MELBOURNE, Australia, Thursday, March 9, 2000 - Who will come out on top down under? The Australian Grand Prix on March 12 is the season opener in the 17-race 2000 Formula One World Championship that will include the inaugural United States Grand...
MELBOURNE, Australia, Thursday, March 9, 2000 - Who will come out on top down under? The Australian Grand Prix on March 12 is the season opener in the 17-race 2000 Formula One World Championship that will include the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis on Sept. 24. So whose name will be on top of the winner's list after the Grand Prix "down under" in Australia? And which teams will be the ones to beat this season? "Ferrari will probably be our main rivals," said reigning World Champion Mika Hakkinen, who returns to the West McLaren-Mercedes team for the eighth consecutive season, "but we will see after this weekend what happens. We are in a more confident and comfortable situation than we were last year." Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, one of Hakkinen's main rivals for the title, sees Sunday's race and the entire season as a Ferrari/McLaren-Mercedes battle. "McLaren certainly are our main rival," Schumacher said. "If you look at the championship in recent years, you would have to say it's up to McLaren and Ferrari. And in that I include all four drivers." Schumacher's teammate is Rubens Barrichello, who joins Ferrari this season and becomes the first Brazilian ever to drive for the factory Ferrari F1 team. David Coulthard is Hakkinen's teammate for the fifth consecutive season. "I am at the start of my time with the team," Barrichello said, "but I can say that I am already aware of the great progress made with the new car when compared to the 1999 car. The level of technology and of performance we have seen to date make me genuinely optimistic for the start of the season in Melbourne." After winning two consecutive championships, Hakkinen is taking a relaxed approach to title number three. "I'm much more relaxed than in 1998 and 1999," Hakkinen said. "I'm starting with a calm approach this year and just taking things as they come. I'm not sitting here worrying about qualifying and the race. It's not that I feel less hungry to win - I want to be stronger and to win in a different way from the past." Schumacher, too, is relaxed and ready to go. "I am looking forward to the Grand Prix in Melbourne," he said. "The holidays during the winter time have really been long enough, and also because the new car makes me feel very optimistic. So I'm eager to start the first race and hopefully win it." This will be the first Grand Prix for F1's three rookies this season: Jenson Button in the Williams-BMW, Gaston Mazzacane in the Telefonica Minardi-Fondmetal and Nick Heidfeld in the Gauloises Prost Peugeot. "Like most of the F1 circuits, I have never driven around the Albert Park circuit before," Button said. "There is little I can do in these situations apart from going out there and giving it my best shot. I have been studying on-board TV footage from last year and looking at telemetry in an effort to understand the track." Four years ago another F1 rookie, also driving for Williams, made his debut at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit. He qualified on the pole and was heading for victory in the race until he had to slow down because of an oil leak and finished second. That particular rookie in 1996 was Canada's Jacques Villeneuve. But while he was a rookie in F1, he was hardly inexperienced. Villeneuve won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART championship in 1995. Villeneuve went on to win the World Championship in 1997 and joined the new British American Racing team in 1999. Last year he failed to score a single point. This year, his BAR has a new Honda V10 and improved reliability. "In previous years, it seems as though if I have gone well in Australia, the rest of the season has gone well," Villeneuve said, "so I am really hoping for a good result in Melbourne. As for this season, I have said before, and I will say again, that I didn't get into racing not to fight and win, and nor did I get into this team not to fight and win, so that has to be the goal. I think there is every chance that we will have a good season and maybe surprise a few people."
FORMULA ONE NOTEBOOK
Where to watch: Television viewers in the U.S. can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on Speedvision at 9:30 p.m. (EST) March 11. Fox Sports Net will air the race tape delayed at 10 a.m. (EST) March 12. Check local listings. Speedvision will show qualifying live at 9 p.m. (EST) on March 10.
Button not too young: Jenson Button is making his F1 debut at age 20. He doesn't agree with the critics who say he is too young to race in F1.
"My biggest asset is self-belief," Button said, "and I believe that the time is right to prove myself in F1. (BMW Motorsport Director) Gerhard Berger, at the team launch, said, 'If you are good enough, you are old enough.' Until I have been allowed to prove myself, nobody should really comment on whether I have done the right thing or not.
"At the end of the day, the Williams-BMW team has taken the decision to sign me, and I will do everything in my power to prove that their decision is the right one."
"You can't make someone slower by contract," Schumacher said. "If he's faster, he's faster. And whoever is faster is going to be the number-one driver. It's as simple as that."
No cockpit time for Berger: Gerhard Berger, who retired from F1 at the end of the 1997 season after 14 seasons of Grand Prix racing, said he has no desire to get back into the cockpit.
Berger will attend all F1 races this season in his role as BMW's motor sport director.
"How would I get in?" Berger said with a smile, referring to adding a few pounds since retiring. "No, there is no chance at all. Actually, when I come into the circuit I sometimes ask myself what it would be like to get back in. But I don't have the feeling anymore.
"Somewhere the fire has (burned out). I can look back on my fantastic years as a driver, and it's nice to be still involved in F1, but the nicest thing was to have been a driver."
Easy access: Melbourne offered free tram service for ticket holders from downtown to the track for spectators. Frequency of train, tram and bus service was increased during the race weekend.
Late start: BAR, Williams, Benetton and Arrows were behind before the weekend even started after shipping problems delayed the delivery of their cars and equipment to the track until Tuesday, which was a day later than the other teams.
Champion to wave checkered: Five-time World Motorcycle champion Mick Doohan of Australia will wave the checkered flag at the end of the Grand Prix.
Water sports: Jaguar drivers Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine raced jet skis around Sydney Harbor on the Tuesday before the Grand Prix. In Melbourne, Red Bull Sauber-Petronas driver Pedro Diniz tried his hand in a four-man rowing shell with double Olympic gold medal winner rower James Tomkins. Diniz later went scuba diving among the sharks in Melbourne's new aquarium.
"In F1 we get used to dealing with all kinds of sharks," Diniz said. "So I felt quite at home, and it certainly got my adrenaline flowing in preparation for the weekend."
Australian Grand Prix Fast Facts
Date: Sunday, March 12 Race: First of 17 on 2000 schedule Venue: Albert Park, Melbourne Circuit length: 3.295 miles, 5.303 km Race length: 58 laps On TV: Race (live) -- 9:30 p.m. (EST) March 11, Speedvision. Tape delay 10 a.m. (EST) FOX Sports Net. Check local listings. Qualifying (live) -- 9 p.m. (EST) March 10, Speedvision 1999 race winner: Eddie Irvine, Ferrari 1999 pole winner: Michael Schumacher, Ferrari Previous winners: 1998 -- Mika Hakkinen; 1997 -- Michael Schumacher; 1996 -- Damon Hill; 1995 -- Michael Schumacher; 1994 -- Damon Hill; 1993 -- Ayrton Senna