Modern Times

Thank the lord for the unpredictability of motor racing. By Sunday morning in Melbourne we were badly worried. The new season stretched ahead with the prospect of two McLarens a second or more ahead of everyone at the start of each race, perhaps a lap or more ahead of everyone , at the end. Even the staunchest Ron Dennis fan was dismayed by the lack of pace from Ferrari, the one team expected to meet the Woking steamroller head on.

All weekend Hakkinen and Coulthard had been embarrassingly faster than everyone else, the new MP4/14 a model not only of speed but of reliability. The sole problem had been one of driver error, when the World Champion, looking for the limit of the unforgiving new four-groove Bridgestone tyres, found it and put car No.1 solidly into the wall. Even this didn’t seem to faze Ron’s team: by next day the car was rebuilt, and Mika was fastest again.

Ferrari, by contrast, seemed to be in all sorts of trouble. Michael Schumacher was wringing his car’s neck, using the grass, using the kerbs, spinning off, and finally putting in one of his classic banzai qualifying efforts and was still 1.3s adrift of Hakkinen.

However, there were encouraging indicators from some of the other teams. The Stewarts, with their new light, compact and visibly more powerful Cosworth engine, were consistently quick, Herbert and Barrichello usually running in the top six. In qualifying, Johnny had a duff damper and could only manage 13th, but Rubens qualified a rousing fourth to start on row two with Schumacher. The Jordans were going well, too, and behind the McLarens there was an excellent mix, with five different makes of car on the next three rows.

But the Sunday morning warm-up confirmed the status quo: the McLarens were a second clear of the rest, with Schumacher M a lonely third. A predictable procession was in prospect.

Until, as the pitlane opened and the cars came out, a flurry in the McLaren garage showed that all was not in order with the well-oiled Ron Dennis machine. Mika’s race car started up with a misfire. Time was ticking away: the pitlane opens 30 minutes before the parade lap, and closes 15 minutes later, and if you’re not out by then you must start from the pitlane. Mika was bundled into the spare and hustled out of the pit still attached to an umbilical cord which brought the garage gantry crashing down.

Nevertheless Mika coolly threaded his way throughout the melee on the grid and took up his pole position. And sure enough when the lights went out Mika and David romped away, just as we all knew they would.

But the surprises continued even before the race got underway. As the lights started to go out both the Stewarts were seen to be on fire, and the start was aborted. Rubens was able to take the spare and start from the pitlane, but Johnny’s day was done. Oil had leaked onto the exhausts of both cars, a reminder that there are some circumstances of a race weekend like sitting on a warm grid with a hot, dead engine which you can never properly replicate in testing.

And then, when the cars were flagged off for their second parade lap, Michael Schumacher found himself stuck in neutral. For him, the start of the first race of 1999 was a ghastly echo of the start of the last one of 1998. Although he did find a gear eventually and got away, he was condemned to start from the back of the grid. The McLaren walkover was looking even more certain.

Having pulled away in convoy at a humiliating two seconds a lap and established a fat cushion, the silver cars eased their pace a little, but it was looking like a done deal until lap 14. That was when Coulthard abruptly came chugging down the pitlane and turned straight into the garage. Diving into the fast chicane in Hakkinen’s wheel tracks, he’d flicked the paddle to change down, and the McLaren had obstinately stayed in sixth. Five laps later, as the field trailed round behind the safety car after Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR hit the wall, Hakkinen found his car’s fly-by-wire throttle wasn’t doing as he asked. As the safety car pulled off the McLaren was overwhelmed. A pit stop failed to cure the trouble, and after a few more desultory laps Mika was out.

It was a terrible blow for McLaren. After a trouble-free weekend, within the space of 45 minutes all three cars had failed. Having come away from the first race of 1998 with a maximum 16 points they were starting this season without reward, and their only consolation was the tough time their expected title rival was having.

Schumacher did elbow his way through the traffic as far as fourth, although the mix of the new Ferrari and the 1999 Bridgestones seemed to make it hard work for him. Then a puncture, soon after he’d passed the Pit entry, forced him to do almost a full lap on a flat tyre, which also damaged the car’s nose section. The 30 second stop needed to sort this out dropped him to the tail of the field.

He struggled on, still battling with the gear selection problems that had delayed him at the start, and had to come in again for a new steering wheel/gear change paddle assembly.

So, the totally unforeseen result for the world’s top three was: nothing for McLaren, and Schumacher a lapped last. Nothing predictable about that.

At the start, with Schumacher’s and Barrichello’s problems leaving row two vacant, Eddie Irvine only had to bully past Frentzen’s Jordan to lead the pursuit. He’d worked on the setup of his Ferrari independently of Michael and found that on the softer Bridgestones it was handling rather well, even if he had no hope of staying with the McLarens, With their demise he found himself in the lead, with just enough cushion on Frentzen to stay ahead when they both had their single routine stops, and paced himself excellently to the flag.

Never has a maiden Grand Prix victory been more richly deserved. It doesn’t seem long since Eddie Irvine was a wild, raw teenage Formula Fordster terrorising the British club circuits. But for three long years and 49 of his 83 Grands Prix he’s been the perfect support to Schumacher, and so uncomplainingly that we’ve been in danger of under-estimating his own talent. His driving nowadays is cool, fast and controlled, and his first win was a fine example of putting an unexpected opportunity to excellent use. And it was heart-warming, in these days of monosyllabic post-race conferences and well-controlled emotion at the time of victory, to see such fulfilment and delight on Eddie’s face.

Down in the pit garages everyone had a story, the punctuation point to a frantic and exhausting winter of working against the clock and the calendar to tackle this first race.

Notably, Rubens: his two points for fifth place were scant reward for a charging, never-say-die drive in an obviously strong car. From the pitlane he followed Schumacher up through the field, only to earn a stop-go penalty for an unconscious overtaking offence as the safety car pulled off. If there’s any justice, Stewart’s third season should be a good one.

Damon Hill took only frustration from his 100th Grand Prix. Traffic at the end of qualifying dropped him to ninth on the grid, but his start was tremendous and in the Lap 1 traffic jam he was already behind team-mate Frentzen when he was punted up the back and spun out of the race.

Ralf Schumacher did a solid job to get to the podium, nicely establishing his position at Williams while his team-mate, Champ Car champ Alex Zanardi, enjoyed a rather lacklustre return to F1 which ended in the wall. At Benetton, Giancarlo Fisichella had a better weekend than Alex Wurz, but both qualified in the top ten, and the pale blue cars seem stronger this season than they did last.

One of the biggest upsets in this race of surprises was Arrows. Both Tom Walkinshaw’s cars handled well, ran reliably and came home. Spanish rookie Pedro de la Rosa scored a point for sixth and Tora Takagi, by far the most talented of the recent crop of well-sponsored Japanese drivers, came back from stalling on the grid to run in the points before a nudge from Zonta dropped him to seventh.

And finally there was the much-vaunted debut of BAR. Villeneuve had a potentially grave accident when his rear wing broke after similar accidents to Herbert and others in testing, this is a worry but Ricardo Zonta impressed a lot of people in his first F1 race. Myriad troubles throughout practice meant he started the race with very little track knowledge, but from 19th on the grid he was 10th at the end of lap one, and got up to a startling fifth before slowing with an overheating gearbox. Without doubt, this quiet Brazilian is a star of the not very distant future. From Australia back to Europe, and then to South America. In the all-too-brief interval before Brazil, McLaren and of course Ferrari will be working hard. I predict a more predictable result at Interlagos. But I also predict that I could be wrong…