A few days before the start of the season at Melbourne, in Australia, the current world champion Michael Schumacher is already facing the first difficulties of the season, outside the track. While the German is flying to Australia, at Bruxelles a Belgian court will have to rule on a dispute concerning a breach of contract from the Ferrari driver. Schumacher has a contract with Bell, which gives him the helmet to race with. However, in recent times, he is using another one, obviously from another company. Thus, the company will request a punishment of 250.0000.000 lire for every day that Schumacher uses the other helmet, starting from Friday’s first free-practice of the Australian Grand Prix.
There is no shortage of concerns even on the track. The new Ferrari, with which he will have to defend the title and try to win it again, was having some reliability troubles, despite going really well from the start of the tests setting record after record. Most of the times it was Schumacher himself who switched the engine off and then go back to the pits, a clear sign that something was not working properly.
The new engine, denominated 050, was really different from the 2000 one: it was lighter and more compact. What is not letting the Maranello guys sleep peacefully is mainly the fact that a Grand Prix simulation could not be carried out. I.e. 300 km in three stages with that engine, with a tire change and refueling. That is why, despite setting the records at Fiorano and Mugello, the entire team is concerned about reliability. Even Michael flies to Australia with those worries. Before departing, he admits:
"I do not feel obligated to win the first race, what matters is to be on top at the end of the championship".
Saying that, the others are not in a better situation. The McLaren-Mercedes team broke several engines and did less kilometers than Ferrari. The Williams-BMW is more or less in the same situation. Let’s not talk about the others, who are trudging and smashing the new cars. Giancarlo Fisichella confesses his doubts:
"I still do not understand much about my Benetton, we have covered a few kilometers only".
Jarno Trulli tries to spur Jordan:
"It is the first time that I have an official engine. At the end of the year, Honda will decide between us and BAR. My team is at a crossroad: investing it becomes big, by investing, or go backwards".
Only Alesi, with the Ferrari powered Prost, cannot wait to get started:
"We have made great strides forwards. Five seconds a lap less than last year is extraordinary. The Michelin tires work fantastically".
The step is so big that even Prost is smiling. He even allows himself to do a joke:
"Let’s hope that Schumacher does not take away my record of victories already this year".
Regardless of whether the championship has started or not, the speculations regarding Schumacher’s future continue. It is up to him to close the question, or at least try:
"My contract with Ferrari ends at the end of the 2002 season and has not yet been extended. You always ask me why. I am tired of this question: I drive the Ferrari, I love Ferrari: there is absolutely no need to rush".
In an interview with Bild, the current world champion explains, among other things, that he has no more dreams to fulfill on a private level.
"I do not know what else to wish for. As a driver, I want to win again and achieve a couple more world titles even if I cannot imagine a further growth. I am at the peak of my career as a driver and cannot get anything more out of myself. However, we could always make the car run faster. The most important people for the team remained at Ferrari, extending their contracts…well, it is likely that the car will become even more faster, for real".
In the interview, Schumacher remembers his first contract with the manager Willi Weber, an agreement which guaranteed him due millions of lire a month:
"It seemed to me like a lot of money. I was happy and proud of that contract. I can say that, if I was not a driver today, I would probably be a mechanic. I would definitely be happy. Honestly, when I started, I did not think I would earn so much money to drive a race car, to do something that I enjoy. And to think that Formula 1 did not interest me at all at the time. I never watched a Gran Prix in television until I turned 16".
It would be good for Ferrari to be able to bring important points aside immediately. The Italian team was the absolute protagonist of the last two editions of the Melbourne race. The same, obviously, can also be said for McLaren. At Albert Park, in the last two editions, the team had more bad luck than good.
From the winter test results, it was realized that, from the end of the 2000 season to the start of the 2001 one, nothing has changed: Ferrari and McLaren will fight for the world championship. A couple of days before the inaugural free practice sessions, the two teams are already at Melbourne. Mika Hakkinen is allowing himself to do some walks by the sea. Schumacher, after playing football with his brother Ralf, is concentrating on developing biceps, triceps and bibs in the hotel gym, as to not deny his iron-man fame. The two rivals are hopeful. Hakkinen’s prevision is long-term:
"We had some reliability issues, maybe we will not be competitive this race. In the long-term though we will be, since the new McLaren is really fast".
Schumacher looks more closely:
"On Sunday, it would be enough to be on the podium".
The truth is that the new Mercedes engine, despite being able to do 23.000 kilometers in the test bench, started to break down immediately after getting out on track. The cause was a series of vibrations, due to changes that should have enhanced the engine. However, like anticipated, neither Ferrari has many certainties on this aspect. Therefore, who should win this first race of the race, if indeed the two big players are in big trouble?
Insiders say to watch out for 3 teams: Williams-BMW, BAR-Honda and Jordan-Honda. They are those who broke less engines. And, additionally, both Williams and BAR lapped faster with warmer temperatures, in South Africa, in weather conditions similar to those in Australia. Jordan only tried in Europe but the car held on perfectly and the engine even more so. Thus, the protagonists could also include Ralf Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Olivier Panis, Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Williams will mount the Michelin tires. The biggest tire French brand has come back to Formula 1 after a 16-year absence, equipping Benetton, Jaguar, Prost and Minardi. A colossal commitment with the aim of beating Bridgestone. It will be a tough battle, with custom-made tires for every race. Alain Prost sentences:
"The times between now and mid-season will drop at least three seconds per lap on almost every track".
The precautions taken by the FIA to slow the cars down, in order to maintain an acceptable level of security in the circuits, will cease to apply. Jarno Trulli admits:
"Already here at Melbourne, extraordinary performance will be seen due to the tires".
On the 28th February 2001, ahead of the Victoria State Parliament, the new Minardi is presented. The only thing Italian about it is the Faenza headquarters and the name of its founder. The latter was overlaid by the European trademark of the new owner, the Australian Paul Stoddart. It is a miracle that Minardi is in Formula 1 after being saved, only a month before, from shipwreck.
Thursday 1st March 2001. Mika Hakkinen presides at the first press conference of the season. The first Finnish driver is a happy father. He is not the world champion anymore but does not seem to be too worried about it. What is the different between chasing and being chased?
