#681 2002 Australian Grand Prix

2021-08-11 00:00

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#2002, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Monica Bessi, Davide Scotto di Vetta,

#681 2002 Australian Grand Prix

For the opening race of the 2002 season, to be held on the Albert Park circuit, Ferrari brings four bodies from the other side of the world: The two F


For the opening race of the 2002 season, to be held on the Albert Park circuit, from the other side of the world Ferrari brings: the two F2001 cars, the forklift, the spare chassis (which obviously they hope to not use) plus four containers and seventy-four crates. These contain enough spare parts (radiators, hubs, suspensions, exhausts, brakes, gearboxes and whatever else is necessary) to assemble five single-seaters. Ten are the evolved 050 engines, used for the first time last season in Suzuka during qualifying and now capable of running 300 and more kilometres of the first Grand Prix of the season. If Schumacher and Barichello will not be able to get on the podium, the official debut of F2002 will undergo a sudden acceleration and everything will be done to get the single-seater presented on February 6, 2002, in Kuala Lumpur. In the meantime, Ferrari will schedule an intense test session between Fiorano and Mugello in the first week of March. And it is not excluded that, if things should not go well in Australia, Schumacher will take over the wheel of the F2002, renouncing the usual week of relaxation in South-East Asia. At Maranello, however, they are optimistic about the performance of the F2001, in spite of the inconvenience suffered during winter (from the crashes in the Spanish tests to the engine failures at Imola) and, if anything, tyres are the real unknown factor, capable of tipping the scales in favour of its rivals. We are waiting to see if Bridgestone, which deals almost exclusively with Ferrari, or Michelin, this year can count on the experience of McLaren, too. Everyone hopes that the world championship will start without controversy and with a result that is the same as that of the chequered flag.  


This is a legitimate desire, as in recent years the start of the championship has almost always been marked by controversy over interpretations of the rules. This time, the elements on which discussions are already animated are those relating to the asymmetry of the grooves of certain tyres, double clutches and certain aerodynamic details. There will certainly be no more talk of masked traction controls, since all systems have been liberalised, precisely because the men of the International Automobile Federation were unable to understand what could be considered legal and what could not. The 2002 season, in fact, opens under the banner of further liberalisation of electronics, with the introduction of two-way auto-box telemetry and vice versa. Thus a period of regulatory stability should happen after the technical revolution started by the Federation in 2001. Electronics aside, the other changes to the text of the technical regulations only concern the safety sector: the most incisive concerns a new lateral impact absorption test for the deformable structure fixed behind the gearbox. The lateral crash tests for the bodywork, which had already become much stricter last season, remain almost unchanged. This is followed by improvements to the position of the rear light and the size of the wing mirrors. As for the spectacle, nothing has been done, in terms of rules, to facilitate overtaking. The truth is that many people, starting with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, are beginning to think (or convince themselves) that it is better to leave things as they are. An alarming statement by the FIA president, in which he points out that overtaking during pit stops is better than overtaking in corners.


"Because an overtake lasts a moment, while the run-up to enter the pits at the most opportune moment to put the rival out of action is a prolonged emotion".


As for the drivers, all eyes are on Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen. Montoya closed the 2001 season on a high note and if he continues to make progress he will really become the anti-Schumacher, provided that Williams is stronger than the one seen in winter testing. Raikkonen, on the other hand, is the McLaren bet. He is replacing Mika Hakkinen, and Ron Dennis has paid Sauber a hefty fee to get him. Winter tests have shown a fast Raikkonen. But the unknowns remain, as we have never seen him in a fight with the likes of the two Schumachers, Montoya or his teammate David Coulthard. What is certain is that the man to beat will be Michael Schumacher. The four-time world champion arrives in Australia convinced of his means and his car, even if he would have preferred to make his debut with the new one. Awaiting the verdict of the track, the psychological battle with his rivals seems to be the sharpest weapon. The game is played on nerves, in this long eve, hoping to weaken the German driver. Montoya immediately launches a venomous anathema:


"I don't understand why Ferrari has decided to go with the old car. He could end qualifying in tenth place".


Coulthard, who became number one at McLaren after Hakkinen's retirement, goes even further and makes cyanide-filled statements:


"Schumacher is not as strong as he used to be, he is getting old. I realised this last year in Brazil. It was raining at the end, maybe he couldn't see well, the fact is that he lifted his foot a couple of times. I understood it, I tried and managed to overtake him".


The fact that he finished so far behind in the final World Championship standings must be an irrelevant detail, as Coulthard overlooks it. What is important to him is to show his new spirit.


"If I haven't managed to win the title yet, it's also because I've sometimes had to let my teammate overtake me".


Now Hakkinen is gone and the young Raikkonen does not expect magnanimity.


"I will give him the help he needs to make the team grow, nothing more. I have no obligations".


