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Thursday, March 18, 2004
Raikkonen didn't finish at Australia

By Alan Baldwin
Reuters

Kimi Raikkonen
Raikkonen
SEPANG, Malaysia -- The Formula One season has barely started and already Kimi Raikkonen's world has been turned upside down.

Malaysia, which hosts the second race of the championship on Sunday, reflects that clearly enough.

Last year, it was McLaren's young Finnish 'Iceman' who kept his cool in the sweltering Sepang heat to stand triumphant as world champion Michael Schumacher fended off talk of a Ferrari crisis.

McLaren could celebrate two wins from the first two races and left Malaysia with Raikkonen leading overall ahead of teammate David Coulthard.

"One shouldn't draw the wrong conclusions from races that don't go perfectly," said a downcast Schumacher after Raikkonen's first grand prix victory.

"We are not already facing a crisis, absolutely not."

Schumacher was proved correct in the end, fighting back to claim a record sixth crown after being taken down to the wire by runner-up Raikkonen.

This year they arrive in Malaysia with the roles reversed.

While Ferrari looks dominant after a one-two finish in Melbourne, Raikkonen and McLaren are on the back foot after their worst start to a championship in years.

Write them off at your peril but the chances of the Mercedes-powered team standing tall at the end of the year are not looking good.

For a start as abject as Australia 2004, you would have to turn back time at least a decade.

The team scored just one point in Melbourne, with Coulthard finishing eighth after Raikkonen had become the first retirement with an early engine failure.

The script was not meant to read like this.

McLaren was after all the first team to get its new car on track, starting testing before Christmas last year with promising results.

They had expected it to be a quantum leap forward and, despite obvious teething problems with the engine, the car proved quick enough to break lap records in Spain.

So Australia was all the more baffling.

"They were fast in (winter) testing so it is difficult to know whether they were playing games in testing or they had problems and pulled back a little bit," said Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello on Thursday.

"I was surprised that they were not as fast as expected."

The Brazilian was not the only one.

Coulthard and Raikkonen had suspected the first race would be tough for them but both were still taken aback by the lack of pace compared to Ferrari and even Renault, last year's fourth placed team.

Qualifying was depressing, with Raikkonen 10th and Coulthard 12th and both drivers complaining that they needed more engine power and lacked confidence in the car's handling.

"I think it was quite clear to all of us that it was not where we wanted to be," said Coulthard.

How much of an improvement the team can make in Malaysia remains to be seen.

"We had a reasonable test last week in Valencia and we have some new parts to run on the car which were actually available before Melbourne but we didn't have the right conditions in Imola at last test prior to going to Melbourne to be confident they were actually a step forward," said Coulthard.

McLaren has a hard road ahead of them, although a significant development of the car is in the pipeline and major changes are expected by mid-season.

In the meantime, Ferrari will worry more about other challengers, such as Renault and Spaniard Fernando Alonso.

"A lot of people were talking about Raikkonen last year," said Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Thursday.

"I didn't hear a lot of people talking about him in Australia because he didn't have the car to compete. It depends on the car.

"I think Renault is the main challenger here in Malaysia. Renault is not the car to beat, ours is that, but they will be competitive."

How long before the same is once again said of McLaren?