"In fact, the only real new thing, compared to last season, is that my wife Erja will not be here. I will miss her. She has always been my point of reference".
Will it be a Ferrari-McLaren fight?
"I think so. We had some issues during testing but it is normal. Those were resolved. It is normal that, for the first Grand Prix, there are some areas where we are not there 100%. Inside the team, we have discussed the car’s reliability at length. We will be strong and reliable for this Gran Prix and I am convinced that Ferrari will be competitive as well".
He makes his debut as a father. Michael, in terms of children, is ahead two to one. Mika smiles and says:
"I admits that it is a shame, I need to flip the situation around".
Hakkinen certainly draws, from paternity, the balance that drives him to pursue his rival. On the other hand, David Coulthard (recently found by the English press in the middle of a happy night with a porn star) draws it from work. During the testing phase, he focused on McLaren’s set-up together with Alexander Wurz. He did thousands and thousands of kilometers, without any issues, at Barcelona.
"I do not think that the new rules will lead to major changes. I believe that this year’s duel will be between us and Ferrari. But I cannot tell what the potential of the car is now. Let’s say that a podium will be enough for me".
Schumacher appears to be calm, relaxed, smiling and optimistic. The current world champion is preparing for the free practices by watching and re-watching the number 1 on his Ferrari. The German driver feels ready to defend the world championship, achieved last year. How is it like being the world championship?
"Having this number takes a lot of pressure off me. This is maybe the most important difference compared to previous years".
How are your physiological and physical conditions?
"I am very relaxed; it is normal being like this. At the same time, I cannot wait to be on track. The car is beautiful. We are satisfied with the work done so far even if, like every year, we do not exactly where we are".
How do you find the new Ferrari?
"I do not judge those definitions; I only take pleasure that the new car is talked well by the media. I can only say that it is beautiful and fast".
The track will determine how fast the car will be:
"It is clear that we still have many open questions. It is normal at the start of the season".
Do you think that you will open a cycle with Ferrari?
"I hope to do it like the Manchester team who, after a long period of waiting, started to win a lot. In Formula 1 though, it is difficult to exactly predict a season. I surely think that this season will be a repeat of last year’s story, a Ferrari-McLaren battle. I also predict progress from Williams, Jordan, Prost and Sauber".
Did you change training in regards to the new rules?
"A little bit. More is asked from the driver now. I already tested what it is like during the Mugello tests. In some situations, there is a superior lateral acceleration".
How far is the car preparation?
"Difficult to say until the first qualifying. From it, we will have the first meaningful indications. I would have loved to do a long run, for example. Nonetheless we covered 4178 kilometers. Some problems have been resolved while others need to be addressed. One thing is certain. This year, the car’s development will be decisive in order to win the title".
What advices do you give to the many rookies this season?
"Drivers who have the talent should be in Formula 1. I like that there are new faces. I will go watch their videotapes. Who knows, I might have something to learn. One piece of advice: let them learn on their own without having to listen to an old fart’s advice".
Eve of the Australian Grand Prix. Bernie Ecclestone speaks out, commenting on the various drivers that he met through his long and prestigious career. Firstly though, the Formula 1 patron talks about the starting season, confirming the general previsions of an exclusive battle between Ferrari and McLaren. The interview is then moved to a personal level and the first time he ever assisted a Formula 1 race:
"May 1950 at Silverstone: the British Grand Prix inaugurated the world championship. Farina won with Alfa Romeo. I remember that day because I participated in the Formula 3 race, which was the prologue to the Grand Prix".
At this point, Ecclestone expresses a personal opinion on some of the greatest drivers of this sport.
"Fangio? Awesome personality, exceptional man, an unreachable driver. Stirling Moss knows how to coexist with the fame of a driver who never won a title. Yet he remains an absolutely valuable driver. If Fangio was not there...".
"I have been Jochen Rindt’s friend and manager. It was, in a sense, my debut in a more managerial role. He was the identikit of an ideal driver: courageous, aggressive, always going at 100% of his potential and a funny guy. Jim Clark had a reasoned drive and a better talent than Rindt’s one. Calm, shy".
Talking about constructors…
"Colin Chapman, the legendary founder of Lotus, was a superstar at a time where the superstars did not yet exist. Like Ferrari. A genius who not only had the ideas but also designed the cars as well. As a driver, he was also very fast. Jackie Stewart, on the other hand, achieved everything he wanted, but also was successful in everything that he was touching".
Switching focus to the drivers…
“Andretti? Ah, Mario…funny. A true rider, a tough guy. I would like to see a starting grid with 20 Mario Andretti today. We practically fought about everything: on the extra tickets that he wanted, on the super license, on many other things. But still remained friends. One time I came up with the idea, which was exposed to all teams, of creating a badge for the drivers like there is with the football players. He came up to me, locked up in a corner and threateningly said: I do not care about security, do wherever you want. But do not stuck your nose in matters concerning my money, got it? And, of course, let go of that. James Hunt was a great character; he was an adorable guy. At time he exaggerated but it was normal for him. Nelson Piquet and I were friends and still are. We often talk with each other. Super talent, with a great ability to form relationships with the people, exceptional in referring the sensations of the car to the engineers. He was a team player; he held a team together. A brother for the mechanics. When discussing who was the best driver of modern Formula 1, the name Alain Prost is rarely mentioned. But if one analyzes the things thoroughly, it is probably discovered that the best driver was him. Or one of the best".
Then he continues:
"Niki Lauda is a special person and driver. He drove for me, with Brabham: never a complaint, never a discussion. It is also true that he left me, in the-mid 1979 season, during the Canadian free practices. Yet it was not sudden. He would always tell me that he did not want to drive and wanted to quit by the end of the year. I said: quit immediately. You cannot be a driver against your will. I made it clear with him that he could have an accident while waiting. At one point, during Montreal’s free practices, he took off the helmet, suit and shoes and went away, leaving the clothes in the pits. Lauda style. Senna? Great human being, superb driver. Super, super, super. His death was a tragedy for my whole family. Schumacher has the reputation of being an arrogant driver. Yet I also know his most serene and relaxed face. I am sorry that people sometimes talk badly about him. As a driver, though, he brings everyone together. Mika, on the other hand, is adorable yet too shy. He cannot be discussed as a driver”.
