It was a relief when things finally got under way at Melbourne this weekend. Formula One has scarcely been out of the news over the winter, and seemingly always for the wrong reasons. Financial troubles at Jordan and Minardi, continuing shenanigans resulting from the collapse of the Arrows team last year, and the extended spat between the FIA, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams all ensured that F1 got plenty column inches in the close season, but it was hardly the kind of publicity that the sport needed. As the planes headed to Melbourne it was a war of words between Paul Stoddart and Ron Dennis over whether Minardi contributed anything to the sport and thus whether Mr Ecclestone should contribute anything to Minardi. Not particular edifying. As Mr Stoddart himself said, if he was in Dennis' position, surely he would have better things to do - like trying to win the world championship.
For all the off season action, it didn't seem, at first glance as though much had changed over the winter. Most of the cars looked much the same as they had the previous year. Indeed, the two favourites as the weekend started, Ferrari and McLaren had both turned up with last year's cars. A few of the cars were a little more bereft of sponsors than the previous year - most notably Jordan, who's car was in a rather ominous plain yellow, and Minardi who were no longer in the rather odd situation of being sponsored by city. The payback for not running 'Kuala Lumpur' on the sides of their car was that they no longer had Alex Yoong wasting one of their seats. When the cars actually got on the track, it all seemed a little other-worldly though. Sure enough the two McLarens headed the first practice, but come the run-off to decide the order for qualifying, we had, of all things two BARs in the top five. This wasn't in the script at all, but it seemed less of a fluke when Jenson Button topped the time sheets on Saturday morning. Then, in the second session it was Italian Jarno Trulli who headed affairs, while ubermenschen Michael Schumacher threw his car in the wall. Twice. Strange days indeed. Qualifying proved to be an interesting spectacle but not something one could read too much into. With the new rules meaning that cars had to start the race with the fuel load they qualified with, the temptation for some of the smaller teams to run their cars light to grab some attention was clearly there. Minardi decided that there was a better loophole than that to exploit, deciding not to qualify at all, so they could work on the cars overnight and have them set up as well as possible for whatever conditions presented themselves on Sunday. If you believe that F1 is a game of chess played at high speed, its all very interesting. If you figure it might be cheaper to just provide the teams with checkered boards, you might like to see the cars back on low fuel so pole position actually means something.
The front of the grid was, despite the rule changes, an all Ferrari affair, with Michael Schumacher the quicker of the two by a comfortable margin. Behind them was Juan Pablo Montoya - so far so normal, though with all the problems Williams had been experiencing over the winter, it was surprising to see the Colombian so high up the order and the only non-Ferrari driver within a second of Schumacher's time. After that, the grid got a little weird - Heinz Harald Frentzen was fourth in a Sauber, just ahead of Olivier Panis in a Toyota and Jacques Villeneuve in a BAR. Had these three teams taken giant strides over the winter, or was it simply a case of fuelling light and hoping for the best ? McLaren were the main losers from this, with David Coulthard down in eleventh and Kimi Raikkonen an awful fifteenth after flying off the road. It wasn't to prove a good day for the new boys either. Wilson we have already accounted for via Minardi's odd gamble. The other three rookies took up the bottom three slots on the timing sheets. Da Matta was more or less in touch with the main field, though he probably had the best car at his disposal, Firman was unspectacular in 17th in the Jordan and Pizzonia looked frankly all at sea in 18th in the Jaguar. It was all going to make for a strange race on Sunday, it seemed.
And then, just to confuse people, it rained shortly before the start. Paul Stoddart seemed to be looking very pleased with himself over at Minardi, many others were looking decidedly apprehensive. Schumacher led comfortably with Barrichello in touch behind. Montoya lost out to Heidfeld on the opening lap as he slid around on slicks, but just a lap later, it became clear that was a gamble that was going to pay off as he breezed back past Heidfeld and began to reel in the Ferraris. At this point it looked like the Colombian might be a shoe in for victory - lapping two seconds quicker than anyone else in the field (bar Raikkonen's McLaren which was so far back as frankly not to count for much after starting from the pitlane on slicks). Then Barrichello stuffed his Ferrari into the wall at turn five, followed quickly by Firman in the Jordan, bringing out the safety car and cancelling out his advantage. Everyone made for the pits as quickly as possible and the order behind the safety car shook out very oddly indeed. Montoya still led, but behind him was Alonso in a Renault, followed by, Ralf Schumacher and then, of all of things a Jaguar - that of local boy Webber who was looking very smart for having started on slicks. Behind him was, yes Raikkonen in the McLaren who was also looking a lot smarter than he did about five minutes previously.
Neither he nor Schumacher took long to deal with Webber when the safety car came in and in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, it was Raikkonen who led when Montoya came in for fuel. That, it seemed would be the end of the Colombian's chances of victory for the day - the laps he should have been eking out an advantage over the field being wasted behind the safety car. So instead we got a close fought battle between Schumacher and Raikkonen for the lead. When the McLaren driver emerged from the pitstops ahead, it seemed that he might have done enough to win his first Grand Prix. His second set of slicks didn't seem to be behaving well though - as Schumacher got close enough to try a pass coming into the first corner. Raikkonen held his nerve, and maintained the lead, but by that time it was filtering through that he would have to serve a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pitlane. He capped this by flying straight off the road as soon as he had served it. Advantage Schumacher. And so now it seemed that, after all the drama, Melbourne 2003 would be yet another victory to add to Schumacher's massive tally. Except it didn't work out that way. Schumacher had earlier run off the road and now he had bits of debris hanging off the car. The result was another pit stop - and an intriguing question. Schumacher took on more fuel at the pitstop but it is unclear whether this was in order to see him to the finish or purely in order to ensure that the car didn't finish up underweight after various bits of it had parted company with the car. If it was the latter then he was looking a comfortably shoe-in for victory. If it was the former, then it would seem that Raikkonen really had the measure of Schumacher until picking up the drive through penalty. As it happened, he still ended up ahead of Schumacher, but both were behind Coulthard and, yes, Montoya who was back in the lead and looking once again like a dead cert. for victory.
