ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 10

  Reflections from Melbourne

  by Roger Horton, England

Roger Horton returned from the media center at Albert Park packed with real-time observations on the opening race of the 2001 season

The opening race of the 2001 season was all about new drivers, new engine partnerships, and of course - the entry into the sport of a new tyre supplier, Michelin. In the end, it was the tried and true combinations that triumphed, and to no one's real surprise. Michael Schumacher's win was his fifth in a row. He took pole position, made the fastest lap of the race, and won pretty much as he liked. David Coulthard was a rather fortunate second, ahead of Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari, who was forced to slow in the latter stages of the race due to an oil pressure problem.

Before the race, Michelin boss Pierre Dupasquier summed up best the feeling many of the mid-field teams when he spoke after the opening practice session of the weekend: "When you see the guys from Ferrari and McLaren just sitting back for half an hour and then going out and being two seconds faster than the rest, you just to think to yourself... Damn!"

But, ever the optimist, the Frenchman was quick to add: "But things can change; they will change, when you are on the top in a mechanical sport it doesn't last forever." Well it might well not last forever, that is for the future to decide, but the speed advantage of the 'Big Two' lasted through the first three days of the new season.

The Jordan team, which managed to get Heinz-Harald Frentzen up to fourth on the grid, just some 0.766 behind the pole man Michael Schumacher, can at least claim to have closed the gap by 0.337 seconds from last year, which may not be much, but at least it's progress in the right direction. Generally, the Michelin teams were happy with their tyre supplier's debut performance, although there was a consensus among them all that Bridgestone, not surprisingly given all their experience, was superior in both qualifying and the race.

Patrick Head, the Williams team's technical director post race comments pretty much summed up Michelin's problems in Melbourne: "When the tyres were part worn we had quite a lot of understeer, but as the tyres wore down, that understeer went away." The problem was, of course, that by the time this happened, their Bridgestone-shod rivals were a long way up the road.

Williams were the team thought most likely to challenge the dominance of Ferrari and McLaren, and of course, Melbourne marked the debut in Formula One of Juan Pablo Montoya, the former CART and Indy 500 champion. In truth, Montoya spent most of the first two days severely overdriving his BMW-Williams, seldom able to string together more than a few laps at a time without exploring the grass verges surrounding the track, or indulging in some lurid but unproductive power slides.

In the race, the Colombian settled down and was in contention for a points finish until a connection in an oil line broke, and the subsequent loss of lubricant caused the engine to fail. But Patrick Head, ever the realist, described his team's performance in the race as "disappointing", and clearly all involved in the Grove-based team are aware that much more progress needs to be made before they will be winning again.

One of the best performances of the 'new' brigade was that of Olivier Panis, making his race debut with the BAR-Honda team. The Frenchman was faster than his World Champion teammate in every session other than qualifying, and looked to be driving totally within himself all weekend. He was initially well rewarded with a fourth place finish on the road, and the unofficial title of 'best of the rest', until a 25 second penalty was added to his race time for passing the Sauber of Nick Heidfield under yellow flag conditions.

Despite this, after the race, his team boss Craig Pollock was again full of praise for his new driver: "He has been extremely solid all weekend, and it is not a question of him being in the team to just back Jacques up. We, as a team, are extremely proud to have Olivier with us, he has shown that he has the qualities of a winning driver, and we think that this is going to take the team forward even faster than it has in the past." Certainly, if the Frenchman continues to drive as well as this, Jacques Villeneuve will come under yet more pressure.

Brazilian Luciano Burti, whose place in the Jaguar team is thought to be under threat from newly signed Pedro de la Rosa, made his second race start for the troubled Jaguar team. He came through a difficult practice and qualifying to emerge as the highest placed Michelin shod runner when he crossed the finishing line in eighth position. He was the only Michelin runner to choose to run the harder tyre option, and after making up four positions on the first lap, he managed to keep out of trouble and achieve a solid finish.

Burti never really recovered from the track time he lost when he lost control at the first corner during Friday's practice. From then on he was playing catch up, and that is even harder to do when you are a rookie driver in a team that is still showing little signs of making the on-track progress that all the high-profile 'names' associated with the team would like it to be making.

Regarding the threat to his place in the team from the Spaniard de la Rosa, Burti remained philosophical, when the question was raised before the race. "Either myself or Eddie (Irvine) are not confirmed in the team for next year, so I just want to do a good job, to be in Formula One and hopefully be with Jaguar for next season." It has to be said, though, that the smart money in Melbourne was not betting on that outcome.

In the end, the best result from the 'new' brigade came from the Sauber team, whose drivers Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth and sixth. This driver pairing would have to rank as one of the most inexperienced teammate combinations to ever be fielded by a mid-field team in Formula One, certainly in recent years.

But Raikkonen totally answered his many critics who questioned that he was experienced enough to be a Grand Prix driver, and with Panis's disqualification, got to score a World Championship point to boot. He drove with total assurance all through the three days, and his pace was very consistent, never finishing lower than thirteenth in any timed session.

This result, as praiseworthy as it undoubtedly was, must surely call into question just how difficult it is to drive a modern Grand Prix car, and now with his success, the trend of hiring ever younger and less experienced drivers is bound to continue. One can only hope that one of these new drivers is not involved in an accident with major consequences, because the rebound on the licensing authority could well be legally draconian.

His teammate Heidfeld coped well with the pressure exerted by Heinz-Harald Frentzen late in the race, and he looked to be a different driver from the tentative and rather haunted figure that escaped from the Prost team at the end of last year, and no wonder his post race comments were upbeat. "This one race has wiped away the memories of my 2000 season," Heidfeld exclaimed. There were plenty of smiles in the Sauber garage after the race, and the question now is whether they can develop the car enough to keep the points coming over the season.

By far the happiest 'new boy' in Melbourne was Australia's own Paul Stoddart. Prior to arriving for the first race of the season, the Minardi team had completed only 50 kilometres of pre-season testing with one chassis, and many of their engines could run only limited mileage, a problem that is set to continue until they can manufacture more components to fix it. The irrepressible Australian, though, even managed to but a positive spin on this dilemma when he spoke to the press on Friday afternoon. "Engines are not an issue for us. I can't stop them blowing up, but we have more to put in if they do." Even McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, sitting beside Stoddart, had to smile at such welcome F1 enthusiasm.

In the race Tarso Marques did indeed succumb to an engine related problem, but Fernado Alonso made it to the finish, albeit two laps down. Alonso showed enough in Australia to suggest that Minardi will once again play their part in developing a new major talent for Formula One.

So although there were some impressive performances from the new combinations on show for the first time at Albert Park, this race again was a demonstration of the strength in depth of the established Ferrari team in partnership with Bridgestone. Their cars were consistently the fastest throughout the race weekend and both made it to the finishing line, which is now becoming a Ferrari habit.

All the rest, including the McLaren team, have a lot of catching up to do.

Roger Horton© 2007
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