Question about the electronics: after the green light in May, will we see races where the pecking order will not be decided by complaints and appeals?
"Some polemics will happen, due to the fact that the current system will not change. I think that it is up to the teams to decide the technical rules. They are the ones who, until the end, spend the money. I am sure that everyone will fight even harder for the security and to have more stable and clearer rules".
If you had a team, what drivers would you hire?
"Schumacher. Yet I do not think that Villeneuve would come. As a second driver, I would like a youngster. I believe that the new kid at Minardi, Fernando Alonso, is really good".
At Melbourne the teams brought to the track major changes to the cars shown at the official presentations and used during winter testing. In particular, Ferrari introduces different aerodynamics appendixes. The more noticeable are the wings mounted in the external part of the sidepods. There are also new air intakes for the brakes, which should guarantee a better cooling and improved airflow detour around the wheels. Meanwhile Williams introduces vertical bulkheads under the front wing, taking advantage of a 50cm space in where it can have a lower ground clearance.
Friday 2nd March 2001. The first free practice of the Australian Grand Prix offers its first thrill of the season. It was caused by Michael Schumacher. After braking at the limit at turn 6, he lost control of the Ferrari at approximately 160 km/h. The F2001, with the number 1, takes off into the air, capsizing twice. The wall is there, at one-meter distance, just before the trees behind the safety nets. In overturning, Schumacher does not hit the ground with the helmet, but the camera, which was put behind his head, is badly damaged. Luckily the driver is unharmed but the car needs to be put back together. Ferrari hopes that the car does not have major damages at this point. Otherwise of the three cars brought to Australia, only two will remain, just enough for the two drivers to drive.
As soon as the car's mad rush comes to a halt, Schumacher, without hesitation, unplugs the steering wheel and exits from the cockpit. Cool, calm, waving to the audience who trembled for him. Polished but more importantly unscathed. A second later, in the pits, he explains the incident to his wife Corrina like nothing happened. Then they hugged each other for the escaped danger. Fear erased; episode relegated in some corners of the brain. The drivers are really different from ordinary people, as they are able to create watertight compartments in the mind and thus freezing the unpleasant memories. Michael’s comment is as follows:
"I fitted new tires to do the fastest lap, the car was fantastic. I was approaching turn 5 when the yellow flags were signalled from the pits. At that point though, I did not see any flag and re- accelerated. Previously, there was a similar alert after Burti’s incident yet the flags were not there. I thought that it was probably another mistake. However, there were some at turn 6. I saw them late. I tried to reduce the speed but was forced to sharply brake".
"My rear end got away from me and I spun. Right that point, there was a level difference between the grass and the gravel. (I reported it yet no one listened). The car jumped off, took off and spun twice in the air. I have never been overturned before, not even in karts when I was a kid. Here I have done it twice. It was a completely new experience for me. From the outside it probably looked like a scary thing, but it was not in the car. In those instances, I always expected the shock, yet there was none. I did not even have the time to feel scared. I immediately found myself on the ground with the car in a normal position. I jumped out of the car, looked at it and thought that it was a shame to have damaged it so badly. The Ferrari mechanics are really good. They know how to repair it back in time: otherwise there is the spare-car, the forklift. I am not worried. Neither of an eventual reminder of the incident since, within myself, it is perfectly clear what happened. Instead, I would rather talk with the track marshals since that kerb, between the grass and the gravel, needs to be repaired. It represents a danger. I expected a stronger hit while suspended in mid-air. Instead it went well".
Yes, it went well, no doubt about it. Very well indeed. And now there needs to be an analysis of double cables on the wheels. They prevented the front left tire, which came off in the impact, from doing any damage. The Ferrari's bodywork also held up well since there were no particular serious damages.
If Schumacher is the downside of the coin, there is the other side which is more pleasant. It has Rubens’ smile on it. He is the fastest driver of first free practice. An indicative result of a Ferrari in top form, ready to do battle in the race. Rubens declares:
"The sensation, as soon it puts the wheel on the tarmac in Melbourne, is of a car which runs very well".
Schumacher adds to it:
"The F2001 was strong in the winter. Now I can say that, for the race, I am not afraid of the reliability, performance or the tires. Everything is working properly".
Both drivers seem convinced that they can take pole position and with good reason. On track, the Ferrari appears truly impressive in terms of efficiency. Stable on the fast corners, manageable on the slow corners, easy to drive and correct, unless there are assessment errors like Schumacher’s one. Behind, a threatening McLaren-Mercedes which is also going well. The car does not seem to have any weak point. Therefore, like last year, the cars’ reliability could play a decisive role in the race. Although, judging by the glimpses of the first free practices, Ferrari’s engine sounds smoother and fluid in the power deliver compared to the Mercedes who equips Hakkinen’s and Coulthard’s single-seaters.
Will all due caution, Ferrari and McLaren seem to be on another planet compared to the competitors. This does not stop Trulli from doing an exquisite exploit, putting the Jordan-Honda in 2nd place in the first day, ahead of Schumacher, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and Heidfield. Those are the seven driver that went under the time set by the poleman in 2000. After just 15 minutes of hostility, Schumacher is on a top performance. This is the demonstration that the tire war between Bridgestone and Michelin has already led to very high performances, destined to be exasperated from race to race. To Ralf Schumacher, 6th in the Williams-BMW, is given the provisional record of the best Michelin driver. The French tire company starts, as expected, with the right foot. Yet there is the knowledge that, in the race, things will go better in the race than in practice.
The Sauber-Ferrari car is quite efficient. the BAR-Honda presents obvious weaknesses although not like the Benetton-Renault, which is lagging behind on the engine and the chassis. The rookies Montoya, Bernoldi and Alonso place themselves in 12th, 13th, 18th and 19th respectively. The Williams driver is more than a second slower than his teammate. The Spanish youngster meanwhile obtains a surprising performance at the wheel of the uncompetitive Minardi. He in fact places himself ahead of Burti’s Jaguar and Mazzacane’s Prost. At the tail end of the field, Marques remains outside the 107% rule compared to pole position. It is the maximum limit allowed to take part in the race. The stewards will exceptionally allow him to start the race.
