The invincibles settle for a draw. For this time. And also for the next ones, it seems to be understood. In short, until the new F2005 is ready, and we are talking about the 8th of May 2005 (Spanish Grand Prix), the objective is to make and points. Rubens Barrichello explains:
"Whoever starts too strong has a 90% chance of not finishing. Ferrari has worked in such a way as to always cross the finish line".
He who goes slow goes far, is the old concept reiterated by Michael Schumacher:
"To win the title it is not essential to win the first race".
Which, by the way, he has done four times in the last five years and has always done well. The German is cheerful. He is eager to get started and it is in these magical moments that he tears a few veils from his private life. He does this especially with his compatriots. To the weekly magazine Stem, Michael Schumacher confides that the weekly pocket money for his two children, Gina Maria (8 years old) and Mick (6 years old) is just two euros. confetti for one of the world's highest paid sportsmen.
"They can put that money aside or spend it but I don't want them to grow up with the idea that wealth is a matter of course and automatic".
The German explains, while adding that his children occasionally get gifts that their peers wouldn't even dream of, for example a mini go-kart. With these private glimpses of the man who most represents Formula 1, the engines will be switched on for free practice, the first official act of the season. Ferrari has not impressed in the tests and the cautious declarations of the eve are more than just superstition. At the start there will be the F2004M, where M stands for modified.
"This decision will not favour us in the first four races, but it allows us to prepare the F2005 in the best possible way. With nineteen Grands Prix there is time to catch up. In the meantime we have concentrated on reliability and tyre wear".
Never before has there been so much bluffing as this year. The engine has to last two Grands Prix, the tyres a whole race plus qualifying, but in winter testing the limits don't apply and everyone tests what they like. If Renault and McLaren prove as strong as they have been so far, it will be a hard-fought championship. Ferrari draws on the experience of 2003. Even then the regulations had changed and the Maranello team started the championship with the car from the previous year. Between mistakes and wrong strategies, in the first three races Michael Schumacher only managed a fourth and a sixth place, the delay forced the Maranello team into a long and difficult comeback. And so: first, don't take them. The rule is this. Michael Schumacher rules out another downhill season:
'Neither would the last one have been without the mistakes of others. Mistakes that will not be repeated: the level of competitiveness has increased".
The revolution in the name of safety and savings has changed everything. One thing is certain: the public cares little about the efforts to slow down Formula 1, which have been thwarted by the skill of the designers so that performance is already almost at the 2004 level. The Australian Grand Prix is one of the most watched, on Wednesday 2 March 2005 there are 200.000 people along the streets of Melbourne, where the single-seaters parade.
It is a pity that the enthusiasm is not repaid by the heroes of the house: Mark Webber, promoted from Jaguar to Williams-Bmw, switches off the engine at the start while Minardi's owner Paul Stoddart, who drives a two-seater through the streets of his city, will only know during the night if he will be able to enter his cars in the Grand Prix. It is the eve of the race and he has not yet adapted them to the regulations. The story of David Coulthard, winner of the 2003 Australian Grand Prix, arriving in Melbourne, travelling from London, via Singapore, in economy class. Next to the Red Bull team driver is crouched, in an equally cramped seat, his beautiful girlfriend, the Brazilian former model Simone Abdelnour. But how? A Formula 1 driver? Dream cars, beautiful girls, star-studded hotels and first class air travel. Isn't that their standard? When David drove a McLaren he was treated like a prince, he almost always flew in private jets (and in 2000 his plane had even crashed during an emergency landing in Lyon, he and his girlfriend of the moment had miraculously escaped but the two pilots had died) and was picked up by luxurious limousines to be taken to the most beautiful and comfortable hotel in town. Wealthy, owner among other things of a hotel in Monte-Carlo, the Columbia, in the past Coulthard, in the course of a business always carried out at a high level, earned a lot of money. Now his salary, in order to remain in the business, has been reduced to only 1,200,000 dollars. And in the contract it seems to say that the expenses are his responsibility. The only benefit included is unlimited energy drinks, as long as they are of the team owner's brand, of course. Everyone, however, is free to spend the money they have at their disposal as they wish. A saving of a few thousand euros can be useful even for those with a fat fortune. But perhaps there is also another explanation for this act of modesty on the part of the driver: he is Scottish by birth, people who know how to put a value on money. He who, on the other hand, does not need to be careful with his spending is Fernando Alonso. Of him they say he is the new phenomenon, the designated heir, the driver who will win the first World Championship of the post-Schumacher era. This is claimed by Renault boss Flavio Briatore, who is like the innkeeper when he talks about his wine, but it is also suspected by Ferrari, who has been keeping an eye on him ever since he lapped the German and went on to win the first - and so far only - Grand Prix of his career. It was 24 August 2003: Fernando Alonso was 22 years and 26 days old. No one at that age had uncorked a bottle of champagne on the podium, not even Michael Schumacher, who celebrated as a nearly 24-year-old at Spa in 1992. In the same season, Alonso took his first pole in Malaysia: another record for precocity. A Spaniard from Oviedo, he made his debut with Minardi in 2001, one year as a test driver and two as a starter at Renault.