In reality, he has some duties; Dennis, the McLaren soul, is tired of betting (for nothing) on him and will not tolerate new failures. Without forgetting his enemy at home, the Finnish driver's swaggering face, 22 years old, who has the chance to achieve a historic feat, becoming the youngest Formula 1 World Champion, better than Emerson Fittipaldi, who in 1972 achieved the goal at 25 years and nine months, and Schumacher himself, who in 1994 won when he was only 50 days away from turning 26. Raikkonen dreams. And the record may help his foot. With a scar on his arm, the look of a tough guy and the expression of someone who is not afraid of great feats, Juan Pablo Montoya is the first driver to arrive in Melbourne. The challenge with Schumacher fascinates him.


"As long as they give me the right car. Faster and more reliable than the Ferrari. That's the secret. With another car Schumacher would not have won two consecutive titles".


Does that mean that he does not trust his new Williams?


"I didn't say that. I'm optimistic, so much so that I have no problem taking it to the race straight away, unlike Ferrari, who will be making their debut with the old one. I know, however, that only the track can give the verdict. There are no heroes, without a car you can't go anywhere. Schumacher can play the tough guy, but he's on the road and has to prove his worth. So far he has, but he has had the best car. If we can start on an equal machinery, I know how to beat him".


Is Coulthard referring to the overtaking a year ago in Brazil?


"I remember it very well. I think Michael has forgotten it".


But the facts prove him right. Four world titles, in two different cars.


"And I hope to reverse the trend soon. In the meantime, he's driving the 2001 car here. That could be a big advantage for us".


Poison as a great enemy. Many see him at Maranello next year at Barrichello’s place:


"Never team up with Schumacher. We'd need two identical cars and I don't think that's possible".


Rubens Barrichello himself begins the season with an examination of conscience. He acknowledges that he has been a bit of a whiner in his first two years at Ferrari, and that he has not always taken responsibility. But this year:


"I have to smile, be serene, drive calmly, as I have done in this month of testing. Because I have ambitions, I dream of beating Schumacher, of winning the world title. But these goals of mine must not become a nagging problem. Like the renewal of my contract. I feel good at Ferrari and I think the team feels good with me too. So, if nothing new happens, there will be no problem extending the relationship. But I can't think about my future every day, otherwise it becomes an obsession. And I just want to be calm".


A calmness that has no trouble translating into bravado. About himself, he says:


"If I had to bet on the possible winner, I'd put everything on me. Give me two dollars and tell me that if I get it right I'll win four. I'll put it on Barrichello".


And about the car:


"It wasn't a mistake to bring the old one to Melbourne. It's not bad, it will be a hard-fought midfield game. We can still win, because it's much faster than the one that ended the season at Suzuka. I don't agree with Montoya, we won't start on the fifth row. And compared to the others we have an advantage: reliability is guaranteed. While Williams and McLaren are full of doubts. They could go really fast and break down after a few laps".


A risk that the happy Barrichello does not want to take at all. To the point of making it clear that the debut of the 2002 car will not even take place in Malaysia. Better to play it safe. And collect points. And smile.


"My son Eduardo has changed my life. Being a father has not slowed me down, it has made me stronger. When a man is happy, he works better".


And the tears after the success at Hockenheim?


"I swore I won't cry anymore, but that's another matter. If I win, I don't control myself. And anything can happen".


Michael Schumacher is smiling ahead of this new championship, during which he could equal Argentinean Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five titles. The first question can only be about the problematic F2002:


"Unfortunately, we lacked the time for testing. We were never able to simulate a grand prix, we didn't have the chance to make an in-depth comparison between the old and new cars. That's a shame. Let's say I'm not at all enthusiastic about starting this world championship with the old car, but that's the situation. The strategy is: maybe we don't win, but we can score points. It's a question of how much this will cost us. But we will know something more on Sunday evening. The F2002 will have to race, sooner or later, I hope more sooner than later. It depends on many things. To start with, we need to do more tests, and by now there is little time between one grand prix and another. But, for example, yesterday Badoer did fifty kilometres at Fiorano. Now we have to see how much we can run between this Grand Prix and the next one in Malaysia".


Is it a big problem to start a world championship like that?


"No, it's not a problem, let's say it's an extra problem, but in all things there are positive and negative sides. We talk a lot about this problem but the truth is that we don't know what we are worth and what others are worth. This is the first discovery to be made in these days of testing and racing. Afterwards we will have clearer ideas".


Ferrari is the only top team with Bridgestone tyres, the others use Michelin: will there be problems?


"I see a lot of chatter and writing about this too, but in reality we don't know anything for sure until we have the results from the track. Ferrari has made the strategic choice to continue a relationship with Bridgestone: we'll see if it was the right choice or not. How can you tell now? Certainly, we all expect a big increase in performance from the tyres, but basically it's all still to be proven".


Seventh year at Ferrari: aren't you tired? Don't you feel like a change?