Like in 2000, Ferrari’s mechanics are forced to work long hours in order to repair the 208 chassis, the one which was damaged during free practice. The operation is concentrated on the left sidepod. It was the same one which was damaged in last year’s accident. Practically, the specialists of composite materials (carbon, Kevlar) rebuild the bodywork which covers the protection structures on the chassis side. It is in the area where the bodywork forms the air intake for the radiators. The work is completed without an itch. Ferrari’s chassis is ready for Saturday’s qualifying.
Meanwhile, talking about Michael Schumacher, news come from Bruxelles, where the process regarding the contact with Bell is ongoing. The German needs to accept the unfavorable sentence from the Bruxelles court. It is an obligated decision, attending that Willi Weber and his lawyers can either change or find a peaceful settlement with the American company. During free practice, Michael used the Schubert helmet. However, in order to not pay the fee of 216.000.000 lire a day, he utilized the old helmet. His comment is sour:
"This is a rather unpleasant matter. It seems to have become a trend to sue me. Every matter is always exaggerated towards myself, from a fly to an elephant. At the Ferrari Day occasion last autumn at Mugello, I told Bell that I no longer wanted to race with their helmet. I was told that we would come to an agreement. Instead they went to court and I was not expecting that. Bell and I worked very well for eight years. I did not like that and would never have wanted that. But now that the court's verdict is against me, I have to respect it as I have always respected contracts. I still want to use the Schuberth helmet because it gives me more safety. Thus, I want to reach an agreement with Bell as soon as possible. Willi Weber and the lawyers are working on it. I just have to think about racing. This time with a Bell helmet. Then we will see".
Thursday’s press conference saw Schumacher and Hakkinen side-by-side. Today Ferrari team principals Jean Todt and McLaren’s team principal Ron Dennis are on the hot seats. The championship is not yet in full swing. The race for the title is not provoking particular tensions and the digs, which were launched during the respective presentations, remain out of the door. The only poking arrives when they have to answer the TV journalists’ questions. Dennis, after being asked a question regarding the face-to-face battle, exclaims with irony that, to really do it, it would require a stool for Ferrari’s team principal to stand on. Todt replicates with a shrug of the shoulders:
"In the meantime, I won the championship last year".
Besides, Michael’s incident was the hot topic. Todt, after being asked if it was true that Ferrari had problems during the crash-test, replicates with a sour smile:
"Everything was fine. Michael took care of doing another crash-test".
At first instance, the French manager is really worried:
"Seeing that, it really scared me. Realizing that Schumacher was well, I then come back to think about the work ahead. The initial balance? It is comforting but I won’t get too carried away until Sunday. Barrichello’s best time? Schumacher, without that incident, could have gone even quicker".
Concerning both Todt and Dennis is the usual reliability talk:
"We had wished to do more tries in that sense but otherwise we are satisfied".
Dennis does not avoid the problems:
"The experience in this first race helped us to find a compromise between the conservative race management and pure quali performance".
Saturday the 3rd of March 2001, the qualifying session emphasizes Ferrari’s dominance in the battle with McLaren. Michael Schumacher takes the first pole position of the year, his fifth consecutive one if last season is counted. The fastest car thus remains the Ferrari. Moreover, the two scarlet cars are on the front row, since Barrichello got second place. This is the first time, ever since the 1956 Argentinian Grand Prix, that one team was able to lock out the front row. In that particular grand prix, there were three Ferraris ahead of everyone in quali: Fangio’s, Castellotti’s and Musso’s. It was the anticipation of a season in which the Ferrari single-seaters dominated.
Moreover, Schumacher takes the 33rd pole of his career, moving up to second place on all-time list, behind Senna. The Brazilian has stopped at 65, a record which was thought to be unreachable. The German can now reach it, since he is negotiating a contract extension with Ferrari until 2006. It seemed like an impossible dream but Schumacher is starting to think about breaking it. He always said that he would love to drive until the age of 40: now the possibility, to get to 38, exists. The contract is not yet signed yet Montezemolo has advocated that there is no rush. The agreement ends at the end of the 2002 season yet the agreement is practically done. It would extend Schumacher’s stay at Ferrari until December 2006 in exchange of 36.000.000 lire per season, a fair adjustment to the 30.000.000 dollars a year that he currently receives.
"We are there".
This is Schumacher’s first comment after the pole position, commenting the Ferrari F2001 which was very fast ever since the first testing day at Fiorano. The reference with the competitors was still missing even if, in terms of pure speed, it was easily won. Two testing days, Ferrari always on top and the others following behind. A good start. The events obligated the Maranello guys to do a strength and character demonstration which they would gladly have not done without.
After Schumacher’s spectacular crash, there is to add that, during Saturday morning free practice, there are some worries regarding him. After setting the fastest ever lap, he heard a tire vibrate and feared that it was detaching. The dread of what happened the previous day allowed him to immediately stop. The tire was not involved at all though. It was the air intake which detached and was touching against the wheel rim. Nothing serious. Beforehand, bad luck struck Barrichello, the fastest man on Friday: his engine broke.
What is troubling is the fact that the reason for the breakup is unknown, as emphasized by Jean Todt a bit later, explaining that it was an engine that had carried out the regular bench tests but, as soon as it was mounted on the car, it did not express the desired power. Shortly after, he says:
"We are there in terms of performance yet we need to cure our reliability. Anyway, we have a really potential concerning the engine-aerodynamic-chassis block".
Such a combative and efficient Ferrari suggest that, following the break-in phase, could reduce this championship into a two-way fight between Schumacher and Barrichello. Todt keeps his feet on the ground:
"McLaren is really strong. Our enemies are outside Maranello".
Todt is one of the insiders who is impressed by the 3.7 seconds taken out of Hakkinen’s 2000 pole, by Schumacher. It is an enormity, taking into account that the FIA imposed changes to the cars in order to slow them down and maintain them under control. Todt comments:
"Instead, the battle between Bridgestone and Michelin has created a performance increase that even I did not expect. The International Federation did so many important steps on the security, it could not do more".
