Modern times

The one result Bernie Ecclestone didn’t want in Australia was the one he got — a Michael Schumacher win. And Maranello’s decision to rely for the time being on last year’s Ferrari seemed to be no handicap at all. (In fact, the flawlessly prepared F2001 s in Melbourne had plenty of 2002 about them, including some engine parts, and so perhaps should more accurately be called F2001.5s).

There must be serious worries now that Schuey’s Fangio-equalling fifth title will be wrapped up by the end of July, with consequent damage to Bernie’s television figures for the last few rounds of the season. But, while you didn’t have to be much of a pundit to forecast the winner of the first race, you’d have been hard pressed to foresee the first few hundred metres, when little brother Ralf went ballistic over the back of Rubens Barrichello and set in train an immense accident that wiped out eight cars.

Predictably, Ralf blamed Rubens for weaving; and equally predictably, Rubens blamed Ralf for forgetting to brake. And forthwith, the hopes and dreams of so many going into this first round went up in a cloud of rubber smoke and shredded carbon fibre. Any ambition that rookies Felippe Massa (who qualified an impressive ninth for Sauber) and Allan McNish (a respectable 16th with Toyota) might have entertained of scoring points in their first GP evaporated; so did Giancarlo Fisichella’s desire to make Eddie Jordan smile again, not to mention Jenson Button’s determination to show new form for Flay. And yet the impervious Michael came thinugh the carnage smelling of red roses, adroitly taldng to the grass on the left as he sensed out-of-control wreckage coming up fast on the right. If he hadn’t made an indifferent start he might well have been in the thick of the accident: or was he being canny, remembering the costly recent grid bust-ups in Austria and Hockenheim, and knowing that once the race settled down, he’d have little difficulty getting to the front?

For that is exactly what happened. He was stuck behind Jamo Trulli’s Renault for a few laps, and he then had a stirring battle with Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams for several more. But he knew that the Michelins on the Williams would be losing their edge just as his Bridgestones were settling in: unusually cool Melbourne weather was an additional help to his strategy, for this year’s Michelins seem so far to work less well in low temperatures.

The real battle would have been between him and Coulthard, for DC had smoothly taken his McLaren scotfree through the first-corner carnage and, once the Safety Car came in, was building a useful lead while Michael was stuck behind the Renault. Once the Renault had spread itself over the wall, a second Safety Car queue removed that cushion, but it was now that Coulthard’s gear-selection woes began, with the embarrassment of an off behind the Safety Car, and his race was pretty much over at that point. A McLaren-Ferrari battle would have started off the season nicely — but, given the difference between their tyres, Schumacher would sooner or later have been in front.

With the sparse field now in an orderly procession, we were left with the astonishing spectacle of Eddie Irvine putting Jaguar into fourth place in the constructors’ championship. Afterwards, Irvine sensibly refused to celebrate: in qualifying and the race, his best laps were more than 4sec off the pace, and he knows Jaguar have much to do.

Even more weird was the sight, from lap 30 onwards, of two Minardis running in the points. In the end, Mika Salo, bent on giving Toyota a point in their first GP, demoted Alex Yoong, but for Minardi’s Australian owner Paul Stoddart and his new Australian driver Mark Webber, fifth place was fantasy turned reality, and the high point for the crowd on a lacklustre afternoon. Minardi scored as many points in this race as they have earned in the last seven seasons, and Webber joined the elite list of drivers who’ve finished their first GP in the points.

He’s in good company. Neither of the Schurnachers did it, but Alain Prost did. So did Jackie Stewart, who scored in all of his first six rounds, and won his eighth. Johnny Herbert’s fourth place on his debut, in Brazil in 1989, still crippled by his Brands Hatch F3000 accident, was an act of tremendous courage. Jean Alesi and Martin Brundle were two Tyrrell proteges who scored points first time out. So, out of today’s grid, did Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa. Jacques Villeneuve not only finished second in his first GP, but also started it from pole — a feat managed by Mario Andretti and, more surprisingly, by Carlos Reutemann, in 1972, for Bernie’s newly-acquired Brabham.

Time was when drivers as young as Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Massa were rare in F1: rookies quite often had fruitful experience in other disciplines already. Mark Donohue, third in Penske’s McLaren in Canada in 1971, had been racing successfully for Roger in other categories for six years. Having won the Monte Carlo Rally for Porsche in 1968, versatile Vic Elford hustled his unwieldy Cooper-BRM to fourth in his F1 debut, at Rouen. Mike Parkes was 34 when he had his first F1 ride, for Ferrari: he qualified third at Reims in 1966, and finished second. In five GPs, Mike scored two seconds and one pole: then he broke his legs at Spa, and did not race in F1 again.

But there were youngsters, too. In 1970, Emerson Fittipaldi won his fourth GP, and went on to be world champion in his second season, at 25. Bruce McLaren’s debut grand prix, in 1958, aged 20, was on the daunting Nurburgring in an F2 car, but he still finished fifth. He won his seventh GP in a proper F1 car, and by then was just 22. Mike Hawthorn’s CooperBristol gave him fourth in his first GP, at Spa: the following year, he was racing and winning for Scuderia Ferrari.

When motor racing was even more dangerous, inexperience could be fatal. The talented youngster Chris Bristow had his first Grand Prix in an F1 car at Monte Carlo in 1960, and qualified an impressive fourth in his Yeoman Credit Cooper: just three weeks later, dicing with Willy Mairesse at Spa, he died in a grisly accident. Teenager Ricardo Rodriguez was so quick in Ferrari sportscars that Enzo put him, still only 19, in a works Ferrari for the Italian Grand Prix, and he qualified a sensational second between teammates Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther. He was not yet 21 when he died in practice for his home GP the following year.

Many young talents would surely have achieved greatness had they lived. Near the top of that list are Tony Brise, lost in the 1975 Graham Hill air crash; Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce, victims of cruelly stupid accidents; cancer victim Gunnar Nilsson; and Carlos Pace, another to die in a light plane crash. F3 graduate Stuart Lewis-Evans had two brilliant seasons for Vanwall until the fiery Morocco accident in 1958 that killed him. Slight of build, he would have found great success in the coming generation of light rearengined cars.

Sometimes success seems to come too early. Giancarlo Baghetti, of course, famously won his first championship race, and achieved little else. Clay Regazzoni was another to have his first GP as a works Ferrari driver: he finished fourth at Zandvoort in 1970, and ended his debut season, despite missing the first four rounds of it, third in the overall standings. He was fired by Ferrari, recalled to support Niki Lauda in 1974, fired again at the end of 1976 and, despite scoring Williams’ first win, in 1979, ended his F1 career with tile little Ensign team, with whom he had his crippling final accident.

Whatever all this history tells us, Webber can feel well pleased with his debut Some of his Minardi predecessors, like Fisichella and Trulli, have gone on to greater things; Fernando Alonso, clearly a substantial talent, remains waiting in the wings as test driver to Renault Webber’s success, however, must be particularly galling to Justin Wilson, the young Englishman who comprehensively out-drove him to win last year’s F3000 title, yet has still not found a drive of any stature for this season. Wilson doesn’t bring big bags of sponsorship gold with him — just cockpit talent Which, these days, isn’t enough.

As we head to Malaysia, Schumacher is nicely on course for a third straight title; Ferrari are first in the constructors’ championship, Williams second, McLaren third. No surprises there, then. We must pray for a few more upsets from the likes of Mr Stoddart and Mr Webber — otherwise this year is going to be done and dusted almost before it’s started.