Atlas F1   Reflections on Melbourne

  by Roger Horton, England

There is always something special about the first race of the season. Like some exotic dancer performing the 'dance of the seven veils', each new practice and qualifying session strips away the veneer that the hype of the off-season has allowed to build up, until, by end of the race weekend, all is laid bare.

As a race, this fifth event to be held at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit was nothing special. Indeed, this current home of Australia's Grand Prix has yet to see anything like the drama that was regularly served up when the race was run through the streets of Adelaide.

Despite a rather lackluster race, there was much of interest to be observed in this first Formula One race of the new century. Amongst the teams, Ferrari appears to have finally produced a quick car from the start of the season; McLaren appears to be pretty much where they were last year, as are Jaguar. Benetton is marking time, Arrows have made real progress, as have both the BAR-Honda and BMW-Williams teams. For a while Jordan looked secure in their best-of-the-rest role until both of their cars broke down.

Among the drivers making their debuts in either F1 or in new teams, Rubens Barrichello looked very much at home in Ferrari, and Jarno Trulli showed enough to suggest that Eddie Jordan has picked another winner. Mika Salo got the best out of his Sauber, whilst Eddie Irvine at least showed that the new Jaguar is reasonably quick while it is running. Nick Heidfeld showed both class and speed under pressure - Jean Alesi must have wished he was somewhere else for most of the weekend, and Jos Verstappen did enough to suggest that a better season is in prospect.

Drivers with hard luck stories are ten a penny in Formula One, but Johnny Herbert must have set some sort of a record in Australia, being totally unable to get any reliable running over the three days. The Jaguar (nee Stewart-Ford) team is no longer the new boy on the block and in the SF3 they had a good package to build on. At the end of the day the huge Jaguar marketing effort in Melbourne fell flat on its face, as it is hard to see potential buyers being motivated into rushing the showrooms after such a dismal performance, and that is, after all, the whole point of the exercise.

Jenson Button had a pretty mixed race weekend. He went off and damaged his car, but then, so did many other drivers. He suffered some mechanical problems and was forced to qualify in the spare car, which was set-up for his teammate, and ended up second last on the grid. Williams allowed him a low fuel load run in the race morning warm up. The resulting quick time, and his second position, gave him a boost.

A dream first lap saw him promoted into 15th place, and from then he drove steadily and was on course for a points scoring debut finish until his BMW engine let go with just some 12 laps remaining. Somehow it is hard not to get the feeling that we are watching the birth of a new super-star, and how silly looking he made the many F1 'experts' - who seemed to be falling over themselves to write him off, even before he had turned a wheel in anger.

For Michael Schumacher this result really was the stuff of dreams and as was to be expected, he milked the moment for all it was worth. Just whether he could have beaten the McLarens in the race is a question remains to be answered, pehaps in Brazil. What we do know is that the Ferrari is closer to the McLarens in performance at the season's opening race than at any time since Schumacher joined the Italian outfit back in 1996. But despite this he was still third on the grid and was unable to make a place at the start and only hit the front when his rivals retired.

Sensing the moment to twist the knife further whilst on top he stated: "I'm really looking forward to the whole season now. Everything points to a very good year for Ferrari. I will tell you how confident I feel. I saw Mika Hakkinen standing on top of his car on Saturday and celebrating his pole position. I was thinking, 'let him celebrate his pole because tomorrow I am going to be celebrating my victory'. I did not even have to push hard today. Believe me, I was not overdoing it."

Last year, McLaren's team boss Ron Dennis revealed that they had considered starting the first race of the season with the previous year's cars, so worried had he been with the reliability of the then new MP4-14. Looking at the dismal finishing rate amongst many of the front-running teams again this year, one is forced to wonder just when a team will start the season's fly-away races with a 'B' version of last year's model, whilst the test team works away with the new one in Europe. Both the Jaguar and Jordan teams would have almost certainly scored some points using this tactic. The long suffering spectators might also benefit, as they usually end up seeing less than half the field finish in these early season races.

Ralf Schumacher once again showed just what a good driver he has become, and his Podium finish made this a dream F1 return for BMW. Give Ralf a really quick car and he could well shake up the established winners. How wise does Frank Williams' decision to part with some serious money to secure the young German to a long-term contract look now?

The BAR-Honda outfit had good reason to celebrate scoring some points at their first attempt and they even received a 'bonus' point when Ricardo Zonta was promoted into sixth position after Mika Salo's exclusion. Given the depths that the team plummeted to last year, it seems a little uncharitable to point out that Jacques Villeneuve was clearly holding up a train of faster cars in the race's latter stages. Since one of the two closest pursuing cars was powered by the discarded Supertec engine and the other by last year's Ferrari unit, then clearly this new BAR-Honda partnership has much work to do before they will trouble the faster teams.

Behind the scenes in Melbourne there was something of a 'war of words' between McLaren's team boss Ron Dennis and Eddie Irvine, over just what exactly was said during their discussions last year, as to whether the latter would replace David Coulthard at the Woking based team for this season. Having denied that they had ever discussed money, Dennis went further by refuting Irvine's claim that McLaren is only interested in drab drivers by stating: "His concept that we clone our drivers and we do not like colorful drivers, personalities, those who paint their hair, wear weird baggy clothes, swear or like fast girls is all ludicrous. We will put the two drivers in whether they are poor communicators, ugly or have no dress sense. It's after we have decided who we want, it's then that we discuss the money."

Seeing as the only driver in the Paddock to fit Dennis' rather detailed description is Jacques Villeneuve, and since the Canadian has already been linked with McLaren for next year, then it was an interesting choice of words, to say the least.

Ferrari deserves full credit for winning this race in such a dominating fashion. It was for them the perfect result and the Rory Byrne-Ross Brawn combination has undoubtedly produced the best Ferrari since they joined the Maranello based team some three years ago. But this was just the first of 17 races, and McLaren will be back.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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