ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 10 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Great Expectations

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

Richard Barnes brings his impressions of the first race in 2001

The first Grand Prix of any new season is always a delicious prospect, filled with the expectations that a favourite driver or team has found some magic touch during the winter break, to propel them up the order. Usually the reality offers a rude wake-up call. Despite the hype, spectacle and bold predictions of the glamorous pre-season launches, the status quo often remains essentially unchanged. And so it was with the Australian Grand Prix of 2001.

Sunday's Melbourne race provided a mere extension of Michael Schumacher's dominance from late-season 2000. Since the start of the Schumacher era at Maranello, Ferrari have ritually proved unable to match the early season pace of the top British championship rivals, and Jean Todt's outfit usually spends the first few GP playing catch-up. Several theories attempted to explain this phenomenon, the most popular being that Ferrari's 'I want to be alone' testing ethic robs them of the opportunity to compare times with rivals.

If that theory held true in past seasons, it was blown out of the water during the Melbourne weekend. Right out the box, the F2001 had power and grip to spare. Schumacher has seldom looked as much in control of a Grand Prix as he did on Sunday. From a seemingly effortless and virtually uncontested three-run pole position, right through to taking the chequered flag, Schumacher gave the impression that he could have gone so much faster, and won by so much more, if the mood had taken him.

It was the German Champion's fifth consecutive pole position and race win combination, a truly stunning turnaround after the crushing disappointments of Austria, Germany, Hungary and Belgium 2000. Ordinarily, such a streak would put a driver on top of the world. But two of those five race wins have been marred by marshal deaths. Scot David Coulthard summed it up perfectly - in that context, the race result becomes insignificant.

The past season of international motor racing has illustrated that racing deaths will happen, no matter how many safety measures are employed. At 300km/h, a 600 kilogram Formula One car is a guided missile, maintaining its tenuous link with mother earth via four palm-sized rubber contact patches and the structural integrity of two brittle aerodynamic wings. Scientifically, it is just not feasible to make motor racing a safe enterprise. Occasional disaster is not just a possibility, it's inevitable.

That doesn't lessen the sense of shock and disbelief at yet another death, and it is cold consolation that motor racing is now safer than it's ever been, for drivers and spectators alike. The FIA will dutifully address the problem and implement a solution. Unfortunately, it's another case of shutting the stable door after the horses left it, and will only afford brief respite until the unthinkable happens again.

Despite the tragedy, Melbourne had many positive moments and signs for a great season ahead. For starters, the race proved just how wrong pre-season predictions can be. High attrition was not a factor in the race, nor was the much-hyped tyre war between Bridgestone and re-entrants Michelin. There were also pre-season concerns that some of the new drivers were still a touch too green to be clashing swords with the experienced F1 elite. And how magnificently the rookies responded.

The weekend must have been disconcerting for last season's star rookie Jenson Button. First Minardi's Fernando Alonso and then Sauber's Kimi Raikkonen showed that Button is not the only driver who can enter F1 with very limited experience and immediately look relaxed and fast. Raikkonen snatched a championship point in his debut outing, albeit via a post-race penalty to BAR's Olivier Panis, and stole much of Button's thunder as 'F1's star of the future'. When a Sauber driver expresses genuine disappointment at missing the top ten in his very first F1 qualifying, that is bona fide star quality. The Finn drove magnificently all weekend and thoroughly deserved the result, virtually ensuring the extension of his temporary super-licence.

Teammate Nick Heidfeld was also impeccable, and how he must have rejoiced at beating his ex-employer Prost's cars, powered by the same year-old Ferrari engines. Financial considerations forced Peter Sauber to take on the youngest (read 'cheapest') driver pairing on the grid. If the Sauber twins continue the season like they've started, Sauber just got himself a genuine bargain.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the only rookie in the field was Minardi's experienced journeyman Tarso Marques. The top drivers make F1 look easy. Marques's first qualifying run on Saturday gave a graphic demonstration of just how recalcitrant and skittish a Formula One car can be, and it came as no surprise to see him stranded in the gravel midway through the session. If Marques's brief was to show 19 year-old Fernando Alonso the F1 ropes, it certainly didn't turn out that way.

The second busiest pair of hands belonged to Williams's new signing Juan Pablo Montoya. Many expected him to beat teammate Ralf Schumacher right off the bat, an unrealistically high expectation considering that Ralf is a five-year veteran of the formula. Montoya may not have made the same immediate impression as Raikkonen, but he didn't do much wrong either. It took Mika Häkkinen years to make his mark on Formula One, the Colombian has time on his side. Although, with three excellent drivers contesting two Williams seats for the 2003 season, Montoya cannot afford to trail his teammate by a second in qualifying, irrespective of how it happens.

Ultimately, though, F1 is about winning, and the battle for the Championship lead contained no major surprises. Mika Häkkinen must be heartily sick of leaving Australia ten points adrift of his main Ferrari rival, and the mild concussion sustained in his race-ending shunt only added injury to insult. Unlike the previous two seasons, David Coulthard at least finished this year, picking up a handy six points in the process. But he too can't be satisfied with a weekend which saw him comprehensively outqualified and outraced yet again by his teammate.

After last season's opener, Rubens Barrichello may have felt privately aggrieved that an odd Ross Brawn strategy had scuppered his race chances. On Sunday, he had only himself to blame. Finding himself stranded behind Frentzen's Jordan again, Rubens sought a Brawn-less solution. Unfortunately, the option he chose was also brainless, as he launched into a wildly optimistic overtaking manoeuvre straight from the Damon Hill 'shut your eyes and have a go' playbook.

For Michael Schumacher, the 2001 season already looks like blue skies and plain sailing - a fast and reliable car, ten points ahead of arch-rival Hakkinen, and the next race at Sepang, where Ferrari have never lost nor suffered a retirement. It's the perfect platform from which to launch a championship campaign of Mansell '92-like dominance. It's also the type of situation where a season-ending crash or a couple of first corner shunts could turn the championship battle on its head. Michael Schumacher knows that better than anybody.

Richard Barnes© 2007
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