But there is someone who judges this incredible progress, in the times, as a positive phenomenon, like for example Niki Lauda:
"The Formula 1 World Championship is a speed competition. That is normal if you are faster. I am worried about what will happened at the end of the race. Most will arrive with smooth tires, which could go very well, instead of the grooved ones which are allowed by the regulations".
And there is someone who claims that the increase of performance is an alarming phenomenon, like for example Jean Alesi:
"The 2001 cars are much faster in the straights since a lot of downforce was taken away but are also faster in the corners, thanks to the new tires. There was an improvement of almost four seconds over last year’s free practice times. It is way too much and it is scary. I already talked about this issue with Michael Schumacher during the winter. He evidently did not understand it and said that it was fine like that. Now, as it always happens, things will be changed only after a big incident. Fingers crossed".
Behind the two Ferraris, Mika Hakkinen slots himself in third place, half a second behind than the poleman. David Coulthard’s McLaren cannot go further than 6th position, almost a second and a half slower than Schumacher. Coulthard is followed by Heinz Harald Frentzen’s Jordan and by Ralf Schumacher’s Williams. From 7th, Jarno Trulli promises battle at the wheel of the Honda powered Jordan. The driver from Abruzzo is pushing the team to invest on car’s development, since it is the first time that it is powered by an official engine. More importantly, he invokes reliability, after the numerous powertrain failures:
"We run 5000 km in testing, almost a long run a day, practically nothing happened. We should be good, otherwise I am going to get blessed".
Fisichella is risking it, so far overwhelmed by the fragility of the Renault engine. This year Benetton closes its activity in Formula 1. It is a melancholy exit, with more retirements than points. Giancarlo is only 17th, just behind his teammate Button. 19th position for the youngest rookie in Formula 1, Fernando Alonso, at the wheel of the Minardi.
The first qualifying session is characterized by a spectacular incident. The protagonist is the Brazilian Luciano Burti, on Jaguar. With 12 minutes left until the end of quali, the driver lost control of the car which then crashed and crawled against the guard-rail. The car is destroyed, the driver is unharmed. The Jaguar’s tires and pieces rebounded on the track. Consequentially, the session is suspended for 10 minutes. In the press conference, Schumacher is more than satisfied:
"The season could not have started better. I am happy especially for the mechanics. I have to thank them for doing such an extraordinary job. They worked late into the night and then again at dawn to allow me to go out on track with the same car which suffered the the incident".
The McLaren cars seem to be behind:
"I am convinced that McLaren has not yet showcased 100% of their potential. Like us, after all. I am sure that we can do more and will everything to succeed".
Barrichello is second. What is tomorrow’s objective?
"The aim is to cross the finish line, does not matter if you are first or second. I want to repeat that the key element of this season will be the development of the car".
In Australia, beside the debut of the various rookies, there was also Niki Lauda’s one as Jaguar’s technical manager, after being Montezemolo advisor at Ferrari. Does the Austrian champion like this Formula 1, with rewritten rules and soon free electronics?
"Frankly no. There is no more blood in all tracks and this is good. Yet today there is less pathos. I agree with making the races safer. Sooner or later though, the spectators will grow tired of watching such boring races".
Was it better to drive back in your day?
"In the ‘70s, a driver had to calculate by himself even the incidence of the front wing or the height from the ground of the car. Nowadays the computer does all that. Once upon a time, if you got one gear wrong you would have risked the destruction of an engine. Now it is more about the technology. The driver needs to brake only. Driving these cars is becoming a joke, even an imbecile can do that. Instead of favoring the overtakes, everything is done in order to avoid them. Thank goodness that the pitstops have remained the same, the only unpredictable thing of a race".
Schumacher says that he would never drive a Formula 1 car from the ‘70s:
"Good for him. I understand that. Back in the day, the single-seaters were very dangerous. Today everything is safer. Look at the young drivers, the ones at their debut: here in Australia they do not have any problem. They went very fast. With the electronics it is simpler to drive and to adapt".
It does not change the pecking order: Ferrari is always ahead.
"I am really impressed. If something does not change, Ferrari will be the favorite for the title once again. Of course, McLaren at the beginning of the 2000 season especially during winter testing, had a half a second advantage over Ferrari. Yet their car would always break during the races. The variable is the reliability. If Ferrari find, then they are unbeatable".
"Our work is very lengthy. it takes three years to bring our car to Ferrari and McLaren’s level. If, in three years’ time, we will be able to win a race, it would then mean that we did our job well".
You have never liked Irvine…
"It is not true. I have a very good relationship with him and Burti. It is only that Irvine is sitting a little bit. I hope that my presence will give him a boost to always give his best".
Sunday the 4th of March 2001, the sky at Melbourne is cloudy and the temperature is cold. A factor which can help the engines and reduce Ferrari’s worries for the 050 duration. When the lights go out, Michael Schumacher starts well and keeps the lead. His teammate Barrichello is the author of a difficult getaway and gets overtaken by Hakkinen, Frentzen and Schumacher respectively.
In the first corner, after a start which allowed him to gain a couple of position, Juan Pablo Montoya is in the grass and finds himself in the midfield once again. At turn 3, Eddie Irvine spins, following a contact at the back. The Northern Ireland driver restarts in last position. At least he can still continue the race, unlike Gastón Mazzacane, who spun with his Prost soon after. The Argentinian immediately retires without completing a single lap.
After the end of the first lap, Schumacher is in the lead followed by Hakkinen, Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher, Barrichello and Trulli. Defending against Barrichello’s attack in the first corner, the younger of the two Schumacher brothers makes the same mistake that his teammate Montoya did in the previous lap. This makes the job much easier for the Brazilian Ferrari driver, closely followed by Trulli and Coulthard. The latter is now in the points. Ralf finds himself down in 7th, just ahead of Jacques Villeneuve.