"Yes, every now and then I think about it too, but then I say to myself: what other team could offer me more? And I'm not talking about the money because I make good money. I'm talking about everything else: the working environment, the personal relationships, the atmosphere of esteem and trust, the programmes, the many programmes that we have in our heads inside Ferrari. Who could give me more, offer me better? I don't know, you tell me if you have an answer. My answer, my conviction is that there's no other team like it, so much so that at Maranello we're already talking about afterwards. That is, after 2004 when my contract expires. If they still want me, I'm ready to say yes to finish my career at Maranello. A life at Ferrari and then nothing more".


A hint of caution and a lot of optimism is the common thread running through Ron Dennis' comments on the eve of the first race:


"We've met the targets the engineers set during winter testing and the chemistry with Michelin, who has done an impressive job".


Haug goes even further, claiming that McLaren has never done as many kilometres as this year during winter testing (7,500 with the new car) and therefore the Anglo-German team is in great shape for the start of the championship. He also has confidence in the drivers:


"Kimi has integrated perfectly and if our car proves to be fast enough and reliable enough I don't see why he couldn't be a winner straight away. Coulthard? If he can repeat races like Brazil and Austria last year, he has no one to fear".


With Hakkinen no longer in his shadow, the Scotsman really can dream of hitting the big time.


"My year? I hope so...The new car fills me with confidence because compared to last year's car it is more stable in fast corners. I think never before since I've been at McLaren have we had a better chance of completing the Grand Prix".


And what if Raikkonen goes faster? The Scot replies by saying:


"Undoubtedly I wouldn't be happy about that, who would? But mind you, I wouldn't be surprised, because Kimi is no amateur. He's already done a full season, he knows how to drive a Formula 1 car and he doesn't have too much pressure on himself".


A state of mind confirmed by the Finn:


"Undoubtedly, I feel much more relaxed than a year ago, when everyone was watching me and many people hoped I would fail in my first Formula 1 race. I've done so many kilometres and it's like I've raced half a world championship with McLaren. Now there is the comparison with the others, which is crucial to understand exactly where we are, but I feel ready for the start of the season".


The new championship has not started yet and the Formula 1 world has already to think about the 2003 season. Away from prying eyes, in the pit lounges of Albert Park, the team managers are assessing the extent of the innovations that the FIA intends to adopt from the next championship with the noble aim of reducing costs, which have become, after the New York tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the consequent economic depression, difficult to sustain and unpresentable to potential sponsors. What measures the FIA intends to adopt has been on everyone's lips for some time now, not least because Max Mosley himself, instead of establishing a confidential conversation with the teams, prefers to let slip the guidelines of the project: to allow only one engine for each driver during the Grand Prix weekend, to reduce the world championship appointments to just two days (Saturday and Sunday), perhaps in the hope of subsequently getting the teams to accept an extension of the race calendar and, finally, to force engine manufacturers to supply at least two teams. This would solve the supply problems of teams with fewer financial resources once and for all. The novelty, which only emerged during this race, was that Mosley passed from words to deeds, sending the teams a long letter (six pages) in which he justified the FIA position and established that the proposal should be put to the vote at the earliest opportunity. In order for Mosley's plan to be translated into sporting regulations, the consent of at least eighty per cent of the twenty-five members is required (the racing teams and some of their sponsors are represented in the commission), but there is already the name and surname of the person who will oppose to it, trying to blow up the plan: Ron Dennis. The owner of the team, in the usual pre-season meeting in a well-known restaurant on the Melbourne seafront, launches a strange appeal to the press not to overemphasise the new proposals. In essence, Dennis, taking his cue from the current crisis in the world economy, which has had repercussions on the world championship, believes that the teams must unite on the regulatory changes in order to preserve a product that commercially continues to be extremely attractive. But Dennis risks being isolated because, when asked about it, David Richards (BAR) and Ove Andersson (Toyota) said they were in favour of the federal initiative and Briatore (Renault) himself spoke of a reasonable proposal, adding:


"Even if it is right that we talk about it among ourselves so that it is defined as a counter-proposal made by the insiders and not by those who, like Ecclestone and Mosley, do not fully live the reality of racing".


Later, Patrick Head, technical director of Williams, also speaks on the subject, accusing the FIA of helping Ferrari. In his sights are, above all, the tyres:


"The Michelin tyres are very good, but they need to be run in 10-15 laps. With a two-stop strategy, you have to run in up to 45 laps. If you're Ferrari, with Bridgestone tyres that don't need breaking in and with Schumacher who only needs one lap to get the best out of the car, the easiest way to damage your rivals is to propose using just one engine per race. It's all politics".


