AUS: Ferrari leaves the rest behind

Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello dealt a bodyblow to their opposition with a crushing 1-2 in the streets of Melbourne. By Mark Hughes

AUS: Ferrari leaves the rest behind

So, Formula 1's moment of truth was revealed in a single lap around a park lake's perimeter. Michael Schumacher's 1m24.408s was a truth the competition didn't much like - particularly as it was backed up by a Rubens Barrichello time barely any slower.

The Ferrari F2004 was 0.5 seconds clear of the opposition and there were some long faces at Williams, Renault, BAR and, especially, McLaren. So the intrigue of the off-season, the way the heavy-hitters had never met for a definitive showdown each with their new cars, was finally answered. And it was Schuey who had the satisfied grin.

From a competitive viewpoint, the news wasn't as bad as it could have been. On Friday, on a green track that suited the Ferrari's Bridgestones far better than its rivals' Michelins, and with the confidence to run virtually their full rev capability despite the one-engine rule, Ferrari had been almost two seconds clear of the pack and the spectre of 2002 began to surface.

It still might, but at least in the new two-part qualifying of Saturday there were signs of hope for a competitive season. First, Ferrari is always super-fast in Melbourne. Last year the F2002 Ferrari was on pole by 0.9sec. "I felt as I was testing the new car," said Michael, "that it was going to be a potential pole car for Australia. Come Malaysia, where traditionally it's more difficult for us, we shall see."

It was a great lap, though, clean yet spectacular, the Ferrari's direction change visibly sharper than last year's. With new wide-front Bridgestones - and a lot less camber on the front wheels than previously - it has a front end that's nailed. Its direction change through the fast chicane of Turns 11 and 12 was astonishing.

Barrichello, first out in the opening session and therefore on the dust and relatively slow, was right on it when it mattered, his lap building up into something ever-more mighty. His first couple of sectors were a tenth down on what Michael would do, but in the flows of the final sector - traditionally Schuey's territory - he was stunning, all-but making up the time lost to his team-mate. He was only 0.08sec slower and very happy, almost as if beating Schuey in sector three brought particular satisfaction. "There's no reason to go and find where I could have gone faster. It was a good lap for me and the time was seriously quick."

With the graining-induced drop-off of the Michelins, it was imperative for Ferrari that it did not get stuck behind a Michelin car. But, mitigating against that, it wanted to have the flexibility of moving onto a two-stop strategy in case it was in that very situation. Michael was thus fuelled for 12 laps, two more than Juan Pablo Montoya, a difference equating to about 0.2sec.

Another reason for competitive hope is that Montoya's lap in the Williams could so easily have been quicker. He was 0.5sec off pole despite a big twitch at Turn 12. Until then he'd been only 0.1sec down. The Williams FW26 didn't look as easy as the Ferrari, its drivers working hard on the steering, and Montoya had several offs in practice. But true to Michelin form it was able to take more kerb more comfortably. Intriguingly it was running significant negative camber on the front wheels, going in the opposite development direction to Ferrari. It was also very stiffly sprung, suggesting a pitch sensitivity issue.

Ralf Schumacher in the sister car was 0.9sec slower in eighth - which would equate to 30kg more of fuel.

In fact it was only around 7kg heavier - enough for a couple of extra laps.
BAR's Jenson Button equalled Montoya's lap, but was relegated to fourth because Montoya had been quicker in the first session. It was a great effort, particularly as Jenson had to switch to the T-car before the first session when it was discovered his race car had a cracked chassis from a whack over a kerb in morning practice.

After its super form during winter testing, the qualifying speed of the Renault R24 was a disappointment, but much of this was down to the cold weather tyre compound chosen, something that would pay dividends in the race. Furthermore, the engine is down on power in its current form. Fernando Alonso, fifth quickest, screwed a great lap out of the car, riding out a vicious twitch on the fifth-gear exit of Turn 12. Team-mate Jarno Trulli was 0.6sec slower in ninth, on a similar fuel load. Both drivers were asked not to risk too much, but Jarno's lap was definitely more conservative.

Mark Webber's was the 10th car out and at that stage had Takuma Sato's 1m25.851s to beat. With an expectant home crowd, it looked like a tough target. But Webber squeezed all there was to squeeze from the R5 and shaded Taku's time by half a tenth. Ultimately, it was a lap good for sixth on the grid, this despite a heavy fuel load. The good news is that the car looks much better than it did during winter testing. But Christian Klien was unable to begin his qualifying lap due to a hydraulics failure on his out-lap.

