Stop press: Michael Schumacher didn't win the Australian Grand Prix. Neither, for that matter, did he at any moment look like doing so. But only a fool would be writing-off Schumi, or the red cars, so early in the season, right?
Yes, right; even so, if you were to conduct a vox pop in a Maranello cafÃ© right now (or do something similar in Bar Italia, in London's Frith Street, as I did on the evening of March 8, albeit very informally and somewhat drunkenly), then you'd know that tifosi, everywhere, are very worried indeed.
But perhaps they shouldn't be. After all, despite the long-preached Todt-ite credo which would have us all believe that there is only one god, the faithful understand that two Ferraris enter every grand prix, not only Michael's; and the other one, driven by a God- (but not god-) fearing man, Rubens Barrichello, finished the 2005 Australian Grand Prix in second place, despite having lined up only 11th on the starting grid. Furthermore, Ferrari's 2005 car has yet to race, and there's no reason to doubt Ross Brawn's claim that it's the best the Scuderia has ever produced.
And Schumi? He had the kind of race he usually has at the end of a season rather than at the beginning - a ragged run from the back to somewhere around the midfield, finally tangling with a blameless rival (Nick Heidfeld) whom he thought should have given way to him as if by divine right. Frankly, I'm surprised he wasn't black-flagged. (Yes, that was a joke; that isn't how Formula 1 works, as you probably know.)
Very disappointing indeed. Bluntly, they were off the pace, and Jenson Button's post-race mood said it all. Even so, there was surely no need for him to tell such a blatant porkie to ITV's Louise Goodman when she asked him why both he and his team-mate, Takuma Sato, had pulled off on the slowing-down lap - thereby, under the ludicrous regulations under which F1 is currently 'run' (David Coulthard, no longer constrained by McLaren's all-controlling PR machine, used the word "shit" to describe them), guaranteeing themselves fresh engines for Malaysia. "We had a problem," said Button, then appeared to get the hump when Louise refused to believe him. What utter cant!
Five minutes later, ITV viewers saw team boss Nick Fry unequivocally admit that the thing had been a ruse. Come on, Jenson; the British public deserve better than that, and so does Louise.
Now you're talking! As regular readers of this column (and of F1 Racing, which magazine I've edited since 1996) will not need reminding, I've long been a champion of the once-largely-unsung abilities of Giancarlo Fisichella; I was therefore neither surprised nor able to contain my delight when he crossed the line to win the 2005 Australian Grand Prix. As Eddie Jordan (bless 'im) used to say on as many occasions as he could find reason to, "Fuck the begrudgers!" Or, lest I frighten the horses (or, rather, the colts and fillies) on a website which is read by so many teenaged F1 fans, "I told you so!"
Fisico will win again this year, as will team-mate Fernando Alonso. Their personal battle will be one of the highlights of the season.
Another fascinating battle will be that fought out between McLaren's two megastars, which is why I've decided to deal with the Woking boys before the Grove chaps, in contradiction of the rubrik to which this article has been set out (ie, in 2004 constructors' championship order).
'Honours' (such as they were) were about even in Melbourne, for neither man shone. Kimi Raikkonen's progress from a stall that caused the first start to be aborted to eighth at the flag, and Juan Pablo Montoya's unforced error that converted a likely second place to sixth by the end, were described by Ron Dennis as "not the way to go motor racing".
Well, quite. But don't be surprised to see both men bounce back - perhaps as early as Malaysia. The MP4-20 is not only beautiful; it's very quick, too. And the advantage conferred to McLaren by their being the sole 'big team' allowed to run a third car on grand prix Fridays - especially when that car is tweaked so as to accommodate the frame of the world's best (and quickest) test driver, Alex Wurz - will be considerable. Expect wins, and plenty of 'em, from both JPM and the Kimster, throughout the year.
Good in parts - or, rather, much better than feared. No-one at Grove will be satisfied with having come away from Australia with just four constructors' championship points (courtesy of Mark Webber's gritty drive to fifth), but Patrick Head and Sam Michael both told me, when I spoke to them in the Albert Park pit lane on Thursday afternoon, that they're much happier with the FW27 than they were with the FW26 at this stage last season. Yes, it has problems; equally, they think they know how to fix them.
As I wrote in this place last week, Williams will get there - and both drivers will score points (yes, and podiums) regularly in 2005. The championship(s)? Not this year, sorry, no.
As usual, Sauber have built a very pretty car - and, as usual, it will figure in the upper reaches of the midfield all year. The trouble, entirely predictably, will be the drivers. Felipe Massa is quick enough, but he's still a bit wild; by (partial) contrast, Jacques Villeneuve manages to be slow and wild (not a good combination for a racing driver, by anyone's lights). He reminds me of late-vintage Jean-Pierre Jarier.
So...listen up, ol' Pete. When you get back to Hinwil, get out your copy of JV's contract and start reading. If you can find a clause that says he should be other than slow, and/or other than wild, then bite the bullet and get rid now. In his place, hire Davidson or Wurz or any one of half a dozen other more deserving (and quicker, and less wild) cases. You (now) know it makes sense.
Red Bull Racing
So far, RBR have been the surprise of the season. And, since in this place some weeks ago I urged Coulthard to retire rather than risk eroding the equity of his personal brand on what appeared likely to be a bit of a joke team, I'm happy to eat humble pie. (Well, after having crowed, "I told you so!" about Fisi, I have no choice when I'm shown to have been wrong, do I?!)
No; DC drove an excellent race in Australia, no doubt about it. And if he can keep up that kind of form all year, he'll actually improve the equity of his personal brand, not erode it.
Okay, he's unlikely to be able to repeat his Melbourne form too often this year - undoubtedly, the weather helped him in qualifying - but it looks like there's nothing much wrong with the Jaguar R6, does it? Which rather begs the question: why sack the men who created, designed and built it, simply because you've re-christened it the Red Bull Racing RB1? Tony Purnell (ex-team principal), Dave Pitchforth (ex-managing director), Ian Pocock (ex-director of engineering) and Chris Hammond (ex-head of vehicle science) must all have very mixed feelings right now: justifiably proud of their handiwork... but gutted and confused as to why they were so unceremoniously given the heave-ho.
Let's hope that 31-year-old 'boss' Christian Horner, ex-Ford Rally (and, briefly, ex-Jaguar Racing) technical administrator Guenther Steiner, ex-Jordan/ex-Renault designer Mark Smith and ex-Ferrari/ex-McLaren R&D executive Anton Stipinovich can keep up the highly encouraging performance levels demonstrated in Australia by the car created by their deposed predecessors... and that Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz's mysterious eminence grise, Helmut Marko, allows them to.
Oh dear. Not good. Not even a freak front-row grid slot - the result of one-lap qualifying ("I think it's s**t," said DC, warming to his new theme) and a dry spell between torrential showers - was enough to enable Jarno Trulli to score points in the hugely disappointing 2005 Toyota... while Ralf tugged his way from 15th on the grid to 12th at the finish. Come on, is Ralfie-boy really worth US$18 million a year, Mr Howett?
F1 insiders are fond of saying that Toyota's new(ish) technical director, Mike Gascoyne, is under enormous pressure. Well, I don't agree. Any engineer who's on a guaranteed four-year deal worth US$32 million, and who will collect the entire sum whether he lasts the course or not, is under no pressure at all! But then perhaps that's the problem.
No, the man under pressure is Toyota's motorsport president John Howett, the chap whose task it was to hire both Gascoyne and Schumi Jnr. And that's a shame, because he's an extremely nice, very intelligent and fantastically hard-working bloke; but if his mega-bucks signings don't turn things around very quickly indeed...
A bit of a shambles. Okay, Narain Karthiheyan may have split Barrichello and Alonso on the starting grid, but he finished only 15th, two laps down on Fisichella. Nonetheless, it was a workmanlike debut, for he achieved both his (unstated) aims: (1) to finish the race, and (2) to beat his team-mate, Tiago Monteiro (16th).
Since the team's 2005 car is merely a development of last year's Jordan-Ford, and since its new Toyota engine appears to be extremely reliable, Australia 2005 is probably a reasonably accurate barometer of what we can expect from this once-very-competitive
team over the next 18 grands prix.
They got one car to the finish, albeit four laps down on Fisichella. Not good. But, as far as Paul Stoddart was concerned, Melbourne 2005 was all about politics, not racing. His made his point, demonstrating to the satisfaction of the Victorian Supreme Court that the FIA's implementation of F1's latest rule changes may not have been as rigorously superintended as Max Mosley and his cronies insist we should all believe... but I wouldn't be surprised if, in so doing, Stoddy has signed his own death warrant.
The 1983 Labour Party manifesto was once described by that moderate Labour veteran, Gerald Kaufman, as "the longest suicide note in history"; if you've read the lengthy correspondence between Stoddart and Mosley (astonishingly, the FIA president has decided to reveal its every sentence, and you can check it out even now on the FIA's official website), then I think you might be forced to agree that that lefty firebrand Michael Foot (the Labour leader 22 years ago) now has a rival in F1's unofficial shop steward.
Personally, though, I hope not, for Stoddy is good company, street-wise and courageous. Moreover, as long as he manages not to fall in love with the political limelight (a danger, as his flagrant courting of local Aussie media in Melbourne last weekend made plain), he can play a useful role in shaping the future of a sport that in many ways is in a bad way, by stoutly questioning Mosley's (and Ecclestone's) more autocratic and ill-considered initiatives. Just as important, Stoddy adds a splash of colour to the otherwise too-grey (make that too-anthracite) world of 2005-model-year grand prix racing.
But, the F1 'piranha club' being what it is, he'll probably be (M)axed sooner rather than later.
Good 'ere, innit?