"When I have a winning car I will be World Champion. The one I have now looks great, it's much easier than the previous one, but let's wait a few races before making any predictions".
Fernando Alonso, after the win and the compliments of 2003, wouldn't you have expected a different season last year? Something more than fourth place, in short.
"In Formula 1 you win if you have the car. We started well in 2004, then we stopped development. It's a mistake not to be repeated. It is not enough to be 100 per cent at the start, you have to stay that way all the time".
Renault arrived in Melbourne with the virtual title of winter champion.
"The results in testing were immediately comforting, both on the fast lap and the long distance. But the rivals are very strong. Hopefully we will be there, fighting among the leaders. We hope".
Who: you or Fisichella?
Apart from fair play?
"If we both fight for the title it will mean that the team has done a great job. Giancarlo is one of the two or three strongest drivers in Formula 1 and now he has the chance to prove it. He deserves it. I remember him when I was starting out in karts and he always won".
Between the two or three best drivers would you put yourself and Schumacher?
"Michael is very strong, but I consider myself the best. Each of my colleagues considers himself the best: it's a matter of pride".
Could you be Michael Schumacher's heir at Ferrari?
"Right now I'm at Renault".
Do you think the new rules will change the balance and create some problems for those who always came first in recent times?
"Ferrari and Schumacher have amply demonstrated that they know how to adapt to different situations. Michael knows how to manage the tyres, which is very important from this year that it is no longer possible to change them. He is a complete driver, I exclude that a rule will be able to stop him. The results will depend on how well we and they work".
Well, yours so far has appeared impeccable...
"Calm down. Even last year at one point I was the fastest in winter testing. Then, right here in Australia, Ferrari proved invincible right from free practice and I finished the race third. During the season I had a few problems, the car was difficult to drive, and I slipped back".
A prediction for the Australian Grand Prix?
"I will be competitive, even if this is not our ideal circuit. Ferrari remains the team to beat".
Renault and McLaren unleashed? Ferrari in trouble? Bar and Williams in crisis?
"We will understand everything in Australia".
That was the winter refrain. On Friday 4 March 2005, the 2005 Formula 1 World Championship will begin at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne: the one of the rule revolution, the war between the constructors, the all against Ferrari.
And we will know who has worked well and who has bluffed, who can hold a whole race - the tyres can no longer be changed - and who will perhaps collapse in the final laps. The Maranello team initially defends the title with the F2004M, which was an invincible single-seater until October and is now feeling the weight of the months and the regulatory changes. The others have new cars on track, broken in and developed over thousands of kilometres on Spanish circuits in January and February. At Maranello they have admitted that this strategy could be a handicap, but they have preferred to devote as much time as necessary to the creation of the F2005, at the cost of struggling in the first four Grands Prix, because the championship is long and there is time to recover. The Schumacher-Bamchello pair is solid and close-knit: the German is perhaps the best ever, the Brazilian is an excellent teammate, capable of covering the German's back or winning some important races. There will be nineteen races: one more and a new record. It will be raced for the first time in Turkey at the new Istanbul autodrome, which will be completed in May. The designer is Hermann Tilke, who in Sepang (Malaysia), Sakhir (Bahrain) and Shanghai (China) has already built the most spectacular and safest facilities in Formula. The other stages remain unchanged, with the final appointment on 16 October in China. Renault is winter champion. In Spain, Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso ran at a very fast and constant pace. There were few technical problems, and the Michelin tyres did well over the distance and on the single lap. The unknowns: there is a lack of feedback in hot weather conditions like in Australia or torrid conditions like in the next stages in Malaysia and Bahrain. McLaren has shown that it has resolved the reliability problems that held it back in 2004 and has in Rimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya two attacking drivers. So-so Williams. Founder Frank Williams and technical director Patrick Head admit:
"We are behind schedule".