Sato's time left him seventh. Although it was 0.8sec down on team-mate Button, it was a good effort given his shortage of prior running due to a gearbox problem in Saturday practice.

Sandwiched between the 10th and 12th quickest McLarens (see sidebar) was Felipe Massa, who against the general pattern of the weekend beat Sauber team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella (14th) after the latter went too deep into Turn 1 and took to the grass on exit. He followed that up with a couple of mistakes in the third sector.

Toyota opted for too hard a compound and both Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta complained of lack of grip, though the problems with the car go deeper. Lack of downforce and an uncompetitive centre of gravity were cited by the team. Panis didn't set a time after a throttle sensor failed in the pitlane. Da Matta was 13th fastest, three seconds off pole.

Here was as dominant a Ferrari performance as has ever been seen. It was a race that left the rest dazed at the scale of the drubbing they'd received - and alarm bells began ringing about how one-sided a season we might be in for as Michael Schumacher recorded his 71st victory, his only rival his team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Even without being pushed, they were a second per lap clear of the best of the rest.

With hindsight there were a couple of opportunities for the race to have been more than the demonstration it was. Juan Pablo Montoya might have got his Williams onto the front row - he came close to doing so before overreaching - and that might have enabled him to jump into the lead at the start. If he'd done that he could have held the Ferraris up until the first pit-stops and at least given some tension to the initial stint of the race. But he didn't.

Failing that, the other possibility was that a Renault might have qualified on the second row and used its still staggering getaway superiority to burst past the Ferraris. But the reason the Renault was good enough in the race to take Fernando Alonso to an unchallenged third place - tyre choice and usage - was the same reason it was unable to get past row three in qualifying. Even if one of them had led out of Turn 1, it would have been holding the Ferraris up and that could have been redressed at the first stops. The end result would still have been a red rout.

"Let's just wait for Malaysia," cautioned Schuey. "That race shows the true picture a bit more because here is ideal for us and I think you would have seen something similar here last year if the race had been straightforward. If we can compete in Malaysia then we are going to be looking strong. There's not much point in judging the season after one race."

It's true enough. Sunday was overcast and the track temperature rarely strayed beyond 23C, the sort of temperature that traditionally keeps Michelin from playing to its strengths. Furthermore, as Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier pointed out, "this track doesn't have any of the long duration turns that allow us to show well. The final sector is all about aerodynamics".

Maybe. But on the other hand, as Bridgestone's Hisao Suganuma pointed out, "there was evidence from here to suggest that we actually increased our competitiveness as the temperature came up".

Maybe all the discussion of tyres is to underplay the achievement of Ferrari and its F2004. But even Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn said: "I think the Bridgestone was a far superior tyre today." The key seemed to be the introduction of a wider front. It looks far more like a Michelin now and relies less on negative camber to give the car turn-in.

That in turn allows a yet wider contact patch and helps the tyre run cooler, thereby turning around what was perhaps Bridgestone's key disadvantage over Michelin last year. Add in the fact that the F2004's shorter wheelbase allows a more forward-biased weight distribution, thereby loading the front tyres up more, and the new Ferrari has a front end that's visibly more planted than the F2003-GA's.

But if the Ferrari's performance pattern was different, some other things remain the same. Things like the Renault's blinding start, the grass-blade-thin line between Montoya's fighting spirit and his judgment, the propensity of the feisty Williams team for incident. All these played their part in a spectacular mad blur of a start.

Schumacher got the jump on Barrichello to make a clean red formation on the long drag to Turn 1. Behind, lots of factors converged to create a scene where Montoya, Jarno Trulli and Takuma Sato all had their races spoilt. Montoya was slow away from row two, Alonso fantastically quick from row three. JPM moved left to block the Renault but Alonso took to the grass, kept his toe in and still passed the Williams! The abolition of launch control played its part in all this. Montoya felt that his clutch mechanism stuck briefly, slipping the clutch uselessly: "The clutch was very cold and it works better with higher temperatures. So next time when I do some burnouts on the dummy lap, if I slip the clutch we should be okay."

