There were enough incidents in the first few laps of the Australian GP that it was quite a relief when things calmed down. Conditions were cloudy and cool but dry and the temperature was beginning to climb before the race started. On the grid ...
There were enough incidents in the first few laps of the Australian GP that it was quite a relief when things calmed down. Conditions were cloudy and cool but dry and the temperature was beginning to climb before the race started.
On the grid before the start a small huddle of team bosses were having discussions but BMW motorsport director Gerhard Berger remained tight-lipped about the reason for it.
Immediately there were indications of what was to come; both Arrows stalled on the grid at the start of the formation lap and had to be pushed away by mechanics and marshals. The race finally got under way only for there to be a huge shunt at the first corner which instantly wiped out nine cars.
Reubens Barrichelo seemed to swerve across the track several times protecting his lead going into the first corner as Ralf Schumacher came up rather quickly when the Williams launched off the back of the Ferrari. A pile up ensued that took out both Saubers, saw Jenson Button's Renault on fire, Allan McNish out, Olivier Panis out; it was a terrible start. Luckily no-one appeared to be injured.
To compound this trouble, confusion followed with drivers running back to the pits to try to get to back-up cars only to learn that the organizers had decided not to stop the race and had brought the safety car out. The victors in the chaos were Eddie Irvine, who suddenly discovered himself in fourth, and both Minardis in the top ten.
The safety car went in on lap five, David Coulthard's McLaren in the lead followed by Jarno Trulli who shortly spun off and hit the wall allowing Michael Schumacher to take second. Once again the safety car came out as Trulli's Renault was stuck on the track.
Ralf [out of the race] commented on the first corner incident, saying: "It was a nasty moment. I had a great start then Rubens (Barrichelo) changed direction and I couldn't avoid him. It was a racing incident, he didn't do it on purpose."
The race got under way again and Juan Pablo-Montoya leapt past Schumacher for the lead, while Coulthard took what was to be one of many trips to the grass. A tremendous fight developed between Montoya and Schumacher for quite a few laps in a splendid display of racing -- Montoya had the straight line speed, Schumacher the late braking and finally the German re-took the lead. Kimi Raikkonen was holding on well in third, Irvine in fourth.
Both Arrows did join the race and eventually got black flagged, Heinz-Harald Frentzen for leaving the pit lane when the exit light was red and Enrique Bernoldi for starting the race in the spare car in what was a confusing day for the team.
Button, who retired after the first corner pile up with a blown engine, was philosophical: "Not much of a Grand Prix for me!" He commented. "Being taken out of the race at the first corner didn't make it it a great day for me but we'll be back for the next one."
Things finally calmed down and settled into a more sensible race; Coulthard again had an off with allowed much heated discussion in the McLaren garage. Not only was Irvine still in fourth for Jaguar but Mark Webber in fifth for Minardi. The Australian crowd were ecstatic.
McNish was frustrated at his abrupt departure from the race, again in the first corner incident that took out so many. "It's frustrating, no question," he said, "with only a few cars running now there would have been a good chance for points."
Jacques Villeneuve had a rear wing failure taking the tally of cars remaining down to eight. Schumacher was sailing away at the front and Coulthard's McLaren finally gave up with gearbox failure.
The one and only round of pit stops saw Webber come in first. Webber had a problem with the fuel filler flap, but rejoined the race in the same place, fifth. Everyone else duly followed with no further incidents although Alex Yoong, who was running in sixth lost out to Mika Salo in the Toyota shortly after the stops.
While Schumacher cruised at the front heading for his third consecutive win in a row at Melbourne, Salo began to catch Webber in fifth and the crowd held their breath as a fight began: only to breathe a sigh of relief when Salo misjudged a corner and spun.
Schumacher took a fairly easy victory, Montoya safe second, a good solid performance from Raikkonen in third for his first F1 podium, a rather startled but very relieved Irvine in fourth, a jubilant Mark Webber in fifth scoring Minardi's first points in two years and Mika Salo came home sixth for Toyota's first point ever in their first race ever.
An incident packed season opener, the circumstances of which make it hard to judge how the teams stand. Ferrari undoubtedly are fast and as reliable, as were Williams and McLaren, although all three ended up with only one car on track.
Despite their dismay at a terrible qualifying session, Jaguar were reliable in the race although de la Rosa finished two laps down and Irvine one lap off the pace, but both did finish. As for Minardi -- Yoong also finished, in seventh, and Paul Stoddart is possibly the happiest team boss in the world right now. Salo in Toyota's one remaining car put in a respectable effort, finishing the team's first Grand Prix in the points.
How things will shape up for the next race in Malaysia in two weeks time, though, is really anyone's guess.