And BAR-Honda, which confirms Jenson Button and Takuma Sato, at the moment has not maintained the brilliant results of last season. Made the law, found the deception. The 2005 regulations are no exception: the principles are clear, the grey areas a little too wide. For example: the engine must last two race weekends, including practice and qualifying. Anyone who breaks down is relegated ten positions on the grid. So far so good. But if one breaks the engine in the race, disqualification is not triggered, because retirement is already considered a severe punishment. Doubt: what if one purposely causes a failure on the last lap because he is out of the points zone and does not care to cross the finish line? He would start the next race with a new engine. Quite an advantage. The FIA downplays:
"Such behaviour is contrary to the spirit of the sport and therefore punishable. Anyone who tries it more than once will be caught".
Those who tried it once, on the contrary, would get away with it. Cheating with tyres is more complicated: you need a puncture to justify a change and it is difficult to imagine a multiple puncture without triggering an investigation by race officials. But it is not always necessary to circumvent the rules: sometimes it is enough to bend them to one's own use. For example, changing engines after every race: in every second Grand Prix you drop back ten places at the start, but you always run with a handful of extra horsepower. And nobody has the right to complain. In the meantime, however, fed up with hearing the same questions over and over again, David Coulthard offers a personal interpretation of the new rules:
"We drivers have balls, not a crystal ball".
The questions were: how do you manage a race without changing tyres, how does the driving style change, what will the strategies be, will the engines hold up for two Grands Prix. In the first two free practice sessions the best performances are those of the McLarens.
There will be a fight. As David Coulthard makes clear, no one has ever simulated a race in these conditions, no one knows exactly how a tyre behaves after more than three hundred kilometres on the Australian tarmac, nor how the driver manages the last ten laps, so the finale of a Grand Prix could become as interesting as a start. The Albert Park circuit, the green heart of the Australian metropolis, is a Ferrari fiefdom: on a fast track - over 220 km/h on average - and with no particular technical difficulties, Michael Schumacher exults.
"At one time I didn't like this track, but by dint of winning…".
In the last five years, success has only eluded him in 2003, when he settled for fourth place. But fairy tales do not last forever: the Ferrari that starts the season with the old modified F2004 appears less competitive. McLaren takes advantage of the possibility of fielding a third single-seater every Friday, which does the bulk of the work and allows Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya to save the engine. The regulations allow this for teams ranked fifth and below. A rule introduced to help the smaller teams thus ends up favouring an emblazoned line-up coming off a bad year. It will be a different race in many respects. Why, when and how to make pit stops? Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn clarifies:
"Because if you loaded the petrol immediately for the whole race, the car would be so heavy that the tyres would wear out quickly. The difference is when: last year we were tied to tyre wear, this year we can organise ourselves with a certain elasticity and study different strategies. The others will do the same. So we won't all stop at the same stage of the race".
Without the tyre change, the organisation in the pits will change. Two mechanics will take care of the petrol pump, a third will hold the stop and go sign, the others will be on hand, ready to intervene if necessary, for example to increase or decrease tyre pressure. The replacement of which is not absolutely forbidden: in the event of a puncture it will be allowed, but at the same time refuelling will be forbidden, to prevent anyone from messing around. After free practice, Ferrari breathed a sigh of relief. The adversaries, in particular McLaren, have improved, but they have not performed miracles. Commented Michael Schumacher:
"I was rather surprised by Red Bull".
Of course they did: a certain Vitantonio Liuzzi, test driver, champion in Formula 3000 and making his Formula 1 debut, beat him by 0.1 seconds. Of course Liuzzi drove a car with little fuel, but the premises are encouraging.
"Maybe they will let me drive at Imola instead of Klien".
Liuzzi hopes. Let's talk about Ferrari: Michael Schumacher would be content with second place, Rubens Barrichello is loaded:
"If he comes second, he's OK. I win. On the single lap, so in qualifying, we are not very strong, but we have worked all winter to reduce tyre wear. That can make the difference".
Worryingly, McLaren will have the test driver in tow for the whole season. Rubens Barrichello explains:
"If Badoer was here and also drove 250 kilometres, do you know how much more we would understand? A Ferrari that spares itself in free practice doesn't please the public, but that's how Formula 1 is today".
Surveyor Flavio Briatore is a happy and disenchanted man. He has just bought, for the modest sum of $8.000.000, a penthouse on New York's Park Avenue.
"It's an investment".
And he walks around the Formula 1 paddock like a prince, with his court. Those who carry his bag, those who filter his appointments, those who greet him reverently. He smiles and always has a joke for everyone, often irreverent.
