The current world champion Michael Schumacher is trying to solve a few off-track problems a few days before the start of the season at Melbourne, Australia. Whilst the German is flying to Australia, a Belgian court in Bruxelles is ruling on a dispute concerning a breach of contract from the Ferrari driver. Schumacher has a contract with Bell. The company gives him the helmet to race with. However, he has been using a helmet from another company in recent times. The company is requesting a compensation fee of 250.0000.000 lire for every day that Schumacher uses the other helmet, starting from the first free-practice session on Friday. He is also having on-track issues. The current world champion must defend the title with the new Ferrari car. However, the F2001 suffered some reliability issues, despite setting record lap times during pre-season testing. Schumacher himself is forced to switch the engine off most of the times and then go back to the pits. It is a clear sign that something is not working properly. The new Ferrari engine, denominated 050, is really different from the 2000 one. It is lighter and more compact. One fact that is not letting the Maranello guys sleep peacefully is that the drivers are not able to carry out a Grand Prix simulation, i.e., 300 km in three stages with one engine, a tire change and refuelling. That is why the entire team is concerned about reliability, despite setting record lap times at Fiorano and Mugello. Michael is worried as well. He admits before travelling to Australia:
"I don’t feel obligated to win the first race, what matters is to be on top at the end of the championship".
The other teams are not in a good position either. During winter testing, the McLaren-Mercedes team breaks several engines and do less kilometres than Ferrari. The Williams-BMW is more or less in the same situation. Let’s not talk about the other teams tough. They are trudging along and smashing the new cars. Giancarlo Fisichella confesses his doubts:
"I still don’t understand much about my Benetton, we have only covered a few kilometres so far".
Jarno Trulli tries to spur Jordan:
"We have the official engine deal with Honda and I think we can improve. Honda will decide between us and BAR at the end of the year. My team is at a crossroads. They can either invest, in order to become a top team, or go backwards".
Alesi is the only driver who cannot wait to get started. He will drive the Ferrari-powered Prost car:
"We’ve made great strides forward. It’s extraordinary to be five seconds per lap faster than last year. The Michelin tyres are fantastic".
The step is so big that even Prost is smiling. He even makes a joke:
"Let’s hope that Schumacher doesn’t take away my victory record this year".
It does not matter whether the championship has already started or not. The speculations regarding Schumacher’s future continue. It is up to him to close the question or at least try to:
"My contract with Ferrari ends at the end of the 2002 season and has not yet been extended. You always ask me why. I don't want to hear this anymore. I drive for Ferrari, I love Ferrari. There's no reason to rush".
In an interview with Bild, the current world champion explains that he has no more dreams to fulfil on a private level.
"I don’t know what else to wish for. As a driver, I want to win again and achieve a couple more world titles. I don't think I can pull anything more out of myself, but that doesn't mean we can't go any faster. You can always improve your car. The most important people for the team remain at Ferrari, extending their contracts…well, it’s likely that the car will become even more faster, for real".
During the interview, Schumacher remembers his first contract with the manager Willi Weber, an agreement which guaranteed him due millions of lire a month:
"I was very proud, that was a lot of money for me. Had it all not worked out, I would be an auto mechanic. I would most certainly be happy at it. I never thought then that I would ever make any money at all for driving. And to think that Formula 1 didn’t 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 score important points straight away. The Italian team was the absolute protagonist during the last two Melbourne races. The same cannot be said for McLaren. The Woking team had bad luck during the last two Albert Park editions. Winter testing shows that nothing has changed ever since the end of the 2000 season. Going into the 2001 season, Ferrari and McLaren will fight for the world championship. The two teams arrive at Melbourne a couple of days before the inaugural free-practice sessions. Mika Hakkinen takes some walks by the sea. Schumacher plays football with his brother Ralf. He then concentrates 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 long-term prevision is:
"We have had far too many problems and that doesn't make me optimistic for Melbourne. We’ll be competitive in the long-term though. The new McLaren is really fast".
Schumacher looks more closely:
"It would be enough to stand on the podium on Sunday".
