battling their fast-degrading wet tyres. The dominance continued until lap 30 when the Ferrari, almost nonchalantly, executed its tyre and fuel pit stop with a minute in hand over its sister car.

Having lapped everyone up to seventh place, Schumacher cruised to victory, while Barrichello and Coulthard completed the podium. Despite the elements and their off-track excursion, hindered by nightmare pitstops, Ferrari won the day and Schumacher his 44th win. With or without traction control, the House of Maranello had pulled off a masterstroke.

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