And then he spun at turn one. Nothing more than an unforced error, just one at a very unfortunate time, which let David Coulthard through into a lead he would not lose. After spending the whole afternoon being unobtrusive, unexciting and slightly slower than his Finnish team mate, the veteran Scot was the one man from any of the leading teams who didn't put a foot wrong all afternoon and so it was he who took the opening win of 2003. Montoya finished up second, with Raikkonen and Schumacher both less than a second behind him. After a 2002 season which had been soporific from start to finish this was a real breath of fresh air. Three men had looked like they had a real chance of winning this race for much of the afternoon, and in the event, all three of them ended up finishing behind Coulthard. More importantly, while the Ferrari/Schumacher combination still seemed, to have an edge all weekend it was clear that McLaren had closed the gap significantly. It was clear too that the new Williams, while perhaps not all the Didcot team had been hoping for, was a decent enough machine, and one which would have won the Australian Grand Prix but for a last minute error from Montoya. Frank Williams' chief concern must be that neither McLaren nor Ferrari have revealed their hand yet - choosing to run their 2002 cars here. And both looked more than a match for the 2003 Williams.
What then, of the rest ? Sauber flattered in qualifying, but deceived a little in the race. Frentzen briefly ran as high as second, during the pit stops, but ultimately finished sixth, the jam in a Renault sandwich. It was a solid enough performance, but rather suggests that their qualifying pace had come from running very light. He did at least have a better weekend than Heidfeld, who went out with suspension failure, and nearly collected Ralf Schumacher in the process. The younger brother had a terrible opening race, losing time with a jammed wheel nut, then more time when he spun exiting the pits, and then yet more with an off track excursion when he had to take avoiding action as Heidfeld flew off the road. He eventually wound up eighth, way off the pace of his team mate, but just in the points.
Renault proved the best of the big manufacturer teams. I couldn't follow exactly what was happening in this race, but I think I briefly saw Trulli lead after Montoya's first pit stop. Or was it Alonso ? It was Trulli who eventually finished higher, fending off Frentzen to take fifth. With Alonso seventh, Renault actually head Ferrari in the constructors championship at this stage. It seems unlikely this will last, but the team performed well enough. Jaguar showed promise after last year's annus horribilus. Webber briefly ran in the top four early on, before suspension failure dropped him out of fifth. It must be a tantalising thought for him that he was actually ahead of Coulthard at the point at which he retired. Pizzonia, on the other hand, never really figured, though he did at least stay on the road until his suspension also broke, a few laps from the end. If nothing else, Jaguar at least looked like a proper racing team this weekend, which is not something that could really have been said at any point last year. It was hard to know what to make of Toyota really. Panis' fifth place on the grid was the highlight of the weekend, but he looked all at sea on slicks in the early stages, picked up a drive through penalty, and then just as he began to come good he ended up going out with a fuel pressure problem. Da Matta never figured and flew off the road early on. A verdict of not proven will have to be given on whether they can live up to their pre-season testing pace.
Jordan had a weekend to forget. Firman did not last long and Fisichella had an apparently unobtrusive race, and was running just outside the points when his gearbox packed up. It all seems to suggest that the lack of funds at the Silverstone based team is having an adverse effect on their performance. That said, Fisichella lost time during his pitstop with a stuck fuel flap, and but for that might have at least been in the points at the point at which his car broke. If that counts for anything.
After being the stars of qualifying, BAR had an awful time of it in the race, getting their strategy all wrong, and ending up ninth and tenth, out of the points. Matters weren't helped by Button and Villeneuve calling into the pits at the same time after problems with the radio. Or, if you prefer, after Villeneuve delibertely decided to sabotage Button's race by pitting on the wrong lap. Had that not happened, then Button, at least, might have finished in the points. Despite that, the team seemed happy enough that the car was fundamentally quick and they would make more of an impact next time out. Certainly the midfield teams seem to have closed the gap to the big three over the winter, but on today's inconclusive evidence, none seem to have bridged it.
Minardi looked like a throwback to an earlier, less high tech and less commercial age, with their customer Cosworth engine, small pit crew and car splattered with the names of sponsors nobody had actually heard of. They seemed hopelessly off the pace in qualifying, but given how little track time their new car has had, it was perhaps not surprising that they seemed to get things together more in the race. Wilson was particularly impressive - starting nineteenth, but taking advantage of his wet-settings Minardi and intermediate Bridgestones to run ninth by the end of the second lap. The car might not exactly have been heavy on fuel, but neither was it running ultra-light. Wilson ended up going out with a holed radiator on lap sixteen, but his had been by some way the most impressive debut of the weekend, and enough to justify the noise that I've been making about him over the last year or two. Verstappen had a steady run, losing out as his second set of tyres didn't work so well as his first. He got the new Minardi to the finish, a lap down.
It might have been brought about by the weather, and by the fact that people kept making mistakes, but this race was a real breath of fresh air, and one which suggests that things might be that little bit closer than they were last year. For the first time since the European Grand Prix in 1999 there was no Ferrari on the podium, but there still seems to be little doubt that they are the team to beat this year. I for one, can't wait for the next one.
Click here To return to racing lines.