The Mercedes engine seems reliable, since it was able to do 23.000 kilometres on the test bench. The truth, though, is that it immediately starts to break down after the car gets out on track, due to a series of vibrations. The engine is different compared to last year. However, like anticipated, Ferrari and McLaren have not yet fixed their pre-season reliability woes. Who will win the first race of the season if the two big players are indeed in big trouble? Insiders say that 3 teams, such as Williams-BMW, BAR-Honda and Jordan-Honda, can be the dark horses of the season, since they broke less engines during pre-season testing. Both Williams and BAR were really fast in South Africa, under warmer temperatures that are similar to those in Australia. Jordan only tried in Europe but the car and the engine held on perfectly. Ralf Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Olivier Panis, Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen could be added to the list of the main characters for this season. Williams will use the Michelin tires. The biggest French tyre manufacturer makes his Formula 1 return after a 16-year absence. It will supply Benetton, Jaguar, Prost and Minardi. It is a colossal commitment that has the goal of beating Bridgestone. It will be a tough battle, with custom-made tires for every race. Alain Prost sentences:
"The lap times will drop by at least three seconds on almost every track between now and mid-season".
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:
"The tyres will give an extraordinary performance, starting from Melbourne".
The new Minardi is presented near the Victoria State Parliament on Wednesday 28 February 2001. The only Italian thing about the car is the Faenza headquarters and the name of its founder. The latter is in fact overlaid by the European trademark of the new owner, Paul Stoddart. It is a miracle that Minardi is still in Formula 1. The Australian saved the team from shipwreck a month before.
Mika Hakkinen takes part in the first press conference of the season on Thursday 1 March 2001. The Finnish driver is a happy father even if he is not the world champion anymore. This fact does not seem to bother him too much. What is the difference between chasing and being chased?
"In fact, the only new thing is that my wife Erja will not be here, compared to last season. I will miss her. She has always been my reference point".
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, there are some areas where we need to improve for the first Grand Prix. We’ve discussed the car’s reliability at length inside the team. We’ll be strong and reliable and I’m convinced that Ferrari will be competitive as well".
He makes his debut as a father. Michael is ahead two to one in terms of children. Mika smiles and says:
"I admit, it’s a shame. I need to flip the situation around".
Hakkinen certainly draws from fatherhood 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. He and Alexander Wurz focused on McLaren’s set-up during pre-season testing. The Scottish driver did thousands and thousands of kilometres at Barcelona without encountering any issues.
"I don’t think that the new rules will lead to major changes. I believe that McLaren and Ferrari will fight for the championship. I cannot talk about the car potential just yet. 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 practice sessions 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’m very relaxed; it’s normal being like this. At the same time, I can’t wait to get back out on track. The car is beautiful. We’re satisfied with the work done so far even if we don’t exactly where we are, like every year".
How do you find the new Ferrari?
"I don’t judge those definitions; I only take pleasure by the fact that the media likes the new car. I can only say that it is beautiful and fast".
The track will determine how fast the car will be:
"It’s 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. Personal fitness is going to be more important because lap times will be much faster than we have seen in previous years. The g-forces and the demands on the driver will be slightly higher. I already tested what it is like during the Mugello tests".
How far is the car preparation?
"Difficult to say until the first qualifying session. We will have the first meaningful indications from it. I would have loved to do a long run, for example. Nonetheless we have covered 4178 kilometres. Some problems have been resolved while others need to be addressed. One thing is certain this year. The car’s development will be key 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".
At the eve of the Australian Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone comments on the various drivers that he met through his long and prestigious career. Firstly though, the Formula 1 patron talks about the new upcoming season, confirming the general previsions of an exclusive battle between Ferrari and McLaren. The interview then touches upon personal topics, such as 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 don’t stick 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 analyses 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?
"There will be some controversy, due to the fact that the current system will not change. I think that it’s up to the teams to decide the technical rules. They’re the ones who spend the money until the end. I’m sure that everyone will fight even harder for the security and to have more stable and clearer rules".
If you had a team, which drivers would you hire?