Meanwhile, after declaring bankruptcy, Prost is bought by an industrial group that relies on the structure of Tom Walkinshaw, owner of Arrows. The operation is carried out the day before the two free practice sessions, with a disbursement of 2.5 million euro by an English industrialist, Charles Nickerson (former entrepreneur in the tractor field) and a company, Phoenix Finance Ltd, in collaboration with Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Thanks to this sum, which does not affect the ownership of the Guyancourt factory or the fate of the 186 employees, the two Prost cars prepared for 2002 are diverted to the English base of Leafeld, home of Arrows, and the team's trademark, intellectual property and patents are taken over. Walkinshaw points out:


"A company in my group has been building parts for Prost for years, so it won't be difficult for us to give what's missing. But, I repeat, we will be a simple technical structure on which the new ownership will rely. We have nothing to do with the operation".


The two drivers entered for the world championship are the Czech Tomáš Enge and the Argentinean Gaston Mazzacane, but what engine will the team have? Prost had an agreement with Ferrari, but the new company will have to search another engine supplier as Jean Todt says Ferrari will only supply Sauber. There is talk of antiquated Hart V10 engines, a company taken over by Walkinshaw in 1998. Or the vintage Cosworths that Minardi had in 2001. And the tyres? Mystery. As for the team's name, the unanimity of the constructors is required to change it. There isn't. Because Paul Stoddart (owner of Minardi), for example, hoped that no one would buy Prost in order to grab the 14 million dollars that were due to the tenth team in the 2001 world championship from television rights. With Prost gone, he was counting on moving up a place with Minardi.


Instead, the new Prost will get the 14 million dollars and will have to pay a 250,000 dollar fine to the FIA for its absence in the Australian Grand Prix. But Stoddart is also furious about something else, since he claims to have made an offer (about $10,000,000) to buy Prost before the liquidation was started. Now he has been mocked by the judge's yes for only €2,500,000. In any case, given the numerous problems, the feeling is that the return to the track of the former Prost may be postponed, at best, to 2003. On Friday, March 1, 2002, the first two free practice sessions of the season are held on the Melbourne circuit and Ferrari dominates both times: best time for Schumacher, 1'27"276 (his pole of last year was 1'26"892), second time for Barrichello (1'27"799 at 0.523 seconds). The first of the rivals, Ralf Schumacher, on BMW-Williams, with the third time is 1.545 seconds behind, his teammate Montoya, fourth, 1.594 seconds. The two McLarens of Raikkonen and Coulthard are even more distant: only seventh the young Finn (at 2.599 seconds), even eleventh Coulthard (at 3.036 seconds). The day is characterised by cold weather and two new entries: Toyota (Mika Salo is sixth at 2.325 seconds) and Sauber (rookie Felipe Massa is eighth at 2.661 seconds). A confirmation of Sauber's performance also comes from Nick Heidfeld, fifth at 2.296 seconds. The two Italians go badly: Jarno Trulli (Renault) is only tenth at 3.022 seconds, Giancarlo Fisichella (Jordan) gets the ninth time at 2.911 seconds, then the Honda engine of the car stops working. The car that allowed him to dominate and win the 2001 world championship is still going very fast, and with its performance it erases all of Schumacher's anxieties. They may be the results of a Friday in which the lap times are to be taken lightly, but they are enough for the German to regain his swagger. After the first lunge, it is not only the car that is old, but also his statements, which are very similar to those of 2001:


"I am relieved, it would be stupid to say that I see problems. I am satisfied with this old lady, who I found to be very fast and in great shape. I already had one certainty, reliability. On this we should have no surprises, unlike our rivals. The first race is always a risk, but not for us, as we know this car very well. But free practice, in which I drove as if I were in a race, gave me another guarantee: in terms of performance we are not inferior to our rivals, in fact, at the moment we seem to be much stronger. The only thing I wouldn't dwell on is the lap times: they surprised me too, but I think you have to take into account the difficult track conditions, which were dry at times and very slippery at others, due to the intermittent rain. There was also a lot of wind, which was often unpredictable. First it would blow behind you, then in front. It cost me an off-track. No, the margin is too big, in the race it will be reduced. But my impression is that we are still the strongest. We had to be fast and we were fast. For sure we will arrive at the finish line. And among the first ones".


Schumacher has no doubts about the tyres either:


"Last year in Melbourne, Michelin had a lot of problems, history seems to be repeating itself. Don't just look at Ferrari, the domination of Barrichello and myself, even Sauber with Heidfeld and the newcomer Massa went very well. Obviously Bridgestone has provided us with a tyre that is very well suited to this circuit".


He completes the difference with the others, more motivated than ever.


"The hunger is always great, it never ends, I have plenty of stimuli. When you race with Ferrari you can only have one objective: to fight for the title. All sportsmen have ups and downs and I suffered from them too, between 1998 and 2000, when I couldn't win the title. Now I don't have any problems, always being focused, in great physical shape, it doesn't cost me effort. It's not hard work, I like doing it. As I get older, training becomes more difficult, but I'm not at the crossroads yet, the one where the downhill starts and the races make you sick. Here in Melbourne I'm racing an old car, it's true, but a lot of people would like to have one like mine. It never lets you down".