"How can I not be satisfied? The new car is going well, the two guys, Alonso and Fisichella, are happy. It's not often with drivers, who always have something to complain about".
In fact, on the first day of testing, the two R25s designed by Tim Densham showed remarkable speed, confirming the results of previous tests. They are quick cars, they have good grip. Flavio Briatore, who admits he is not a technician but knows how to inform himself, explains:
"Compared to last year's single-seaters they are lighter, both in general and engine wise, and are easy to drive. In 2004 we were not very optimistic and the final classification legitimised our feelings. Now we think we can do well, in fact something more".
Briatore is also convinced that he has formed a pair of drivers of great ability, complementing each other.
"Fernando is very good, determined, brave. Giancarlo has improved a lot, especially in racing. They can also help each other on the track, for themselves and for the team. They are stable and consistent, I like them".
He does not compare, the good Flavio, his two jewels to Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. He prefers to refer to the McLaren drivers:
"I wouldn't swap Alonso and Fisichella for Raikkonen and Montoya. Yes, it's a good pair, it depends for what.... I recently defended Kimi because he was criticised in the Finnish press for some intemperance at night. He made a mistake, but he is young and should not be crucified".
In Briatore's crosshairs there is also always Ferrari, partly because he loves to shoot at big targets, and partly because for him Formula 1 is more a show and a business than a real sport, which is taken very seriously in Maranello. He doesn't accept the story of the tests he wanted to reduce by launching that famous document presented by nine teams last year in Brazil and which the Maranello team did not accept.
And to those who point out to him that Ferrari is practically alone as a top team with Bridgestone tyres and therefore needs to test, he replies jokingly:
"Ferrari likes custom-made shoes".
Nice coming from a character who has his shoes and slippers designed and manufactured by someone, in crocodile or velvet, with the initials printed on the leather and fabric. In any case, he makes his own thesis:
"A full day of practice on Friday, Saturday and Sunday qualifying and race".
And he returns to McLaren, which this year, having placed fifth in the championship in 2004, can field a third car in Friday practice:
"This was an intentional rule for the small teams, McLaren is not, but it can't be changed now. It is a small advantage we have to give them. They were making fun of us last year, now the roles have changed, it's their turn to clean the track for us".
A word of comfort also for Paul Stoddart, the owner of Minardi, who in recent days has tried to run his cars that do not comply with the regulations.
"He came looking for me twenty times, I couldn't work. So I signed his request to be accepted with the old Minardis. But in reality I don't give a damn about Stoddart. He's making a mistake and it's not good for Formula 1".
The last thought, before going to the race wall to see Alonso and Fisichella at work, took to the track:
"Ferrari in crisis? No kidding. It hasn't suddenly become slow. Maybe it has lost some of its advantage, but it is still strong. That's for sure".
But in the meantime, one of its drivers, in particular Giancarlo Fisichella, escapes a smile, because he has realised that the big occasion has arrived, after so much praise and poor results. How is this Renault doing?
'Very, very well. I'm very happy: it's the best single-seater I've ever driven. I've never gone so fast in pre-season. We got the best times on all the tracks. The confrontation with the rivals went great and the long runs (the race simulations, ed) ended very well. In two days in Barcelona, we managed 254 laps".
Is this a winning car?
"Some unknowns always remain. We don't know how the tyres will behave in hot weather. And from this year we will have to drive almost 400 kilometres without being able to change them. In any case, Michelin has taken a big step forward".
To sum up: the objective for this first Grand Prix?
"I'm here to win".
And for the World Championship?
"I will fight for first place. But it's tough. Ferrari remains the reference point. I am aware that I have a competitive car. It will be important to continue to develop it and not lose ground along the way".
"We, Ferrari and McLaren on the same level, the others a step lower".
Alonso's internal competition?
"We are two fast drivers. This is important in a team, because your partner becomes a point of reference".
Briatore often repeats that Alonso is the champion of the future. And Fisichella?
"Briatore now says that he chose me because he wanted to have two aggressive drivers. What's more, I also have great experience. We will always be treated as equals".
In winter you underwent various physical tests: is it true that you almost always beat your partner?
"It's true. I'm a good footballer and I train a lot with a coach here in Rome. Over the last four or five years I've put a lot of effort into it. Athletically, I'm in very good shape".
In the past few months, have you ever had difficult moments and the doubt of having to live through another season of waiting?