But why is the Renault still the fastest starter if launch control has been banned? Up to 62mph there must be a direct correlation between the driver's throttle input and the injection slides. But that still leaves fuelling and ignition for the electronics to play with. Consequently the cars still leave the grid with no wheelspin and Renault's electronic wizardry still translates into the fastest getaways in the business.

So Montoya moved to the inside and, as the mighty BMW got into its stride, so he hauled in the ground lost to the Renault at the start.

They converged to a point of conflict as the Ferraris were entering Turn 1. Montoya locked up, Alonso sensed JPM had overdone it and sliced suddenly to the left, giving his following team-mate Trulli a scare and forcing him to lock up in avoidance. Sato was left with nowhere to go and the BAR's nose hit Trulli's diffuser, damaging both. Montoya, meanwhile, might have still made the turn had not he had to swerve across the back of a conservative Barrichello, keen to avoid contact with team-mate Schumacher. All of which left Montoya bouncing over the grass, losing several places. Alonso kicked up the dust with a flurry of opposite lock as he took up third place ahead of Jenson Button, Trulli and Ralf Schumacher. Mark Webber was the start's other big loser, backing off in mistaken anticipation of collecting Button and so being swamped, then clattering over the Turn 1 kerbs, all of which dropped him from sixth to 10th, though he made up a couple of the lost places on the first lap.

Montoya had rejoined in seventh, just behind his team-mate. Running quicker than Ralf and with the adrenaline pumping, he wanted past. He made his move down the inside of Clark chicane on the second lap. The two banged wheels as JPM forced his way through. "He was using me as a brake," reported an irritated Ralf. "If I had not given way we'd have crashed."

"He can think what he likes," retorted Montoya. "He was braking in a straight line and then as soon as he saw me he moved to the right. Is that like a new racing line or something? He went to protect his line too late and I was there already so we touched."

Montoya quickly closed down on Trulli. The Ferraris, meanwhile, were already more than 2.5sec clear of the field and serenely pulling away, Barrichello staying right with Michael.

Trulli's car was crippled, courtesy of its diffuser damage, but he fought well regardless as Montoya searched in vain for a way through. Trulli cannily used the Renault's traction advantage to stay ahead, despite the Williams being faster at the end of the straights and under braking. With Trulli forming an impenetrable cushion, Alonso and Button were allowed to break free in third and fourth, though the BAR was unable to hang on to Fernando, being best part of a second per lap slower in race trim as it ate its tyres.

The Renault, as ever, was proving wonderfully kind to its rubber, helped by the fact that this was the only team to have chosen a cool-weather compound as one of its two options and had duly selected it for both cars. Others would have liked to have had this available once they'd arrived here but had not selected it, and that was probably to do with Renault being the only Michelin runners at the recent cool Imola test, while the others pounded around the warmer climes of Valencia. Whatever, Alonso was the only man to keep the red cars vaguely in sight, though by the 10th lap even he was almost 10 seconds behind.

It was on this lap that Montoya made his first stop. The removal of the kink on the pitlane entry road and the increase of the pitlane speed limit by 20km/h (12.5mph) made stops around three seconds quicker than before, tilting the strategy balance in favour of three stops rather than two. He was stationary for a long 10 seconds, this dropping him into slower traffic.

Barrichello, Alonso and Button all stopped on the 11th lap, Michael on the 12th, along with his brother and Trulli. Ralf's stop was notably quicker than his team-mate's had been and this allowed him to leapfrog both Montoya and Trulli, putting him in clean air just a couple of seconds behind Button. JPM found himself staring once again at Trulli's gearbox. This condemned him to losing a lot of valuable time over the coming laps.

David Coulthard - one of the few on a two-stop strategy - pitted from a temporary fourth place on lap 14, rejoining in 11th, behind the similarly two-stopping Webber, and the Jag pulled away easily. This was a nightmare race for McLaren, with Kimi Raikkonen having retired in a cloud of smoke four laps earlier when running behind DC and trying to fend off Felipe Massa's Sauber. At no stage were the silver cars a factor and it looks like being some time before they are.