In the pits, amidst the worried faces of his rivals, many people support him: Ferrari has never been stronger. Also because it has never had so much money at its disposal. The official budget for the 2002 season is 302,000,000 dollars, 340,000,000 euros, the richest in the history of the Maranello team, four times that of Minardi, three times that of Sauber, but, above all, more conspicuous than its historic rivals, McLaren (which has stopped at 287.000.000 dollars) and Williams (which has reached 230.000.000 dollars). A powerful Ferrari, in every sense. On a technical level, and on a financial one, thanks to the big sponsors that President Montezemolo and technical director Todt proudly flaunt, the historic Marlboro (which brings over 75,000,000 euros) and the newly arrived Vodafone, which pays Ferrari 47.000.000 euros, a project that also includes money from Fiat, Shell, Magneti Marelli, Bridgestone, Amd, Brembo and many other micro companies with contributions ranging from 300,000 to 600,000 euros. A lot of money. Which, thanks to Ferrari's professionalism, translates into performance and victories. On Saturday, March 2, 2002, the qualifying session of the Australian Grand Prix lasts only 25 minutes, the time for a close fight between the two Ferraris: Michael Schumacher, after having overtaken the provisional leader Coulthard, is in turn overtaken by Barrichello for only 0.005 seconds, with a time that lowers the 2001 pole by a net second. But when Michael is about to respond, it starts raining.


The starting grid of the Australian Grand Prix does not change any further, and behind the two Ferraris there are Ralf Schumacher, in third place at four tenths from Barrichello, while his teammate Montoya, first struggling with the brakes and then with a badly set-up, is only sixth. Nothing to do, instead, for Coulthard who also causes a red flag interruption, running into Villeneuve in an attempt to overtake him at turn 15. The Scotsman is fourth, and precedes his teammate Kimi Raikkonen. A good performance for Trulli (seventh) and Fisichella (eighth), who during the session gives up his Jordan to his teammate Sato. The Japanese driver, in fact, in the morning practice smashes his single-seater against the barriers, in qualifying instead he remains on foot. As a consequence, he tries the time in the last useful minutes, under the water, with a car that is not his own and he does not reach the 107% of the pole time. The Japanese driver does not qualify, however he is readmitted thanks to the good times recorded in free practice (but will start in last place), as well as the young Felipe Massa (ninth), who with the Sauber does better than Heidfeld; finally, the difficulties of Jaguar and Arrows are highlighted, beaten even by the debutant Toyota of Mika Salo, fourteenth. For Barrichello it is the fourth pole position in his career. The Brazilian comments on the excellent result:


"I am obviously very happy, but now we are waiting for the race. It won't be easy, but we have a great car and Michael and I could have been a lot faster if the track had been dry. I've often had help from the rain in the past and it happened again. I managed to make two attempts before it fell hard. However, I believe that in life things happen for a specific reason, I have had an intense testing programme this winter, I have changed my approach to my work and I feel very relaxed. This car is only the same on the outside as last year's, I'd say it's fifty percent different than that of Melbourne 2001, and the work done by Bridgestone has been exceptional. I really enjoyed driving it and if the car goes like this in the race I'll show you what I can do. Beating Michael? It's not about beating him, it's about winning. Ferrari wants us to win and without a doubt we're off to a good start".


Schumacher is also satisfied and says:


"We wanted an all red front row, and now we are where we wanted to be. In case it rains, however, I hope that all the drivers will be smart enough not to want to ruin the race at the first corner".


The new Ferrari, in short, can wait. Unless there are sensational changes (linked to equally sensational situations), Schumacher and Barrichello will not return to Italy next week to test the new car at Mugello and Fiorano. Program two is now in effect, as hoped. The one marked by calm that comes from the confirmation that the old F2001 is more than competitive. It had been thought that at least Rubens could return, but this hypothesis was set aside, too. From Tuesday, two days after the Melbourne race, test drivers Luca Badoer and Luciano Burti will be running the F2002 as much as possible (the second car will also be ready), which could possibly be good for Brazil if needs require it. But at this point the hypothesis of a debut in mid-April, at Imola, is taking shape. The all red front row conquered in qualifying convinces the Ferrari bosses to take certain decisions. Jean Todt and Ross Brawn declare in chorus:


"We honestly didn't expect to be in this position with the evolved F2001. We are happy to have decided to use it. We wanted a reliable car that also turned out to be fast".


