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Australian Grand Prix 2002 Report - Ferrari On Top

The cars hadn't so much as turned a wheel when already the F1 circus' first political spat of the year was breaking out in the paddock. It centred around three teams that typically made up the tail end of the grid in 2001. This was remarkable not least because one of them, Prost, was not even present in Melbourne after the team had gone into liquidation at the beginning of the year, mired in unpaid engine bills and such things. Tom Walkinshaw, owner of Arrows, had teamed up with the little known Phoenix Corporation to buy the assets of Prost Grand Prix, including the rights to the twelfth slot on the F1 grid, and the TV money due to the team from its 9th place in the previous year's constructor's championship. Somewhat inevitably upset Minardi's Paul Stoddart, for it bumped his team out of the top ten eligible for TV money. That TV money could be worth as much as $12 million, and would be very welcome to a struggling team such as Minardi. He questioned whether Prost, which had been formally declared bankrupt earlier in the year actually still had the rights to the TV money under the concord agreement, or indeed even the right to the twelfth slot on in the F1 circus.

Anyway, it would appear that we may have a pair of Prosts on the grid in Malaysia. If, as is rumoured, these will be last year's decidedly uncompetitive AP04 chassis with aged (and never particularly competitive) TWR engines shoehorned into the back of them, then it doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for a competitive racing team. More than likely it will be little more than a waste of the time and talents of the poor unfortunates who end up driving it.

Which of course begs the question of why Tom Walkinshaw should be so interested in the project ….The answer may lie in Arrows' somewhat parlous financial state, and the relationship between Arrows and Walkinshaw's engineering company, TWR. The last accounts published by the team show that Arrows is some $100 million in debt, but the team owns relatively few of its assets - those belong most likely to TWR. If Arrows is to go bankrupt, then TWR would find the right to go racing as the twelfth team in F1 under the name of Prost most useful. Certainly Craig Pollock has been heard to describe Tom Walkinshaw's business empire as "a lot of smoke and mirrors". The whole affair has more than a whiff of the confusion that surrounded the ownership of the Brabham and Onyx teams in the early 1990s.Their respective owners eventually ended up doing time inside. One trusts that Mr Walkinshaw is smart enough to avoid their fate.

Qualifying should have provided the first opportunity this year to see who had been doing their homework well over the winter, but a red flag following an incident between Villeneuve and Coulthard, followed by rain about fifteen minutes into the session meant that most drivers only got one run (in fact the unlucky Sato didn't even get that) and the session became something of a lottery. Which helps to explain how Barrichello upset the form book by outqualifying Ferrari number one Michael Schumacher by less than a hundredth of a second.

While it wasn't possible to read too much into the qualifying times, it was obvious enough that Jaguar were in real trouble. Doubtless Niki Lauda would love to have Stoddart or Walkinshaw's problems. Whatever, the Jaguars were down in 19th and 20th places, way off the pace with only the hapless Yoong's Minardi and the unlucky Sato's Jordan behind them. Already Irvine was talking about walking out on the whole sorry mess and the Ford Motor Company must be beginning to wonder exactly what they were throwing their money at. One wouldn't necessarily bet on their still being about this time next year.

In the end the race didn't really work too well as a form guide for 2002 either. Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher got away ahead of the pack, only for Ralf to run into the back of Barrichello at the first corner. Schumacher said Barrichello braked too early, while Barrichello was rather of the mind that Schumacher braked too late. Either way it was basically a racing accident and it was hard to see where blame really lay. Of the pundits, messrs Brundle and Blundell laid the blame at Schumacher's door, while Lauda was of the opinion that Barrichello was at fault. Whether Schumacher had the time to ponder the irony of the fact that he exited last years Australian Grand Prix in similar and yet opposite circumstances while his car flew through the air is doubtful.

Whatever, the accident seemed to distract the two Sauber drivers enough for them to trigger a six car pile up behind them. Both Saubers,. Panis' BAR, Fisichella's Jordan, McNish's Toyota and Button's Renault would take no further part in proceedings. Coulthard led the field at the end of the lap from a fast starting Jarno Trulli. Jordan's Gary Anderson was rather of the opinion that the race should have been red flagged at this point. He argued that in the interest of the 'show', the drivers who had been involved in the first lap chaos should have been given a second chance in their spare cars. It's a somewhat questionable line of argument given that F1 is still meant nominally to be a sport rather than purely televised entertainment. To my mind, the fact that the track was littered in carbon fibre debris struck me as reason enough to red flag the race regardless.

Trulli's race lasted just eight laps before an apparent traction control failure caused him to lose his Renault on the exit of the first corner. It is ironic that failures in modern computerised gizmos and driver aids are causing the very accidents that they are designed to prevent… but it does mean that a driver can now add 'blaming the software' to the litany of excuses they have for falling off the road.

Coulthard was next off the road, his gearbox arbitrarily selecting neutral on the run in to the penultimate corner while under the safety car. His gearbox would continue to trouble him, before finally forcing him into retirement around half distance after several further off-track excursions.

This left Montoya, who had snatched the lead from Schumacher under braking for the first corner after the end of the safety car period, in charge. It was soon apparent that he was never really going to be able to hold Schumacher back forever, and sure enough five laps later, Schumacher was through and away into the distance. Raikkonen inherited third, and would finish there but somehow never looked truly convincing in the McLaren.

Behind him some unexpected names were enjoying some good fortune for a change. Paul Stoddart certainly got one over Tom Walkinshaw. While both Walkinshaw's Arrows failed to get off the dummy grid and were subsequently disqualified for 'pitlane start procedure infringements' (or more prosaically, in one case at least, changing cars after the start of the race), the two Minardis finished fifth and seventh.. Webber's fifth place, scoring points at home in his first Grand Prix, was the result of a solid, measured performance in a far from perfect car. For sure the only undelayed man to actually finish behind him was his own team mate, but he had withstood considerable pressure from a late charging Mika Salo, and had stayed on the road, which is more than could be said of Salo himself. Stoddart too could be pleased that the Minardis both made it to the finish reliably, even if they were some way off the ultimate pace.

Toyota's Ove Andersson probably left Melbourne with mixed feelings. The Toyotas had shocked everyone by being fastest of all through the speedtraps through much of the weekend, and they had qualified respectably well in a confused session. Salo ensured that the team scored a point on its debut ( and I for one can't really the last time a completely new team managed that feat). On the other hand, had he not spun two laps from the end, he should have been able to pick up two points for fifth, and had he not damaged a track rod in the first lap melee, he might well have been fourth. McNish, on the other hand, got no further than the first corner, after sitting on the sidelines of Formula One for the whole of the last decade it must have been a terrible letdown.

Eddie Irvine's Jaguar was embarrassingly slow all weekend, but in a race of heavy attrition, e was able to pick up a surprise three points for fourth place. However, there was no disguising the fact that the team desperately need to make changes to the new car. Indeed there has been talk of junking it altogether and running the rest of the season with a modified version of last years car, which was itself not particularly competitive.

BAR had a pretty forgettable weekend. Villeneuve and Panis qualified in the middle of the pack and neither finished the race. Panis went out at the first corner, while Villeneuve had an unimpressive race, with two unscheduled pitstops, which ended when the rear wing of his BAR parted company on the run down to turn 10, in a more or less exact replay of his accident there in 1999.

All in all, unless you were Ferrari or Minardi, it must have been a pretty demoralising weekend. Williams and McLaren would surely have been disappointed that their new cars didn't appear even to be a match for last years' Ferrari. If as is rumoured, the new car is a second a lap faster than the old one, then it looks like we can already pencil Michael Schumacher in for a record equalling fifth world drivers' championship.


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