Eager to recover as many positions as possible, Barrichello forces an overtaking maneuver on Frentzen. The duo makes contact at turn 9 and Frentzen pays the consequences. Frentzen is on the grass and spins; after rejoining the track, he plummets down to 13th. During the 5th lap, Villeneuve tries an overtake on Ralf Schumacher. The Canadian tries to swing left in proximity of turn 3 but rear-ends the Williams-BMW. His BAR is now a crazy lightning bolt which slams against the lateral barrier to then tip over several times and end the race in the gravel in between thousands of bits of debris. The safety car intervention is prompt.
Both Villeneuve and Schumacher are ok and come back to the pits on their own two feet. Trackside, it seems like seeing the same scenes of the incident that happened six months ago at Monza. The medical car and the ambulance are intervening to try, in vain, saving a marhal’s life. The man was hit by debris and flying tires after a crazy carom at the start. The worst is feared. Meanwhile the Safety car stay on track for the next ten laps. The ambulance, within the general unawareness, load the corpse of a track marshal who was fatally injured by a tire in Villeneuve’s car.
The race, after almost half an hour in the Safety Car regime, re-starts. The lead positions remain unchanged, with Schumacher trying an escape whilst Hakkinen is unable to keep up the leader’s pace. They are followed by Barrichello, Coulthard, Trulli and Olivier Panis closes the points paying positions. In the midfield Kimi Raikkonen is on the spotlight, after gaining some places, followed by Frentzen, in the Jordan.
Nothing happens until lap 27, when a big accident shakes up the race: this time, the unlucky protagonist is Mika Hakkinen, who has to deal with a sudden breakage of the right front suspension on his McLaren. The car slams sideways and violently into the protective nets. Unlike that terrible incident in Australia on the Adelaide circuit a few years earlier, this time Hakkinen walked away unharmed from the crash. The medical center confirms the physical integrity of the two-time champion, apart from a slight state of confusion.
With the retirement of the only driver able to challenge Schumacher’s supremacy, he now can manage the car and the leadership without too much trouble. Meanwhile, behind him, Barrichello is suffering strong vibrations caused by the previous contact with Frentzen. This allows Coulthard to catch up. The Scott is not hesitant and overtakes successfully the Brazilian at turn 3 for second position.
As hinted on the eve of the grand prix, Jarno Trulli’s biggest fear is the poor reliability of the components, which was the scourge for Jordan’s 2000 season. Unfortunately, for Jarno, in this case as well, a loss of power in the Honda engine causes first to be overtaken by Heidfield’s Sauber and then by Montoya’s Williams. In the end, he is forced to retire.
Meanwhile Schumacher makes his only pit stop on lap 30 out of 58: when the chronometer ticks 6 seconds, the mechanics have already completed the refueling procedure and the change of tires. However, one of them is busy clearing away the debris in the radiator. Therefore, the stop lasts 10 seconds but it does not matter. Nobody, including Coulthard and Barrichello, can worry the German. Rubens pits two laps after his teammate and so does Coulthard. The Brazilians finds himself behind Montoya. The latter dreams about his first podium in Formula 1 on his official debut at least before BMW engine breaks down with less than 20 laps to the end.
Coulthard follows Schumacher at five seconds. The German is trying to control the gap, careful to not stress the engine, especially when his radio stops working. Unable to answer the pit wall’s indications, his track engineer Luca Baldisseri tells him: if you are able to hear us, when you go near the pits, put a hand on your helmet. He immediately does that. Barrichello is racing in complete solitude, in 3rd position. Behind him, Olivier Panis is defending 4th place against the eventual attacks from Heidfield and Frentzen.
At the end of the 58 laps, the ex-world champion Alan Jones waves the chequered flag, which decrees that Michael Schumacher is the winner of the Australian Grand Prix. An authoritative show of strength for the current world champion, which puts things clear in terms of this championship’s pecking order.
For the German, this is his fifth consecutive win. Let’s not forget the streak of four win in the 2000 season finale, which handed him the title. Coulthard and Barrichello complete the podium. Panis, Heidfield (first points in Formula 1 for him) and Frentzen complete the point scoring positions. The BAR French driver is penalized with a 25-second penalty for completing an overtake during the Safety Car regime. He is demoted to 7th position, allowing Kimi Raikkonen to rise to 6th place. The Finn thus scores his first point in Formula 1 in his first race.
Only 13th and last of the classified drivers is Giancarlo Fisichella. Benetton was not competitive at all this weekend, considering Button’s retirement. Button was not in an important position before a rupture of an exhaust took him out of the race. Post-race, the first declaration from Schumacher is not a sentence from a winner:
"If you do not tell me exactly what happened, I will not go on stage for the awards".
The organizers who, up until then, had carefully hidden the truth, explain to the drivers that the marshal, who was hit by Villeneuve car’s debris, died in the hospital. Schumacher nods and goes up to the podium with Coulthard and Barrichello. Handshakes, timid smiles, no jumps or celebrations. The champagne bottles remain corked at the foot of the three steps. Below, the Ferrari mechanics are not singing, like usual, the Italian anthem.
The drivers receive the three silver trophies and leave. Jean Todt, who represented Ferrari, leaves with them. The crowd, at the foot of the stage, is chillingly understanding the situation and immediately stops clapping and singing. The ritual interviews are next. The three are sitting in their spots on the stage with grave faces behind their caps. It looks like a scene already seen at Monza, six months ago, with Schumacher’s victory and the sadness for the death of the marshal Paolo Gislimberti, in the same surreal way as the Australian steward. Schumacher is the one to start:
"The race? Started well, everything normal, maintained the pace that I wanted…in other points more controlled...".
It can be seen that his mind is elsewhere by saying that he is sorry for what happened and that it cannot happen ever again. He adds, for pure professionalism, some other technical sentences:
"I think I made a very good getaway. Everything worked perfectly. Let’s say that I divided my race in two different rhyme phases: trying to be as fast as possible on certain sections of the track and then slowing down when needed. Considering the conditions of the car, I am satisfied with how the race was handled".
Meanwhile, Villeneuve’s statements arrive, in front of the box. He is distraught:
"I understood everything and was praying to not touch the barriers with the head because otherwise I would be dead. There was no time to be afraid. The first blow was really strong, then came may others. Terrible".