"Schumacher. Yet I do not think that Villeneuve would come. As a second driver, I’d like a youngster. I believe that the new kid at Minardi, Fernando Alonso, is really good".
The teams bring at Melbourne major changes to the cars that were shown at the official presentations and used during winter testing. In particular, Ferrari introduces different aerodynamics appendixes. The more noticeable are the wings that are 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.
The first free practice session of the Australian Grand Prix offers the first thrill of the season on Friday 2 March 2001. It is caused by Michael Schumacher. He loses control of the Ferrari car at approximately 160 km/h, after braking at the limit at turn 6. The n.1 F2001 car takes off into the air and capsizes twice. The wall is at a one-meter distance, just before the trees behind the safety nets. In overturning, Schumacher does not hit the ground with the helmet. However, the camera behind his head is badly damaged. The driver is luckily unscathed but the car needs to be put back together. Ferrari hopes that the car does not have major damage at this point. Otherwise, only two cars will remain, out of the three that were brought to Australia. It would be just enough for the two drivers to drive. Schumacher unplugs the steering wheel as soon as the car's mad rush comes to a halt. He exits from the cockpit in a cool, calm and polished way. The German is unscathed and waves to the shocked audience. A second later, he is back to the pits and explaining the incident to his wife Corrina like nothing happened. They then hugged each other for the escaped danger. The fear is erased; this episode is relegated in some corners of his brain. The drivers are really different from ordinary people. 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. On the corner before, there was a yellow flag, but no accident. I was thinking it was the same problem as earlier. When Burti had his crash, there was no yellow flag. I wasn't sure what was going to happen. On the next corner, there was suddenly a yellow flag. It was shown too late because it was right in the braking area. I touched the brakes a little bit harder to slow down and the rear went away from me".
"I was really on the limit. I touched the brakes a little bit harder to slow down enough for the situation and that's why I lost the back end. When I looked at the track yesterday, I did feel there was a problem with the run off area as there was a step down from the grass to 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 T-car. 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".
There is no doubt that the outcome could have been much worse. Everything went very well indeed. The cables on the wheels will be analysed. 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 are no particular serious damages.
Schumacher is the downside of the coin. The other side, though, is much more pleasant. It has Rubens’ smile on it. He is the fastest driver at the end of the first free practice session. It is an indicative result of a Ferrari in top form, ready to do battle in the race. Rubens declares:
"The car feels very good and we were quick right from the start".
Schumacher adds to it:
"Today has confirmed the good results we achieved in winter testing and so I am very confident for the race, in terms of reliability, performance or tires. Everything is working properly".
Both drivers seem convinced that they can take pole position and with good reason. The Ferrari appears truly impressive on track, in terms of efficiency. It is stable on the fast corners, manageable on the slow corners, easy to drive and correct unless the drivers make a mistake, which was the case for Schumacher. The threatening McLaren-Mercedes is also going well. The car does not seem to have any weak point. Therefore, the cars’ reliability could play a decisive role in the race like last year. Although, judging by the sound, Ferrari’s engine sounds smoother and fluid in the power deliver compared to the Mercedes one at the back of Hakkinen’s and Coulthard’s single-seaters.
Experts cautiously say that Ferrari and McLaren seem to be on another planet compared to the competitors. Trulli surprises everyone by setting the second quickest time in FP2 at the wheel of the Jordan-Honda. He finishes the session ahead of Schumacher, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and Heidfield. Those are the seven drivers that are under the time set by the poleman in 2000. Schumacher was topping the FP2 session after the first 15 minutes. This is the demonstration that the tire war between Bridgestone and Michelin has already led to very high performances, which are destined to be exasperated from race to race. Ralf Schumacher finishes 6th in the Williams-BMW. He is given the provisional record of the best Michelin driver. The French tire company starts with the right foot, as expected, yet it seems that things will go better in the race.
