Unpredictability was what we wanted from Formula One’s new rules. But as Michael Schumacher took his 51st pole in Melbourne, and F1’s first-ever one-shot qualifying resolved itself into an all-Ferrari front row, the Australian Grand Prix was looking depressingly predictable.
We needn’t have worried. Barely 24 hours later we were mulling over a fascinating and complex race, in which four drivers shared seven changes of lead, and five different chassis finished in the top six. We were celebrating McLaren’s leap to the top of the world constructors’ championship. And we were contemplating the extraordinary sight of Ferrari languishing in fourth place in the table, after the first grand prix finish without a red-overalled driver on the podium since 1999.
So can Max Mosley and his rule changes take all the credit for spring cleaning F1? Not quite. What did more than the new rules to turn this race upside down was the changeable weather. A pre-race shower and overcast skies encouraged some teams to opt for wet weather tyres (McLaren) and others for intermediates (Ferrari), when in fact a rapidly drying track surface meant that dry rubber was the correct choice. McLaren rescued itself more adroitly from this bad call than Ferrari did, while Williams’ wise choice of grooved slicks was hobbled by two safety car periods, and then Montoya’s spin when he was leading.
I’ve already said that Max deserves loud applause for his determination to use radical solutions to get to the heart of F1’s maladies: but, with the hindsight provided by one race so far, the recipe may not be quite right yet. Meanwhile Ron Dennis and Frank Williams are taking the FIA to arbitration for bringing in the changes without due notice and discussion, a wearisome process which will grind on until the middle of next season, by which time the world will have moved on anyway. But, more pragmatically, it has been agreed that the Formula One Commission will meet again after the three fly-away races to re-evaluate the changes and see if any adjustments can be agreed with Mosley for the common good.
There’s no doubt that the reduction of high-tech driver aids, which will really come in for July’s British Grand Prix, is all to the good. I look forward avidly to the introduction next season of smaller, FIA-supplied wings. And I am all for preventing bespoke ‘one-lap-wonder’ qualifying cars. I also believe that, in principle, one-shot qualifying should make an exciting and climactic pre-race spectacle — as it already does in Indycar.
The trouble is that, in Melbourne at least, it didn’t. Because of the parc fermé system, which prevents any but the most basic attention to the cars between qualifying and the race, there was a general air of caution running throughout that grid-deciding session. No refuelling between qualifying and the race, remember, so race strategies had to be more or less decided beforehand. With different cars running different fuel loads, it was hard to identify the storming performances — and, because no-one wanted to risk damaging his car, few of the performances looked particularly storming.
The refuelling ban is an unashamed effort to jumble up the grid — which in Australia it certainly achieved. But somewhere in all of that the once-great spectade of qualifying has become less of a test of man and machine and more of a game of poker, which is a cause for regret. In the past, qualifying has often given us some of the best entertainment of an F1 weekend. No-one who saw it will forget Keke Rosberg’s superhuman lap of Silverstone in 1985, which left the old circuit’s record for all time at 160mph. If Keke’s fuel loads had been compromised by race strategy for the morrow, it wouldn’t have been quite the same. The refuelling ban will certainly be on the teams’ agenda for the meeting after Brazil.
But if Saturday in Melbourne was a mild disappointment, Sunday was marvellous, and we saw a great motor race. Last year’s Ferrari, with Michael Schumacher at the wheel, is still the car to beat, but in Melbourne both Schumacher and strategy king Ross Brawn got it a bit wrong for a change. The world champion damaged his car clouting a kerb, as a result of which his barge boards fell off, although he adapted brilliantly to the changes in his car’s handling and lost little pace. Brawn, for his part, missed the chance to switch strategy and load up the Ferrari with fuel when Schumacher had to come in for dry tyres on lap 7. He thus needed one more stop than the McLarens during the race.
McLaren, by contrast, thought fast, and brought Kimi Raikkonen in for dry tyres at the end of the parade lap, accepted the downside that he would have to start from the pitlane — and refuelled him. Coulthard came in for dry tyres and fuel at the end of lap 3, and then settled down to a flawless drive which displayed all his experience and level-headedness. It was Raikkonen who gave us the fireworks, at one point hanging onto the lead by elbowing Michael Schumacher brusquely onto the grass; but it was DC who was there when the flag fell. However, Kimi cannot be blamed for the drive-through penalty that cost him the race. The McLaren’s rev-limiter had him 1.1km/h over the speed limit for the first 10 metres of the pitlane. As we said after his magnificent battle with Schumacher at Magny-Cours last year, Kimi’s day will come, and come soon.
That rev-limiter robbed us of the shock result of a grand prix being won by a car that started from the pitlane. As it was, David’s 11th on the grid is the lowliest starting position for a race winner for some while. Michael Schumacher won Spa for Benetton in 1995 from 16th on the grid, but the drive up the field that will always stay with me was another McLaren effort: John Watson at Detroit in 1982. Helped by exactly the right rubber, ‘Wattie’ came storming through from 17th to win, overtaking cars right and left. (His four McLaren victories were scored from fifth, 12th, 17th and 22nd places on the grid, the latter being at Long Beach in 1983.)
This opening grand prix provided much encouraging food for thought. Mercedes has taken a big step forward in horsepower and, even before its new car appears, McLaren has a far better package than at this time last year. Williams, the only one of the top three teams to have its new car in Melbourne, showed much better than its European test sessions augured. Renault was also impressive, and Fernando Alonso is going to be every bit as good as the pundits predicted. BAR’s new Honda engine is clearly hugely powerful, and Jenson Button showed himself to be quicker in race conditions than his disdainful teammate Jacques Villeneuve. Button’s race was ruined by Villeneuve missing his pitstop and coming in on Button’s lap instead, so Jenson had to sit behind him in the pitlane as if in a toll-booth queue. Jacques’ excuse was that he could not hear his radio — but inevitably the cynics are wondering if it was a deliberate act. If so, David Richards should jump on Jacques, and fast. Jenson was furious after the race, but his track performance shows the psychological edge within the team is swinging his way.
In many ways, it’s harder to make it into your second year of F1 than it is to get into F1 in the first place. Only one of last year’s rookies, Mark Webber, is still on the grid (although in the case of Allan McNish that’s an injustice). Among this year’s crop, da Matta and Pizzonia were lacklustre in Melbourne. Ralph Firman’s accident would have looked even worse for him if Rubens Barrichello hadn’t done the same thing at the same place moments earlier. Meanwhile, despite an almost total lack of testing and no qualifying time, Justin Wilson did a first-class job for Minardi until the car failed him. On intermediate tyres and a damp track he was tremendously brave in the opening laps, briefly holding an astonishing ninth place. Of all of them he had by far the best debut.
It’s a nice irony that the man whose team garnered the most from the new regime first time out was its loudest critic, Ron Dennis. All credit to him and his team for setting aside their complaints when the time came to go to work, and getting on with the job to such excellent effect.
By the time you read this, the story from Malaysia may be rather different. I admit I’d still put money on Michael Schumacher winning his fourth title on the trot this year. But we’re going to have a lot of good racing to watch before he does.