The biggest shock is another:
"One person came to give us a helping hand, to allow us to race, and died. He had nothing to do with it, he was not in the race. Atrocious. What can be done in order to prevent this from happening again? Stop the race, no longer compete in any race. This could be the only solution in order to make the races 100% secure. But it is not possible".
The ex-World Champion reconstructs the incident like this:
"Schumacher, after I was trying to overtake him, suddenly braked ahead of me and had no time to avoid the contact".
It is time to get back on stage. This time it is Coulthard and Barrichello’s turns who, by now, do not want even try to talk about the race anymore. Only grief, condolences for the family and respect for that person. New sharp words are coming from the Scott’s mouth:
"We absolutely must do everything that we can to improve race safety, so that what happened today does not happen again. We need more security on track. No more lives must be lost. Ours is a sport and it must remain a sport in all safety. For us on track but also for those on the other side of the fence".
Only at the end, after expressing his grief, Barrichello is also forced to say something about the race:
"The race? Everything went pretty well. Shame for that little vibration problem in the second half of the race which did not allows me to keep the initial pace. But it is only the beginning of the season".
Even if the ritual interviews, Schumacher hesitates a bit before talking about the race, his victory and the efficient respond by the new Ferrari at those doubts that normally arise, for everyone, at the start of a season. He then tells:
"The situation seems immediately more positive compared to last year. Back then, we were quicker than McLaren. Now we are even faster. The qualifying and the race demonstrated that. Thus, it is a consideration which gives us confidence. But it does not mean that we can relax, like we already have the championship in our pocket. There is lots of work to do. McLaren, from Saturday to Sunday, made progress. The gap is still narrow, the fight will continue to be very tough".
The many starts that you did throughout the last couple of weeks seem to have paid off, no?
"Without doubt. Finally, we managed to put a couple of things in the right place. I think that I got off to a good start, but let’s not get too excited. Let’s acknowledge that and move on".
With Hakkinen’s exit’s, was it almost like a walk in the park?
"Well, not really. Let’s say that I was more relaxed. Had Mika remained on track, I would have had a less normal race. He had a technical issue; hope he is ok. I divided the race in certain rhythms: when needed, I was fast; at other times, I was worried about not squeezing the car too hard. For that reason, Coulthard reduced the gap".
It seemed like the only problem was caused by the helmet:
"Yes, there was a moment when the radio was working badly, I did not hear what they were telling me from the pits. Also, air was coming in which really bothered my eyes".
The season could not have started better:
"We have worked hard all winter despite already having a Ferrari capable of taking on pole, dominating the race and be reliable as well. What more do you want? It was nice to win but the shadow of that incident is over everything. On all of us".
Even Jean Todt is sad. The French manager does not want to talk about the sport: the tragedy, which hit the track marshal, left a big mark. The sporting fact remains. For Ferrari, it is a comforting sign. The general director of the Maranello team does not have any doubts:
"We are on the right track. Both in the quali and in the race, we had some important confirmations. I think that it is the best car that we have ever produced. But we cannot think that we have arrived, quite the opposite. We must continue working like this since we are on the right path. We know exactly where and how to develop the car".
Schumacher explained that the key is the development of the car. Do you agree?
"Of course. Even though we won, our rivals have shown that they are really competitive. In Malesia we will see a totally different situation. A terrible heat".
Reliability seems to be quite good already.
"We had doubts about the reliability concerns but the car responded positively in both qualifying and race".
And the McLarens?
"They are always very strong. Let’s not be fooled by that small gap. We were driving in slow but so were they. We were all afraid of breaking something. There are other cars which made big steps forward but all in all, they also some difficulties in this race. They will make up for it. On the other hand, I am pleased that there are a lot of young drivers who did well. This will be useful for Formula 1. There will be more fights".
What more could you have done to avoid those incidents?
"I honestly do not know what can be done. It is difficult to control everything. A lot has been done on the cars, for example. Today they are safer and the two big incidents, Schumacher and Villeneuve’s, prove that. But it is over yet. We have to reach an even higher level of security in the next few years".
For the third consecutive time Mika Hakkinen failed to finish the Australian Grand Prix. As in the previous two occasions, the retirement was caused by McLaren’s reliability problems. In this case though, it led to an ugly incident and a big scare for the Finn.
"I ran the risk of being seriously injured. Australia is not really good for. They saw a dark mark on the helmet and wanted to take me to the medical center for a check-up".
A sentence which matches with another image on reliability:
"It is like a coin tossed in the air, heads or tails. We had a 50% probability to run until the end but in Australia it always falls on the wrong side".
Hakkinen introduced himself to the press with a collar, in order to limit whiplash:
"Everything is under control; my head and neck are fine. The X-rays have excluded any problem".
He comes back to Europe with a simple discomfort, due to shock. Having some doubts over his McLaren, he says:
"I know our potential; I know that we can be much faster. However, we have to become reliable".
Reliability which is not lacked by Barrichello, who was angry for other reasons:
"Alonso’s inexperience cost me second place. He did not see the blue flags, lost time in lapping him and so Coulthard overtook me".
Frentzen is furious. Rubers overtook him during the third lap and they touched.
"You have to be intelligent. If the driver behind is going much faster than you, it is better to lose one position rather than ten. He closed on me, I had no more road and we touched. He was in 13th position and I had a damaged left front tire. And the car was no longer balanced".
"I hope he gets a good start next time, so he does not have to do maneuvers like that one to show off. At that point I had the corner. Why does he not say that I had to touch Coulthard at the start to avoid him?"
Apart from the disagreements of the drivers, there are many shadows on this start of the season.
The tragic death of the track marshal, caused by Villeneuve’s horrifying incident, Schumacher’s double roll-over during free practice and Hakkinen’s horrible incident. All this leads to a focus on the security subject. The car safety seems beyond doubt. Schumacher crashes: when he jumped out of the car, he even helped to allocate the wrecked car on the tow truck. Villeneuve laughs and jokes around whilst scratching his head. Ralf Schumacher, knocked off track by the BAR driver, gets out and laughs and jokes too.