Ferrari had been toying with the idea of two-stopping but decided to commit fully to a three-stop at the first, mainly to give the engines and tyres an easier time. Given their speed advantage they could have adopted any strategy they liked. Michael and Rubens traded fastest laps and continued to pull out time on Alonso's beautifully driven Renault. Button had his hands full fending off the clearly faster Williams of Ralf Schumacher, while - half the pit straight back - Trulli continued to defend hard from Montoya, who was getting increasingly frustrated at a race that was going all wrong for him. He finally got by the Renault into Clark chicane on the 24th lap, just as Alonso was making his second stop. The Spaniard had sufficient cushion over Button that
he rejoined still in third.

The second round of stops unfolded over the next six laps and, when all had settled, Schuey's lead over Barrichello had suddenly ballooned to six seconds. "I ran too close to Michael when we were in traffic," said Rubens, "and my brakes got too hot. The pedal started to go long. At that stage I didn't mind and just kept pushing, but then when I made my second stop they didn't seem to cool down and when I came out I had a really long pedal. If I'd kept pushing I would have gone off for sure, so I had to back off. Up until then I was enjoying our fight." Actually, at no stage had it looked like a fight, though Michael had taken the precaution of banging in a couple of super-fast laps before his stop. The gap between them continued to grow, though Rubens was under no threat from Alonso, now half a minute behind.

An extra two laps for Ralf after Button's stop finally leapfrogged him ahead of the BAR to go fourth, with Button now coming under pressure from Montoya. Behind the top six, Trulli battled on in his imbalanced car and Webber retired after a software glitch left the Jaguar without sixth and seventh gears, though he took some consolation from sixth fastest lap - quicker than the BARs and McLarens. Coulthard lay eighth, well ahead of Massa, who had been off a couple of times and spun 360 degrees once. Sato was next, making up ground lost to his damaged wing. "We saw the damage at the first stop," related BAR technical director Geoff Willis. "It was structurally fine but aerodynamically compromised and we changed it at his next stop. Once we did that he was lapping as fast as Jenson." There were a few moments on the way, but he was soon past Massa and pulling away.

Montoya was the focus of attention now. He just wouldn't be knocked down. His second stop had gone badly as a sticking wheelnut on the front left cost him time but no positions. Now here he was all over Button's BAR, feinting this way and that. On the 38th lap he was lining up Button as they came to the penultimate corner, ready for a run down the pit straight. Spotting this, Button went extra slow through the corner, giving Montoya a surprise and forcing him to swerve right to miss the BAR's gearbox, thus losing him momentum. Probably irritated by this, Montoya surprised Button on the following lap by getting inside him on the approach to Turn 13 - not normally a passing place. Side by side they went through there, with Button trying not to surrender but ultimately having to take to the grass. Montoya was through, and now he had Ralf in his sights for the second time that afternoon.

JPM set about overcoming the eight seconds that separated them and, with his dander up, unleashed a series of scorching laps, the best of which was 0.6sec quicker than Ralf's fastest and on a par with Alonso's, though still more than a second slower than either of the Ferraris' best.

The final series of stops was kicked off by Alonso on lap 40. Which Williams driver was going to be fourth was the only thing that hung in the balance by this stage. Montoya had got to within five seconds of Ralf when he stopped on the 44th lap, one before his team-mate. His fury can be imagined as another sticking wheelnut - the right rear this time - cost him dear. Ralf's stop a lap later was a full 2.3sec quicker. And yet... after Ralf's out-lap, Montoya was still within 4.5sec of him! An analysis of their in and out-laps is revealing. Juan's in-lap was 0.9sec quicker, his out-lap a full 1.4sec faster, coincidentally exactly making up the pit-stop deficit. This was Monty in his full red zone magnificence. Unfortunately it did for his left front, which almost instantly began graining badly, sending him off onto the Turn 13 grass on the next lap. It was at this point that he had to surrender his chase of his team-mate. He wasn't happy afterwards.

That was the last point of interest in the race, other than Schuey dramatically slowing in the closing stages. Was there a drama, a sting in the tail courtesy of the new long-life engine requirements perhaps? "No, we were just easing off on everything to be safe," said Ross Brawn, playing it down. Thing is, no-one was anywhere near close enough to push the Ferrari and prove if this were true or not.

A Ferrari 1-2, with Alonso on the podium and Ralf hanging onto fourth from his team-mate and Button. Trulli and Coulthard rounded off the points scorers, but both were a lap down. If he'd chosen to, Michael could probably have lapped everyone but Barrichello and Alonso...

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