"The difficult moments are when you get behind the wheel of a car and go slow. At Renault it never happened to me. I tested the R24, the single-seater from last season: there is no doubt about it, the Renault engineers did an extraordinary job. The only unknown, to be assessed in the race, is reliability, given that this year the engine has to live for two weekends,'including free practice and qualifying. All the tests were conducted in Spain with rather low temperatures. Here in Melbourne it's much warmer, and in Malaysia we'll find 40 °C: quite a challenge for engine reliability".
And of the tyres...
"I'm confident. So far they have behaved very well".
From this year, the driver also counts: those who drive aggressively risk excessive consumption: how does this compare with Alonso who has an impetuous approach?
"The Michelin tyres have held up even for him, who uses the front tyres a lot. However it's true: the driver will have to manage tyre consumption throughout the race. Beware of mistakes in the last ten to fifteen laps".
Do you like the new rules?
"Yes, all of them, including the decrease in downforce which makes the cars a bit unstable".
Who is the strongest driver today?
"Michael Schumacher has shown his class with results. I have never had the chance to do the same. This year we will see".
On Saturday 6 March 2005, the first qualifying session, whose drivers' order of exit is based on the results of the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix, is characterised by the arrival of rain, which conditions the performance of the last entrants on the track. Just before the arrival of the bad weather Giancarlo Fisichella manages to take the lead, without being overtaken by the drivers who follow him; after him Felipe Massa, on track at the start of the rainfall, renounces his lap as he is on dry tyres, Takuma Satō has an accident, while the other drivers, including Fernando Alonso, the two Ferraris and the two McLarens have a delay of more than 10 seconds. In the Sunday session, characterised by stable weather conditions, the fastest lap was set by Mark Webber, ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella by 0.010 seconds, who in the sum of times took pole position ahead of Jarno Trulli: for the first time on the Melbourne circuit the front row saw two cars from two different teams; but the positions immediately following remained substantially unchanged, with Mark Webber and Jacques Villeneuve on the second row followed by the two Red Bull Racing cars of David Coulthard and Christian Klien on the third. Michael Schumacher and Takuma Satō, who also replace the engine, Felipe Massa and Christijan Albers, do not run their timed laps in this session. Formula 1 introduces a quartet of particular debutants to its circus this year. Drivers without a great past in the minor formulas, hired by teams that perhaps have fished in the exotic also to widen the pool of their possible sponsors. While it is good to see new faces from countries that have no tradition in motor racing, on the other hand there is no shortage of perplexity about certain choices, also in light of the technical contribution that these acerbic drivers can bring to their teams, because they know little about the cars and less about most of the circuits to be faced. Jordan, recently acquired by the Russian-born Canadian tycoon Alex Shnaider, has set its sights on the East, signing Indian Kumar Ram Narain Karthikeyan, 28, from Chennai. In England, in the minor formulae, he had already battled with Jenson Button and Takuma Sato, staying ahead of them on a few occasions. He boasts a modicum of experience, having taken on the role of test-driver for Jaguar, Jordan and Minardi. His idol is Michael Schumacher, just to approach him his legs shake.
"I prepare myself by doing weights and yoga and skeet shooting. I have great strength behind me. A billion fans will follow me on television. And soon we will have a Grand Prix in India too".
Narain's team-mate will be Portuguese Tiago Monteiro, same age as the Indian, with a Swiss degree in Hotel Management. Unlike the majority of drivers who have come to Formula 1, he has never driven karts. As a young man he raced motorbikes, then started with Formula 3, raced in America in Emerson Fittipaldi's team, with Porsches, Formula Nissan.
At Jordan he brought not only the reputation of being a determined driver who makes few mistakes, but also a nice dowry of 6.000.000 euros, thanks to a sponsor. Minardi did not get very far in hiring drivers, which was obviously also determined by the dollar purse they had to offer. Dutchman Christijan Albers, 25, is a young man who has won a lot in German Formula 3. A pupil of former World Champion Keke Rosbeiw, he has also established himself among the best in the DTM, Germany's super touring car championship crowded with former champions also from Formula 1. The second driver is 24-year-old Austrian Patrick Friesacher from Wolfsburg. A few years ago his compatriot Gerhard Berger pointed him out as one of the most promising youngsters. In 1997 he broke his leg in karting and remained for several weeks first in hospital, then in a wheelchair.
"I learnt to fight. I always carry with me the biography of Lance Armstrong, who is a great example of a champion".
In his past four Formula 3000 championships, with two victories. He has ambitious plans:
"To learn, understand and get to win the World Champion title".