The Sauber-Ferrari car is quite efficient. The BAR-Honda car has various weaknesses. It is not as bad as the Benetton-Renault car, which is lagging behind on the engine and the chassis departments. The rookies Montoya, Bernoldi and Alonso are 12th, 13th, 18th and 19th respectively. The Williams driver is more than a second slower than his teammate. Meanwhile, the Spanish youngster obtains a surprising performance at the wheel of the uncompetitive Minardi. He is in fact 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.
Ferrari’s mechanics are forced to work long hours in order to repair the 208 chassis, the one which was damaged during free practice, like in 2000. The operation is concentrated on the left sidepod. It is the same one which was damaged in last year’s accident. 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, news come from Bruxelles that the process regarding Michael’s contract with Bell is still ongoing. The German needs to accept the unfavourable sentence from the Bruxelles court. It is an obligated decision, attending that Willi Weber and his lawyers can find a peaceful settlement with the American company. Michael previously used the Schubert helmet. However, he will be forced to use the old helmet in order to not pay the fee of 216.000.000 lire a day. 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. Ferrari and McLaren’s team principals Jean Todt and Ron Dennis are on the hot seats today. The championship is not yet in full swing. The race for the title is not provoking particular tensions. 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, ironically exclaims that 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 this, Michael’s incident was the hot topic. Todt is asked whether it is true that Ferrari had problems during the crash-test. The Ferrari team principal replicates with a sour smile:
"No problem. I mean, Michael did a supplementary one today".
At first instance, the French manager seems really worried:
"It's never pleasant when you see a F1 car rolling at high speed, but fortunately Michael came out very quickly, and he was OK. 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, could have gone even quicker without that incident".
Concerning both Todt and Dennis is the usual reliability talk:
"I wish we would have done some more long runs, but I think it's the same for everybody. Saying that, I mean I'm quite optimistic that we can have a good race weekend".
Dennis does not avoid the problems:
"You come to the first race probably with a car/engine combination that you know is not as optimized as you would like, but nevertheless is optimized to a level where you feel it is reliable as well as quick, and it is a question of just getting that balance right. But that's where the experience of the first race comes in, it is about choosing that right balance between performance and reliability".
The qualifying session emphasizes Ferrari’s dominance in the battle with McLaren on Saturday 3 March 2001. Michael Schumacher takes the first pole position of the year, his fifth consecutive one if we count last season. Ferrari remains the fastest car. Moreover, both two scarlet cars are on the front row. Barrichello will in fact start alongside his teammate in 2nd place. This is the first time that one team is able to lock out the front row, ever since the 1956 Argentinian Grand Prix. 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. Schumacher takes the 33rd pole of his career, moving up to second place on all-time list, behind Senna. The Brazilian driver 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. The possibility to drive until the age of 38 now 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 taking pole position at the wheel of the Ferrari F2001. The car was very fast ever since the first testing day at Fiorano. Ferrari wins in terms of pure speed even if the reference with the competitors is still missing. Ferrari was always on top during the testing days with the others following behind. It is a good start. The events obligated the Maranello guys to do a demonstration of strength and character, which they would have gladly avoided. On Saturday morning, there are some worries in regards to Schumacher’s health after his spectacular crash yesterday. After setting the fastest ever lap, he hears a tire vibrate and fears that it is detaching. The German decides to immediately bring the car to the garage after the dread of what happened the previous day. The tire is not involved at all though. It is the air intake which detached and then touched against the wheel rim. Nothing serious. Beforehand, bad luck struck Barrichello, the fastest man on Friday: his engine blows up. What is troubling is the fact that the reason for the breakup is yet unknown. Jean Todt explains a bit later that it was an engine that had carried out the regular bench tests but did not express the desired power as soon as it was fitted on the car. He says shortly after:
"In yesterday's free practice we saw that the potential for a good result was there and today it was confirmed with an all-red front row. Now we must think about tomorrow's race, which I feel will be a completely different ball game. Reliability will be the most important factor and at the moment I do not feel I can say this is one of our strong points. Anyway, we have a really potential in terms of engine-aerodynamic-chassis".
A combative and efficient Ferrari suggests that this championship could be 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 impressed by the 3.7 seconds that Schumacher took out of Hakkinen’s 2000 pole. 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:
"The battle between Bridgestone and Michelin created a performance increase which I didn’t expect. The International Federation did so many important steps on safety and couldn’t do more".