On Sunday, March 3, 2002, the new season officially begins in Melbourne. An opening Grand Prix that has many other themes, in addition to Ferrari which seems to be unbeatable despite not having yet brought the new car onto the track, or the young Raikkonen who replaces Mika Hakkinen. It is also a special day for Toyota, which makes its debut in Formula 1 with Salo and McNish, or for the Australian fans, who can cheer on one of their compatriots, namely Mark Webber, also in his first Formula 1 race at the wheel of the Minardi, with which he will start from eighteenth position. At the start of the warm up lap, the two Arrows driven by Frentzen and Bernoldi remain stationary on the grid, and therefore they are forced to start from the pitlane, if they could solve their problems. When the lights go out, Rubens Barrichello gets off to a good start, as does Ralf Schumacher, who overtakes his brother Michael. At the first braking, however, in order to defend himself from the Williams, Rubens moves to the right to close the road to him, then makes another movement to the left that disorients Ralf, who, at this point, when he has to brake, crashes into the Brazilian's Ferrari, gets on top of it, overtakes it and falls back in front of it at a speed of over 200 km/h, to finish his crazy race against the protection barriers. Both drivers are out of the race. But that is not the end of the story, because everything happens behind: Michael Schumacher and Raikkonen do a large trajectory to avoid the accident, while in the middle of the group about ten cars collide and go off the track, and as a result the track is flooded with debris and wreckage. It seems inevitable to show the red flag, but the race judges, a bit surprisingly, to opt for the entry of the Safety Car, behind which the survivors of the car crash line up, waiting for the tow trucks to remove the cars and the track marshals to clean up everything. In the general bustle, Frentzen takes part in the race on lap 3, but Arrows does not realise that at that moment there is a red light at the exit of the pitlane; therefore, the German driver could not escape the inevitable disqualification that arrives a few laps later. The same fate befalls Bernoldi, disqualified for starting with the forklift. Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, McNish, Button, Panis, Heidfeld, Massa and Fisichella are the drivers who retire due to the accident at the start. Raikkonen is able to continue, but is forced to pit to replace his front wing. As a result, he finds himself at the back of the pack and is forced to make a difficult comeback. The same applies to Mika Salo's surviving Toyota. Barrichello is simply furious after the accident at the start that has wiped out his pole position of 24 hours earlier.


"I don't talk to Ralf, I don't clarify, it's not worth it. Last year his brother Michael started in pole position and he put his foot down long before me. Are you claiming that I changed my line several times? I was trying to defend my position, if anything, he was too aggressive. Where did he want to go? He didn't brake at all. Even if I hadn't been in front, he would never have been able to make the turn. It's not true to say that I cut the road, I must have moved to the left a maximum of ten or fifteen centimetres. I was protecting my line, it was an instinctive gesture. In return I took a world-class hit. We were lucky, it could have ended badly. But it's all his fault".


His thesis, however, is not espoused by Ralf Schumacher, who rejects the accusations:


"Rubens is a great driver, but he has too much pressure on him. He wants to beat my brother, to get to the top and this sometimes plays tricks on him. When you start in pole position you can change position once, but he did it three times and two is too many. I understand being in the lead and closing the door, but to cut off and brake at the same time is absurd. How could I avoid him?"


The two also disagree over the race officials' decision not to suspend the race. Ralf said:


"Whiting was right to call the Safety car. A new start meant doubling the risks. He had warned us to be careful at the first corner, we didn't do it, worse for us".


Barrichello, on the other hand, vehemently disputes this choice:


"There were an infinite number of car parts on the track, we had to stop the race. Last year at Hockenheim it happened, why wasn't the red flag pulled out this time? It's a question of safety, but also of spectacle. Half the cars in the race had been wiped out by accidents, the public paid to see a distorted race. It's not fair, I don't accept it. It was a race I could have won, it ruined my plans. I didn't get a good start, but I had the foresight to close the door immediately. This is the second time I've had an accident with him, so I hope it's just a coincidence. However, I have no doubts about the responsibility: I've watched the images on television about fifteen times, he was the one who should have braked and stayed away from me".


The race stewards, however, are of a different opinion, as for them it was a normal racing accident. As well as Barrichello, there are also those among the other retired drivers who are angry at the failure to show the red flag, and thus interrupt the race, which would have allowed them to get on the forklift and take part in the race with a second start. Fisichella attacks:


"The race should have been stopped, it's ridiculous that with ten or so cars out they let it continue. And the Sauber tried to cut across the grass to overtake me. I'm really angry about what happened today".


The Sauber in question is that of Nick Heidfeld, who meets Fisichella in the paddock and apologises to him. The other Sauber driver, Felipe Massa, making his first Formula 1 start, simply says:


"I saw all that mess in front of me and I braked, but I was hit and I didn't understand anything anymore. What a shame".


After five laps of waiting we can finally start, with David Coulthard leading the way ahead of Trulli, Montoya, Michael Schumacher, Irvine and De La Rosa. Montoya immediately tries to overtake Trulli, but he ends up wide, favouring the overtaking of Schumacher at turn 3. The German in turn chases the Italian driver, who resists with decision to the attacks of the four-time world champion. A fight that favours the escape of Coulthard, undisturbed leader of the race. At least until Jarno loses control of his Renault at the exit of turn 2, crashing against the barriers and causing another entry of the Safety Car. A mistake, that of Jarno, perhaps caused by an oil stain on the track. Coulthard's advantage is reduced to zero and Schumacher and Montoya are ready to take advantage of it. That's how it is, since at the moment of the restart of the race, the Scotsman's McLaren suffers from a gearbox problem that causes him to go off the track at turn 15. David loses many positions, while a few seconds later, at the braking of turn 1, Montoya surprises a Schumacher perhaps distracted by Coulthard's mistake, and takes the lead of the race. 