He does not expose himself too much, probably thinking of Niki Lauda. In addition to these four rookies, Formula 1 is considering two others. Jordan will try out 23-year-old Russian Roman Rusinov from the Le Mans series. Minardi has signed Israeli Chanoch Nissany as a test driver, but he lives in Hungary. There is one detail about him: he is 41 years old. It is never too late, not even for Formula 1. Which meanwhile starts the Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne. On Sunday the 6th of March 2005, at the start of the Australian Grand Prix the yellow flags interrupt the starting procedure because Kimi Räikkönen unintentionally switches off his engine; while the Finn is forced to start from the pits, a new formation lap is carried out which shortens the race by one lap. At the second start Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli hold their respective positions while behind them Australian Mark Webber is overtaken by David Coulthard, the author of an excellent drive that allowed him to gain three positions. On lap 16 rookie Christijan Albers was forced to retire due to a problem with his car. Giancarlo Fisichella continued to lead the race until the first pit stop, when Rubens Barrichello took the lead, followed a few seconds later by Fernando Alonso's Renault. The two stop on the same lap, allowing Giancarlo Fisichella to take the lead again: the Spanish driver seems to have taken on more fuel than Rubens Barrichello, as he laps much slower than the Brazilian. At the end of lap 42 Michael Schumacher stopped in the pits to refuel, rejoining ahead of compatriot Nick Heidfeld. At the Whiteford corner the Williams driver pulled alongside the Ferrari driver in an attempt to overtake him, but Michael Schumacher closed on him, forcing him onto the grass; Nick Heidfeld was unable to control his car and came into contact with the Ferrari, forcing them both to retire. It is the last excitement of the race. Giancarlo Fisichella wins the Australian Grand Prix, finishing ahead of Rubens Barrichello and team-mate Fernando Alonso. They are followed by David Coulthard in his Red Bull Racing debutant, Mark Webber, Juan Pablo Montoya, Christian Klien and Kimi Raikkonen. Formula 1 changes thanks to its protagonists, because Giancarlo Fisichella wins, because Rubens Barrichello for the first time at Ferrari starts the season better than Michael Schumacher, because the Red Bull Racing rookies place two cars in the points zone and old David Coulthard takes a great satisfaction on his former friends at McLaren and Juan Pablo Montoya who stole his place, because BAR-Honda suddenly disappears from the top teams and sticks to the regulations to get back. Yes, the new regulations. The much-announced revolution. The engines that who knows how many will break down, but beware: in Malaysia they will run the same ones that worked in Melbourne; the tyres that were supposed to break down in the final; the announced overtaking; the supposed drop in performance. No, nothing has changed in the form of Formula 1. Only the contents, or rather the results, what remains of a race when the single-seaters return to the pits, have really changed. From the first 2005 Grand Prix the name of Giancarlo Fisichella emerges first of all.
Italian, 32 years old, so much talent until now suppressed by unrideable cars, he can now express himself at the wheel of Renault, the team that has taken the biggest steps since 2004. At Grand Prix number 142 Giancarlo Fisichella cashed in on the credit he has accrued with good fortune in ten years of Formula 1. Suffice it to recall his other victory: it was the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, marked by so many twists and turns - rain, accidents, interrupted races - that no one realised he had won and the success was awarded to him. Now, however, on the podium at Albert Park, in front of 118.000 spectators, he opens the bottle of champagne, flooding Rubens Barrichello and his team-mate, the Spaniard Fernando Alonso. A Latin trio, as Latin are the two teams in the best form of the moment. Fisichella dominated the first qualifying session thanks to the rain, as he was practically the only one to find the track dry, he dominated the second heat in equal conditions, as Mark Webber beat him by a hundredth, but he had taken on a lot less petrol, he dominated the race from the first to the last lap as Schumacher did last year.
"It is only the beginning".
It doesn't bear remembering, but it is history: the last Italian World Champion was Alberto Ascari in 1953.
"It's the best day of my life, as a driver. The most beautiful ever after the birth of my children".
What did Giancarlo Fisichella think when he was about to pass first under the chequered flag?
"With my mind I caressed the car and told it: take me to the finish line. Immediately afterwards I dedicated this beautiful moment to my family: to my partner Luna, to my children Carlotta and Christopher, to my parents, to the team. To everyone, in short. Even to Flavio Briatore".
A race without the slightest problem.
"It was almost easy. Finally. I had gained a good advantage with the pole position, I started well, I controlled the situation. At the end, when Barrichello was getting closer, from the pits they told me to accelerate and I did it without difficulty. I was always very focused. The car is competitive, reliable, the tyres perfect. I couldn't ask for more".