Although, there is someone who judges this incredible progress 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".
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. A bit of downforce was taken away but the cars 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’s way too much and it’s 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".
Mika Hakkinen slots himself in 3rd place, behind the two Ferraris. The Finn is half a second slower 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. Jarno Trulli promises battle at the wheel of the Honda powered Jordan from 7th. The Abruzzo driver is pushing the team to invest on the 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 engine failures:
"We run 5000 km in testing, almost a long run a day. Nothing happened. We should be good, otherwise I am going to get blessed".
Fisichella is risking it since he is so far overwhelmed by the fragility of the Renault engine. This year Benetton closes its activity in Formula 1. It is a melancholy exit, given that it had more retirements than points. Giancarlo is only 17th, just behind his teammate Button. 19th position goes to 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 loses control of the car. The Minardi car crashes and crawls against the guard-rail. The car is destroyed but the driver is unharmed. The Jaguar’s tires and pieces rebound on the track. The session is thus suspended for 10 minutes. In the press conference, Schumacher is more than satisfied:
"The season could not have started any better. I'm certainly very happy. It's a great achievement for Ferrari. I've got to say thanks to all of my mechanics who did a great job to repair the car after my little problem yesterday. 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 incident".
The McLaren cars seem to be behind:
"I’m convinced that McLaren has not yet showcased their full potential just like us. I’m sure that we can do more. We’ll do everything we can in order to succeed".
Barrichello is 2nd. What is tomorrow’s objective?
"The aim is to cross the finish line. It doesn’t 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, many drivers will start their first Formula 1 race. They are not the only ones though. Niki Lauda also makes his debut 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 favouring 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’m really impressed. If something does not change, Ferrari will be the favourite 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 finds it, then they are unbeatable".
What about Jaguar?
"Our work is very lengthy. It takes three years to bring our car to Ferrari and McLaren’s level. If we will be able to win a race in three years’ time, it would then mean that we did our job well".
You have never liked Irvine…
"It’s not true. I have a very good relationship with him and Burti. It’s only that Irvine is sitting a little bit. I hope that my presence will give him a boost to always give his best".
The sky at Melbourne is cloudy. The temperature is cold on Sunday 4 March 2001. 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.
Juan Pablo Montoya gains a couple of position at the start. He then finds himself in the midfield once again after going onto the grass at turn 1. Eddie Irvine spins at turn 3, 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 spins 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, who is 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 manoeuvre on Frentzen. The duo makes contact at turn 9 and Frentzen pays the consequences. The Jordan driver is on the grass and spins; he plummets down the order after re-joining the track. The German is now 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 and tips over several times. It is now in the gravel in between thousands of bits of debris. The safety car intervention is immediate. 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 save a marshal’s life in vain. The man was hit by debris and flying tires after a crazy carom at the start. The worst is feared. Meanwhile, the Safety car stays on track for the next 10 laps. The fans are generally unaware of what happened. The corpse of a track marshal is loaded on the ambulance. He was fatally injured by Villeneuve’s tyre. The race re-starts after almost half an hour. The Safety Car peels into the pits and the green flag is waved. The lead positions remain unchanged. Schumacher is trying to escape whilst Hakkinen is unable to keep up the leader’s pace. They are followed by Barrichello, Coulthard and Trulli. Olivier Panis closes the points paying positions. In the midfield, Kimi Räikkönen is under the spotlight after gaining some places. The Finn is followed by Frentzen, in the Jordan. Nothing happens until lap 27. A big accident then shakes up the race. The unlucky protagonist is Mika Hakkinen. The Finn 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. Hakkinen walks away unharmed from the crash, unlike that terrible Australia incident at the Adelaide circuit a few years back. The medical centre confirms the physical integrity of the two-time champion apart from a slight state of confusion. Schumacher can manage the car and the leadership without too much trouble, after the retirement of the only driver who could have been able to challenge his supremacy. Meanwhile, behind him, Barrichello is suffering strong vibrations caused by the previous contact with Frentzen. This allows Coulthard to catch up. The Scott does not hesitate in overtaking the Brazilian for 2nd position at turn 3.