A daring manoeuvre by the Colombian, who overtakes Michael taking advantage of the outside trajectory. The Ferrari driver tries to react immediately, but has to follow, at least until lap 17, when he overtakes his rival at the same point with a masterful crossing of the trajectories. Schumacher takes the lead, distances Montoya and heads towards an easy success, characterised by a single pit stop, completed without problems. In the meantime, Coulthard's problems get worse, to the point that the McLaren is overtaken by Mark Webber's Minardi, which sends the Australian public into raptures. The young rookie, in fact, is in the points zone. Coulthard, on the other hand, has to retire on lap 33. Raikkonen's other McLaren, in turn, makes an excellent comeback that sees him climb to third place, and becomes even a threat to Montoya's second place. At the pit stop, Montoya stops a lap before the Finn, who, at the exit of the pits, is just ahead of the Williams, but makes a mistake at turn 1 that allows Montoya to regain his position immediately. Behind, despite a long stop due to a refuelling problem, Mark Webber keeps a precious fifth position ahead of Mika Salo's Toyota. Salo, after overtaking Yoong's other Minardi, makes several attempts to overtake the Australian driver, but he spins at turn 3. Luckily, the Australian driver has such a big advantage over his rivals that he is able to keep sixth position, which is still the equivalent of one point, an important result for the Japanese company. At the end of the fifty-eight laps, Michael Schumacher crosses the finish line completely alone, eighteen seconds ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya, second, and twenty-five seconds ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, third and on his first podium in Formula 1. Fourth place for Eddie Irvine in a Jaguar, followed by Webber and Salo. A historic result for the team from Faenza, which returns to score points for the first time since the 1999 European Grand Prix. The joy for the young Webber and Paul Stoddart, the new owner of the team, is so great that at the end of the prize giving ceremony they go up on the podium to celebrate what for them is to all intents and purposes a victory. They are, in fact, two potentially crucial points in the constructors' championship.


"These two points can be worth a season".


Giancarlo Minardi is beaming after this historic result:


"This team always bears my name, even though I am no longer a shareholder. It is an enormous joy, we haven't had such a wonderful start to the season since 1993. Webber was great, but so was the team, excellent at the pit stop".


He has a yellow plastic bag in his hand, with spare parts to take home, because they will have to be analysed and changed. Now the team has a little more money, its men travel on Stoddart's private planes, but the home-grown mentality has remained the same. The excited Minardi even happens to leave the circuit without having said goodbye to Stoddart. He has to go back, but it is nice to jump into that euphoria, while Webber talks about the best day of his life and Stoddart dances with Sarah Jane, the most downloaded (from the Internet) Australian singer in the world. Toyota's historic debut point was not expected either. The Japanese giant had promised it for next year, and thanks to Salo's sixth place it arrived twelve months early. The Finn risked ruining everything in the finale, spinning in an attempt to overtake Webber.


"If I had caused an accident, my team would have killed me first and then all the Australians".


The Finn, who made it to the end, smiles. And Toyota proudly displays one fact: no mechanical failures over the three days. For Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, the chase after Fangio has begun. First race and immediate victory. At this rate, it will not be difficult to achieve a fifth world title, to equal the Argentinean driver's record. Is the German in danger of becoming a bit monotonous? He answers like this:


"I never get tired of winning. But let's not start talking about an easy victory, about the world championship being over, we are only at the beginning. In Formula 1 the situation changes quickly, maybe in the next race in Malaysia our opponents become very strong, superior to us. Of course, this weekend we were fantastic. The decision to bring the old car to Melbourne was the right one. I didn't think we could be so fast. I think a lot of credit goes to the tyres, they worked perfectly. But we were also impeccable on the set-up. Maybe the fact that we knew the car well helped us. The others arrived here without a precise idea in their heads, we already knew everything. And all we did was put our experience into practice. We had a clear advantage over everyone".


Simple, like drinking a glass of water. Schumacher triumphs, while Williams and McLaren struggle to follow. But Michael still had to fight, first with Trulli, then with Montoya:


"It was a very interesting race, I only realised I was going to win when, on lap 17, I finally managed to take the lead and escape. But before that we saw everything, starting with that wild start".


His brother and Rubens took a big risk and are now exchanging serious accusations.


"I can't judge, from the car, through the mirrors, you can see what's going on around you, but you can't see the details. They have to clarify among themselves, maybe they are both right. What I can say is that it went well for me. At the first corner pieces were flying everywhere, so to get away with it I decided to go straight onto the grass. It was a matter of a moment, it was the right choice, the only way to avoid being hit, to avoid being involved in that disaster".