This is only the first stage of a long championship, but it is promising.
"It's the start of a season I've been dreaming about for ten years. I wanted to win, I knew I could do it and I did it, I didn't let the opportunity pass me by".
Everyone behind, the Ferrari and also his team-mate, Fernando Alonso.
"Fernando was very strong. If we can continue at this pace he will be my biggest rival. But let's not be under any illusions: Ferrari is there and maybe McLaren as well, which also did not get a great result".
In addition to talent, he has also shown great confidence.
"I've seen it all in my career. The worst moment was when I signed a three-year contract for Jordan and immediately realised that the team was a disaster. In January, getting into the new Renault, I realised that I would have a very competitive car. Balanced, fast, reliable. That's why I left for Australia, telling myself: I can and I want to win".
Once again Briatore saw right, hiring you, with whom he had difficult relations in the past.
"You have seen that I have improved, matured. I have to thank Sauber, who allowed me to put myself on the map last year. So I had two interesting offers, from Williams and Renault. I accepted Flavio's: he's a great manager. He has been able to regenerate me, but I have never given up, I prepare myself every day".
Is this the first act of a good comedy?
"I hope so, but at the moment we live race by race. Then we'll see. I think there will be more parties".
To Barrichello goes the honour of second place. Ferrari was looking for proof that the F2004M is still a competitive single-seater and he provided it.
"The only strategy mistake was the storm during qualifying".
Rubens Barrichello jokes. His comeback was great: eight net places recovered (net because no one in front of him retired). And a patch on Michael Schumacher's grey day that keeps the spectre of a crisis away from Ferrari.
"We have shown that we are there. The others have grown, we are still going strong with the old car. When the F2005 arrives yes we will have fun".
The only technical problem concerned the brakes after lap 15:
"The balance failed and the rear tyres tended to lock up, so much so that I felt like I was driving a go-kart. In spite of that, my times at the end were very fast and the tyre wear was regular. I could have run another race without changing them, but for goodness sake let's not tell the Federation who then comes up with new ideas to save money".
Second place between the two Renaults: did the Brazilian try to catch Fisichella or did he fear being caught by Fernando Alonso?
"I honestly thought about Fisichella, but I couldn't have done it. I congratulate him. Alonso I kept him behind by pushing hard. It was complicated, because I still had to save the engine, which will have to face the Malaysian Grand Prix in a fortnight. I had fun, although I'm sorry Michael didn't score any points. The key moment? The overtaking move on Villeneuve on the first lap: if I had stayed behind him I would have lost time and the race".
Rubinho scolds the rookies:
"Sometimes they don't realise they are about to be lapped. They have to be careful and get out of the way".
His second place in the comeback even hid a huge flaw of the Bridgestone tyres, which are also very good at the distance: the fast lap, i.e. the qualifying performance, is seriously inadequate. The morning session, with a dry tarmac, saw the Brazilian 3 seconds behind Mark Webber and Giancarlo Fisichella, 2 seconds behind Jarno Trulli and Nick Heidfeld, 1.5 seconds behind Jacques Villeneuve and away from all the others, excluding only Jordan and Minardi. Jean Todt admits:
"Rubens' tyres at the end were in better condition than the ones we changed last year after just 100 kilometres. We could have used softer compounds".
A pity for Jarno Trulli, who started from the front row alongside Giancarlo Fisichella and remained behind him until lap 18. The dream of an Italian one-two vanished after the first pit stop.
"The rear tyres lost performance".
Complained the Italian Toyota driver, who finished the race in ninth place. Disappointing compared to expectations were the McLarens and their drivers. Kimi Raikkonen was stationary at the start, then attempted a comeback in which he alternated between very fast laps and mistakes, including an off-track with a broken baffle. Juan Pablo Montoya got off to a better start than his teammate, but made the same mistake and with identical result: a broken aerodynamic appendage. Either Ron Dennis convinces his two employees to drive on asphalt or he builds stronger cars. Williams-Bmw is not as backwards as Frank Williams would have us believe. Favourite of the home crowd, Mark Webber brings home fifth position as in 2002 (but then he was at Minardi). Nick Heidfeld, on the other hand, was under the illusion that Michael Schumacher was giving him a run for his money and in lap 43 he ran right into him: the two are the only retirees along with Minardi rookie Christijan Albers. Or, it would be more correct, they are the sob not to be included in the finishing order. Jenson Button and Takuma Sato also did not cross the finish line: both were out of the points zone and returned to the pits before facing the last lap. This, in terms of a regulation that rivals that of baseball, allows BAR-Honda to replace the engine before the Malaysian Grand Prix without incurring penalties. Unless the FIA opens an investigation for unsportsmanlike conduct. On one point Michael Schumacher is right: if we ask ten people, we will get as many opinions about his clash with Nick Heidfeld. Let's look at three of them. According to the stewards it was a normal racing accident, what in the highway code would be a contributory fault. According to Michael Schumacher the responsibility lies with Nick Heidfeld, according to Heidfeld with Schumacher. The accounts add up. Here are the two versions in detail. The German of Ferrari says:
"I saw him behind me when I had just come out of the pits and I let him know that I would defend my position. At a certain point he went out of sight in the mirrors, I went to the inside of the corner and felt the impact".