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, a loss of power in the Honda engine causes Jarno 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. The mechanics have already completed the refuelling procedure and the change of tires by the time the chronometer ticks 6 seconds. However, one of the mechanics is clearing the debris from the radiator. Therefore, the stop lasts 10 seconds. It does not matter though. Nobody can worry the German, including Coulthard and Barrichello. 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 the BMW engine breaks down with less than 20 laps to go until the end. Coulthard follows Schumacher at 5 seconds. The German is trying to control the gap out front. He is careful in not stressing the engine too much, especially after 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, put a hand on your helmet when you go near the pits.
He immediately does that. Barrichello is racing in no mans’ land in 3rd position. Behind him, Olivier Panis is defending 4th place against the likes of Heidfield and Frentzen. The ex-world champion Alan Jones waves the chequered flag at the end of 58th lap. 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. This is the 5th consecutive win for the German, continuing the four-win streak that handed him the 2000 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 thus demoted to 7th position, allowing Kimi Räikkönen to rise to 6th place. Therefore, the Finn scores his first point in Formula 1 in his first race. Giancarlo Fisichella is 13th and last, out of the classified drivers. Benetton was not competitive at all this weekend, considering Button’s retirement. The rupture of an exhaust was the cause of Button’s DNF. Prior to this, he was not fighting for a competitive position. The first post-race declaration from Schumacher is not a sentence from a winner:
"I will not go on stage for the awards if you don’t tell me exactly what happened".
The organizers had carefully hidden the truth up until then. They 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 the Italian anthem like usual. The drivers receive the three silver trophies and leave. Jean Todt, representing the Ferrari team, leaves with them. The crowd understands the situation and immediately stops clapping and singing. The ritual interviews are next. The three drivers are sitting in their spots on the stage with grave faces behind their caps. A scene like this was already seen at Monza six months ago. Schumacher won the race whilst marshal Paolo Gislimberti sadly passed away 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. He then says that he is sorry for what happened and that it cannot happen ever again. He adds, for pure professionalism, some other technical sentences:
"I had a great start, we worked hard all winter about that and, as you see, it worked out well, very well. Everything worked perfectly. Then I just tried to split my race into a kind of rhythm to be fast when I had to be fast and not overdrive the car when it was unnecessary. I was quite pleased with how the race was handled considering the conditions of the car".
Villeneuve arrives in front of the box in the meantime. 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:
"I was trying to overtake Schumacher. He suddenly braked ahead of me and had no time to avoid him".
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 need to study how we can improve track safety to these people who give their time to enable us to go racing. We absolutely must do everything that we can to improve race safety, so that what happened today does not happen again. No more lives must be lost. It is a sport and it must remain a safe sport".
Barrichello is also forced to say something about the race after expressing his grief:
"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".
During 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 at the start of a season for everyone. 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. 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. We finally 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".
Was it almost like a walk in the park after Hakkinen’s retirement?
"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 just tried to split my race into a kind of rhythm to be fast when I had to be fast and not overdrive the car when it was unnecessary. This is the reason why Coulthard reduced the gap at the end".
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 any 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 unfortunately, we've just been told that the marshal did die and, obviously, we are all shocked about this and we have to look out what is possible from our side to what support we can give, but certainly everybody is very much down for this situation".
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. This is a comforting sign for Ferrari. The general director of the Maranello team does not have any doubts:
"We are on the right track both in 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 developing the car. Do you agree?
"Of course. Even though we won, our rivals have shown that they are really competitive. we will see a totally different situation in Malaysia. A terrible heat".
Reliability seems to be already quite good.
"We had doubts about the reliability concerns but the car responded positively in both qualifying and in the race".
What about the McLarens?
"They are always very strong. Let’s not be fooled by that small gap. We were driving slowly 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 had 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 more 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".