Was Schumacher afraid?


"For me, I would say concern. In a situation like that, you have no chance but to hope for luck and instinct. I was scared for my brother. I was very scared when I saw Ralf take off. I was also afraid for Barrichello. I immediately asked on the radio what they had done to themselves, if they were well. When they told me everything was OK, I breathed a sigh of relief".


Was the race to be stopped?


"Yes, I must say that I was expecting the red flag, but it's not up to me to decide. There are stewards and it's up to them to respect the rules".


But Barrichello is furious.


"I'm sorry, he's really unlucky. He could have had a great race, we could have scored a 1-2. I hope that in the future he can be released from this bad luck. Because here in Australia, until the race, he had gone very well".


Ralf, however, accuses him of changing trajectory too many times after the start. And also of having braked before time.


"It's the usual speech. Can you defend your position? Is it right to move right or left at the start? I feel in an uncomfortable position to comment, I'm in the middle, I have a brother and a teammate. And there's nothing to judge from the outside".


There are, however, elements to comment on the duel with Montoya.


"Many things are written and said about him and I. We both love the battle, the important thing is to be fair. Sometimes his behaviours are extreme, but that's fine. This time, however, our overtaking was down to the tyres: first mine were cold, I went long on a bend and he passed me easily. Then I gave him back the overtake. I went to the outside to get a better line out of a corner and it paid off. When my tyres had reached the ideal temperature, his tyres were no longer right".


And Trulli?


"He always closed the line well. Luckily he spun due to the oil left on the track by Button. He was slowing me down noticeably".


Minardi and Toyota got points.


"I'm happy for them, especially for Minardi, who have been working hard for years, with many sacrifices. Tonight they're having a big party, hopefully they'll invite me".


Ferrari's many fears on the eve of this weekend have vanished. An eventuality that Jean Todt did not expect, as he himself admits:


"In the first race of the year it is difficult to have a strategy because nobody knows exactly how the others are going. You have to find out everything, understand everything and instead from this race we have understood very little except one thing: that Schumacher was going very fast, that he was able to overtake several competitors and accumulate an enormous advantage. It's a pity for Barrichello... losing him at the start like that was very unlucky indeed".


According to Todt, who is to blame?


"I would say both. In all starts there are big risks, with more than twenty cars going over 200km/h".


What ideas does Todt have of Ferrari's rivals after this debut?


"Not many. For example, that Ferrari was going faster, that our tyres turned out to be the best. It also seems that our opponents are the same as before, namely Williams and McLaren. But we saw Renault with Trulli going very strong, while we couldn't see anything from the other teams who were excluded from the accident".


Can Ferrari go quietly forward with the old car?


"I don't know yet if and for how long we will go ahead with the 2001, we will decide at the end of the week. In any case, there's no cause for concern. First of all because the temperature in Malaysia is 40 degrees. Then our rivals will be able to make progress with their new cars. We are not calm but we can go forward well".


How is the F2002 progressing?


"Burti tests the 2001 at Fiorano with new components. Badoer will test the 2002 at Mugello. On Saturday, with the results in hand, we will make a decision. There are three solutions: going to Malaysia with the old 2001s used here; going to Malaysia with the new 2002s or with an old and a new one".


What is your confidence in Barrichello this year?


"A lot. He is working very well, he would have deserved a win as he deserved pole position".


And when Montoya overtook Schumacher?


"Those are the nice things about racing. Montoya is a good guy, smart, he drives aggressively but correctly. He was very ready to take the opportunity to overtake Schumacher, but Michael was good at waiting a few laps, studying his opponent and then overtaking him back".


Should the race have been stopped after the incident at the start?


"I think so. Someone came up to me and said: you were favoured. False, if there had been a new start we would have had two drivers in the race instead of one in fourth position. When Ferrari wins there are always those who suspect that they have favoured us".


Stirling Moss, English driver of the 1950s, sixteen career victories, is now a worried fan:


"You have to beat Schumacher, Ferrari and Ross Brawn. Three phenomena in one go, impossible. This world championship is already over".


A sentence, said with British bitterness on Sunday evening, as the old glory leaves the Melbourne circuit, which should not be taken back to Schumacher at all. He says that Melbourne is not a very reliable circuit, but looking at the roll of honour we discover that, in six editions, four winners (Hill 1996, Hakkinen 1998 and Schumacher 2000 and 2001) went on to become world champions. A good start means a lot and makes it clear that this season too could be won by Ferrari. Also because Ferrari has so far crushed its rivals with the old car. And the new version should easily accentuate the gap. Schumacher, however, is in no hurry:


"It has to become as reliable as this one, it takes a lot of kilometres".


A judgement that suggests a debut in Brazil, at the end of the month, and not a frantic run-up to Malaysia.


©​ 2024 Osservatore Sportivo


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