The German of Williams-Bmw, however, said:
"Coming out of the pits, Michael went into the first chicane with the wrong line. I got alongside him and would have overtaken him, but he didn't leave me room and pushed me onto the grass, where braking is obviously impossible".
When he ended up in the sand, Michael Schumacher started flailing for the marshals to push him back onto the track. He did this already at Hockenheim in 2003, where he managed to win two crucial points. This time, however, the Ferrari was irreparably damaged and the race ended in the pits.
"Nick and I will clear up. Incident aside, it was not an entirely bad weekend. With his comeback Rubens showed that the F2004M is competitive. In qualifying I was unlucky, while in the race my goal was to finish in the points zone. It went badly, but I repeat what I had said on the eve of the race: the World Championship is not won at the first Grand Prix".
On Monday 7 March 2005, Scuderia Ferrari packs up and ships the cars, spare parts and all the equipment needed for the intercontinental transfers. Destination Malaysia. Sunday, 20 March 2005, at the Sepang circuit, they seek revenge. The drivers and part of the racing team stay on holiday for a week in this part of the world, the test drivers do tests in Spain, the technicians study in Maranello the data collected in Melbourne in the first Grand Prix of the season dominated by Renault and Giancarlo Fisichella, welcomed on his arrival at Fiumicino by cheering fans and friends.
"I'm aiming for the World Championship victory".
If Renault is celebrating, Scuderia Ferrari is preparing its redemption. Says Jean Todt:
"There is positive and negative feedback, a mix of mixed feelings".
Let's start with the good news. Chronometer in hand, the old modified F2004 is still a competitive car. In the race, Rubens Barrichello scored second place with a comeback of yesteryear and the third best lap time, after Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella. The Brazilian driver, moreover, always travelled at a very high pace. If reliability is not a surprise, performance is. The men from the Maranello team have emphasised this concept over and over again because, after the winter tests, they feared they were behind. Another reason for optimism: the McLarens are not as competitive as expected. The drivers' mistakes also weigh on the result, but this is an aggravating factor, as the two are considered to be a strength of the team. And if they do not look like phenomena, neither do the others. The latest good news for the Maranello team is Rubens Barrichello's improved performance. In past years, Rubinho struggled at the start of the season partly because he hardly tested the single-seater race car, usually developed by Schumacher in the first few weeks. This time in the winter he grinded out mighaiae kilometres and, on his return from Malaysia, he will immediately get behind the wheel of the F2005 together with his partner. The accident between Michael Schumacher and his compatriot Nick Heidfeld could speed up the debut of the new single-seater. It is still the new regulations that offer Ferrari an extra chance: Michael Schumacher did not finish the Grand Prix, so his engine could be replaced without penalty and be used in Malaysia and Bahrain. In the next race, i.e. San Marino, instead of replacing the engine, Ferrari would debut the F2005 one Grand Prix ahead of schedule. This is only a hypothesis. There is time to decide until the Friday of the next free practice in Malaysia. In the meantime the tests will be very intense and decisive. The new single-seater also worked on Sunday: 303 kilometres on the Vairano circuit, with Andrea Bertolini at the wheel, who carried out aerodynamic tests. From Tuesday 8 March 2005, four days of work will begin at Jerez with Marc Gene (F2004M) and Luca Badoer (F2005). Let us move on to the critical aspects. It is true that some opponents have disappointed, but Renault is currently unreachable and can be expected to remain so for at least a couple of races: until the teams return to Europe they have little chance to correct design errors. Ferrari is as fast in the race as it is clumsy in qualifying on the single lap. It is a tyre problem: the Bridgestones perform over distance. And Michael Schumacher, so perfect when he is among the front runners, suffers in the low-qualifying scrums. One thing is certain: it will be a hard-fought World Championship.