By Erica Southey - Motorsport.com
Michael Schumacher was the first driver out of the pits in 2001, doing a few laps for a final check of his Ferrari, followed by Luciano Burti and Jacques Villeneuve. These final laps are permitted before the race, as long as the drivers do not actually complete a lap -- that is, cross the start-finish line.
With 15 minutes to go before the start, Rubens Barrichello exuded confidence as he donned his earplugs and balaclava. Would he be able to present a serious challenge to Schumacher, his Ferrari teammate and 2000 World Champion, this year?
Sitting on the grid, the aerodynamic changes imposed by the the FIA for this season were clear. The high front wings, combined with the reduced rear wings were already proving to reduce straight-line drag significantly.
The lost downforce would normally cause a dramatic drop in cornering speeds, but the entry of Michelin into Formula One greatly accelerated tire development in the off-season. As a result, far stickier rubber compensates for the loss of downforce, and the overall package is significantly faster than in 2000.
On the warm-up lap, one could hear a symphony of 18,000 rpm engines roaring as drivers weaved to get some temperature into the tyres making their way around the track.
As the lights went out, Schumacher had an excellent start and got away almost immediately, followed by Mika Hakkinen, Heinz-Herald Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher and a string of cars. Barrichello had a bad start, and found himself lower down the order.
Into Turn One some cars had a bit of a skirmish, but luckily didn't go off, except for Ralf Schumacher, who went wide, off onto the grass, but recovered quickly. Barrichello, though, tried to get past Frentzen where there was no room, and punted the German's Jordan-Honda off the track and to the back of the field.
The race seemed to be taking some form, with drivers positioning themselves and overtaking while the iron was still hot. On the fifth lap, though, Villeneuve jinked to the outside of Schumacher's Williams, but the the German did not see the white BAR-Honda, and as he braked for the corner, the two touched wheels. replay.
Villeneuve flew over the rear of Ralf Schumacher's BMW Williams, and hit him from behind, dislocating the rear wing. The BAR-Honda flipped and spun through the air into the wall sending debris flying in all directions. Fortunately, though, Villeneuve survived the spectacular crash without injury.
However, tragedy struck once again, to claim another marshal. A marshal standing nearby was struck by the debris off Villneuve's car. Last year saw the death of a 31 year old marshal when he was struck by a run-away tyre from de la Rosa's car. This once again raises the question of the safety of marshals and other track personnel.
Perhaps, this incident will speed up the safety regulations now, bringing in the electronic aids ruling out the yellow flag. Is Formula 1 really safe for track personnel?
The safety car came out and led the race till near the end of lap 15. Michael Schumacher flew away after the safety car dived into the pits, followed by Hakkinen. Schumacher had a bit of an advantage because the other cars could not pass before going over the start/finish line.
Jenson Button got a 10 second stop/go penalty for a bad start.
Were there problems with Michael Schumacher's car? Why was he slowing down and signaling to his helmet on lap 23? It appeared that he was saying something about communication, because he regained speed and was soon up to his normal lap times.
The biggest shock in the race, though, was Hakkinen's crash on the 26th lap. The two-time World Champion slid hard, tail first, into the tire barrier, in a huhe spin that was later determined to be due to a front suspension failure. The Finn was checked at the track medical center, but was confirmed to be OK, and released.
David Coulthard overtook Rubens Barrichello to move up into second position. He continued to eat away at Michael Schumacher's lead.
Montoya was the last to retire with a blown engine, his BMW trailing smoke in confirmation, as the young Colombian lost the chance to open his F1 career with a points finish.
Michael Schumacher edged closer and closer to the chequered flag and went on to take an impressive win after leading the race from start to finish. David Coulthard, salvaged some McLaren pride by taking second position followed by Rubens Barrichello.
Kimi Raikkonen gave an impressive performance for his first-ever F1 race, and only 24th single-seater event, bringing his Sauber-Petronas home just outside the points, in seventh place. A happy Olivier Panis collected two points for BAR-Honda, while Frentzen recovered from his off-track excursion to take the final point.
A visibly happy Schumacher raised both arms in victory as he stepped onto the podium. A huge roar from the crowd showed their approval.
We leave an action-packed but somber Australian GP to move on to the Malaysian GP in two weeks time.