There is no doubt. a couple of years ago, things would have been different. Apart from that, there is the strong suspect that almost all circuits are inadequate and need to be totally revised, starting with the width of the track, nets and the walls. The strict Australian laws prevent the identity of the unlucky marshal, 50-year-old men from Queensland, from being known. Later, the police give the name: Graham Beveridge, 52-year-old from Winfield, married with two daughters.
The other seven patients, who were slightly injured, were released in the evening. A sporting and judicial investigation was immediately launched. The two drivers were first heard by the stewards and then by the police. The FIA panel gave an innocence verdict, stating that it was a normal racing incident. Although some questioned the German’s breaking before turn 4, as Villeneuve pointed out. On his behalf, Williams claims to have reviewed the telemetry and confirmed that Ralf braked at the same point as on the previous laps. The driver comments by saying:
"My condolences to the family. It is very sad what happened. I am close to the family's pain. How did the incident happen? I braked for turn 4 and heard a bang from behind. Jacques probably did not realize what was happening. It was a mistake but it can happen. We are lucky to come out of it unscathed".
Some influential people of the paddock express their opinion on the incident. Jackie Stewart affirms:
"I think the most important problem is to contain the incident on the track. The drivers know what they are getting into. The risks for the spectators must be avoided. At this point there is only one way: increase the height of the nets, like they do in America. For example, in Indianapolis, the public can see just as well. It sounds like an indispensable albeit costly solution. I believe that it is the most urgent challenge facing Formula 1. On Saturday, with Burti’s incident, all the pieces that came off the car remained on the asphalt. In the race, everything went out, after what for me sounded like an explosion, rather than a racing incident".
On the cause, Stewart can't quite put his finger on exactly what happened:
"At first, I thought that Ralph Schumacher had seized the engine. Then I thought that Jacques Villeneuve misjudged the breaking point. I do not know. The speed difference between the two single-seaters was very high".
Alain Prost argues:
"On a humane level there will be always be mistakes. On Sunday, it may have been Villeneuve’s fault or Ralf Schumacher’s who breaked earlier, who knows. But it is true that there are dangerous points on the circuit, although the security, in general, is really good. First Balestre, now Mosley, at the International Federation level, have done a lot. By now, we are used to seeing incident at over 250 km/h with the cars withstanding the impact and the drivers are coming out unharmed. But because they are more secure, the drivers feel more entitled to take bigger risks, knowing that it will be OK. Thus, it is a double-edged sword. Having said that, with accident like the one between Villeneuve and Ralf, it is normal that car pieces to fly everywhere. The consequences are a matter of luck, there is little else to say about that. Unless you put the public at a huge distance from the track, without letting them see anything, as it happened years ago at le Castellet".
It is the tension that Prost dwells on:
"Today in Formula 1 there is an increasingly exasperated competition between the teams and the drivers. With so many interests at stakes, the risks increase".
Then it is Niki Lauda’s turn:
"I do not understand why Villeneuve was so close to Ralf. He probably misunderstood something. In this case the blame for the incident lies with Jacques".
On Monday 5th Match 2001 the FIA president, lawyer Max Mosley, immediately went into action to coordinate the responses to the alarming demands raised by the Australian race. He was not in Melbourne, but the television pictures and reports from his collaborators are as eloquent as ever:
"The death of the Melbourne marshal has cast a deep shadow over a compelling weekend and raised fundamental question that we have a duty to resolve as soon as possible and as best as we can. But as tragic as a loss of a human life is, we must analyze the aspects of the incident in order to avoid dangerous confusion. On one hand there is the death of a marshal: a fatality, unfortunately. He was fatally injured by a wheel, that found its way through the safety barrier behind which he and with his colleagues were standing. In an ideal world, all stuff needs to be 100% safe, in super-secure positions, with only the person responsible for watching the cars in the most exposed area. But let’s not forget are racing enthusiasts and have to do their jobs in areas of the tracks which are off-limits to the public because they are at risk. While it is our duty to increase the protection of the stewards as much as possible, we must also bear in mind the demands of their work and enthusiasm".
The FIA intends to introduce electronic panels that can perform the same functions of the traditional flags, thus limiting the risk to trackside workers. Mosley points out:
"They will be a useful tool but it will take a few years to find a positive use. In any case, they cannot replace the absolutely essential work of the stewards, especially in an event of an incident".
The warning from Melbourne is for the whole Formula 1, not just for what happens on the track:
“The accident in Australia re-opens the general question of safety for the public and the speed of the cars. If the safety net had not held Villeneuve’s car in place, there would have been a massacre like the one at Le Mans in 1955. Instead the nets held and there were only minor injuries of the spectators in the hospitality area, who were hit by fragments. Yet we cannot afford to be careless. On 22nd of March 2001, the security commission must impose new measures, starting with increasing of the height of the nets by one meter. And the FIA will have to examine every other possible intervention. In Australia the cars are much faster than expected. We knew that the competition between the two tire companies would have increased, so the technical commission acted on the aerodynamics regulation in order to reduce it. The impression is that the math was not right. We do not need to be hasty but, if Malesia and Brazil confirm it, as I fear, the data from Melbourne, the FIA will have to act immediately. We had several tool in our power for this purpose. We can analyze every corner of each of the 17 world championship circuits according to the new speed data, and decide on changes to slow down those which are at most risk. Furthermore, we can tweak the tires and the cars themselves, as the Concordia pact allows us to do. We need banish the specter of a Formula 1 that takes off and crashed on the spectators. It is not about permanents or temporary circuits but of effective measure for every need".
In the meantime, several flower bouquets are placed near turn 3, the site of the tragic incident. In Melbourne, organizers and fans are in shock at the incidents. The track has been closed and is at the disposal of the police and judge, who is carrying out a first inspection. The police also seize, for an indefinite amount of time, the two crashed cars: the BAR and the Williams. In a sad atmosphere, lacking the certainties necessary in this sport, Formula 1 is approaching the second round of the 2001 season in Malaysia, on the Kuala Lumpur circuit, where Michael Schumacher aims to extends his streak of five consecutive victories.
Davide Scotto di Vetta
Translated by Ylenia Lucia Salerno