Mika Hakkinen failed to finish the Australian Grand Prix for the third consecutive time. The retirement was caused by McLaren’s reliability problems, as it was the case in the previous two occasions. 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 isn’t really good to me. They saw a dark mark on the helmet and wanted to take me to the medical centre for a check-up".
A sentence which matches with another image in regards to reliability:
"It’s like a coin tossed in the air, heads or tails. We had a 50% probability to run until the end but it always falls on the wrong side in Australia".
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 2nd place. He didn’t see the blue flags, lost time in lapping him and so Coulthard overtook me".
Frentzen is furious. Rubers overtook him during the 3rd lap and they touched.
"You have to be intelligent. If the driver behind is going much faster than you, it’s 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. The car was no longer balanced".
"I hope he gets a good start next time, so he doesn’t have to do manoeuvres like that one to show off. I had the corner at that point. Why does he not say that I had to touch Coulthard at the start to avoid him?"
Let’s move on from the disagreements of the drivers for a moment. The start of the season has been surrounded by many shadows: the tragic death of the track marshal, caused by Villeneuve’s horrifying incident, Schumacher’s double roll-over in FP2 and Hakkinen’s horrible incident. There needs to be a focus on the safety subject. The car safety seems beyond doubt. Schumacher jumped out of the car after the crash unscathed and even gave a helping hand in loading the wrecked car on the tow truck. Villeneuve laughed and joked around whilst scratching his head. Ralf Schumacher, knocked off track by the BAR driver, laughed and joked after getting out of the car. There is no doubt. Things would have been different a couple of years ago. There is the strong suspicion that almost all circuits are inadequate and need to be totally revised, starting with the width of the track, nets and walls. The strict Australian laws prevent the identity of the unlucky marshal from being known. Rumors say that he is 50-year-old man from Queensland. The truth is then discovered when the police give the name. The marshal is called Graham Beveridge, a 52-year-old man from Winfield. He was married and had two daughters. The other seven patients, who were slightly injured, are released in the evening. A sporting and judicial investigation is immediately launched. The two drivers are first heard by the stewards and then by the police. The FIA panel gives an innocence verdict, stating that it was a normal racing incident. Some however question 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 states:
"My condolences to the family. It’s very sad what happened. I’m close to the family’s pain. How did the incident happen? I braked for turn 4 and heard a bang from behind. Jacques probably didn’t 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:
"When a racing car disintegrates at 200mph it is an aircraft accident not a car accident. It’s our responsibility to retain the accidents within our race tracks. The drivers know what they are getting into. The dynamics of how far parts go is incredible. You could build fences to the sky. My biggest concern is for marshals and spectators. Preventative medicine is better than corrective medicine. If we are to protect people it has to be a case of bigger, higher stronger debris fences, maybe move the crowd back a little bit, 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’s 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".
Regarding the cause of the incident, 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 braked earlier, who knows. 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 don’t understand why Villeneuve was so close to Ralf. He probably misunderstood something. In this case the blame for the incident lies with Jacques".
The FIA president and lawyer Max Mosley goes into action to coordinate the responses to the alarming demands raised by the Australian race on Monday 5 Match 2001. He is 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. As tragic as a loss of a human life is, we must analyse 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 Melbourne warning is for the entire Formula 1 world. It is not just a matter of what happens on 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 22 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 tyre 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 don’t 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 analyse every corner of each of the 17 world championship circuits according to the new speed data, and decide on changes in order 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 to banish the spectre of a Formula 1 that takes off and crashes 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 the site of the tragic incident at turn 3. The Melbourne organizers and fans are in shock. The track has been closed and is at the disposal of the police and judge who are carrying out a first inspection. The police also seize the two wrecked cars, the BAR and the Williams, for an indefinite amount of time. There is a sad atmosphere and a lack of the certainties that are necessary in this sport. The show must go on though. Formula 1 is thus approaching the second round of the 2001 season in Malaysia, on the Kuala Lumpur circuit. Michael Schumacher aims to extends his streak of five consecutive victories there.
Davide Scotto di Vetta
Translated by Ylenia Lucia Salerno