Atlas F1

Reflections On Albert Park

by Roger Horton, England

The sign perhaps summed it up best. Just a few blocks from the Albert Park circuit, it hung above a parking lot full of cars that had seen better days. "Bombs for rent - just $12 per day." Come four o' clock on the Sunday afternoon, one wondered just how many team principles might have been tempted to drop by and do a deal!

The harsh reality that is the first race of the season is always the same. The perennial optimism that is the trademark of racing people can only last until the timing beam starts to tell its own individual story. The times do not lie and they can't be fixed. By 2 PM in Melbourne, after Saturday's qualifying session, some warning letters were written large upon the wall for all to see.

For McLaren, it started as business as usual. Their cars were the fastest in all the sessions and looked a clear class above the rest. The "rest" though included Ferrari. It was not supposed to be this way. Michael Schumacher drove like, well, Michael Schumacher. Fast and committed, but it wasn't enough. In the race he suffered yet another drama getting away from the second parade lap and his fastest race lap near the end can have been little consolation.

It did, however, give us all another opportunity to observe the driving genius that is always on show in Ferrari number 3. As Schumacher began his charge through the field from the back of the grid, he was chased by Rubens Barrichello in the Stewart who had started from the pit lane. It appeared that Barrichello was quite capable of matching Schumacher's pace, but not the way he "bullied" his way past his opposition. It seems that the sight of the red Ferrari strikes the same "fear" into his rivals as Senna's yellow helmet did all those years ago. This was particularly apparent when he pressured Wurz into locking up his brakes and to run wide. Schumacher required no second invitation to force his way past.

Like Senna, Schumacher is prepared to put his car in a position where the driver in front is left with little choice but to yield if he wants to stay in the race. Sometimes it ends in tears; sometimes it works. In Melbourne, further mechanical trouble intervened. However, I have little doubt that, even without the double intervention of the safety car, Schumacher could still have won this race from the rear of the grid.

The Stewart team were the surprise packet in Australia. The cars looked quick all weekend and they clearly gave their drivers an easier ride than all but the McLarens. Their dramas on the starting grid were a mighty shame, but again both cars were consistent, suffering identical failures with the same unfortunate results. No other team will be looking forward to Brazil quite so keenly as Jackie Stewart's Ford powered outfit. Was it just a flash-in-pan? Or, is this the start of something big?

The McLaren team was quite simply humbled in Australia. The MP4-14 is again the quickest car and by a fair margin if the qualifying results in Australia are to be taken at face value. The scenes, though, observed in the McLaren pits during the 15 minutes between the pit lane opening and closing on Sunday afternoon were more like scenes from the Keystone cops than from what is normally F1's best drilled operation. Both the drivers' race cars were giving last minute problems and Hakkinen, who had the luxury of the "spare", was shuttling between the two -- a clear sign of the team's indecision. Finally having settled on the spare car, the Finn was allowed to exit with his car still connected by its umbilical cord to the team's overhead pit gantry.

The sight of the McLaren team holding up a considerable portion of their roof as Hakkinen made his way to the starting grid was clearly not the way the team had planned to start the season. Ironically or not, it went down-hill from there. Both cars were out of the race well before half distance and, while they were running, looked untroubled by any of the opposition. We were also spared any further team order debate by their early retirement. Although, David Coulthard's body language after he had just been pipped to pole in the dying seconds of qualifying suggested perhaps he thought he had lost more than just a position on the grid. Perhaps in '99, pole equalled win!

The BAR team made a mixed debut. Good by the standards of recent Formula One entries, but well below the results that their pre-race hype had suggested was possible. Given his lack of laps throughout practice and qualifying, Ricardo Zonta drove an extremely impressive first F1 race. Had he held up Ferrari number 3 instead of number 4 whilst being lapped, he would have undoubtedly left Melbourne considerable the poorer and no doubt with the benefit of some very public advice still ringing in his ears.

For the Jordan and Williams teams the weekend was mixed. The Jordans looked competitive over the 3 days, although like all the others they suffered from constant small problems. Damon Hill was clipped from behind, just as Ralf Schumacher was at turn 3 last year, and that ended his 100th Grand Prix race on the very first lap. Frentzen drove a sensible race to maximize the points that were on offer and Eddie Jordan will have seen enough to be think that a win is possible again this year. Just what Ralf Schumacher thoughts were about following the gearbox of "his" former car for the entire race on his way to a 3rd place finish he wisely kept to himself!

Alex Zanardi had a difficult Grand Prix return. To be almost one second and seven places behind his team mate after qualifying is not the way he would have wanted to re-start his F1 career. Clearly the Benettons were not fast enough to cause anyone to protest their new FTT braking system. De La Rosa, together with the Arrows team, deserves a mention for getting him a point for 6th place and for Takagi's 7th.

The Australian Grand Prix was not a classic race, but it was an interesting one. Eddie Irvine, so often the bridesmaid, kept his cool when it mattered and did what he had to do. He didn't overtake a (healthy) car after the start, neither was he seriously threatened by his pursuers. Irvine, though, has paid his dues and deserves the credit for a well driven race. However, there should be under no illusions at Ferrari. This was a fortunate win and it is unlikely that McLaren will gift them another one so easily .

Ron Dennis and his men may be down, but they are far from out.

Roger Horton 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions