Round 1, Australian Grand Prix
SCHUMI WINS, MINARDI CLAIM HEADLINES
1 Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2 Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams BMW)
3 Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren Mercedes)
4 Eddie Irvine (Jaguar)
5 Mark Webber (Minardi Asiatech)
6 Mika Salo (Toyota)
AS EVER, the marvellous people of Melbourne greeted the Formula One fraternity at the start of a new Grand Prix season. As the season panned out, the 2002 Australian Grand Prix would turn out to be one of those unforgettable races in a forgettable championship. It was one of those days where fairytales in motorsport do come true.
Touching down in Albert Park, Michael Schumacher was the overwhelming favourite to equal the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five world titles. However, he would have to start his title defence in an older Ferrari chassis. The Scuderia were not ready for the F2002 to turn wheels in the paddock just yet, due to minor reliability bugs. Nevertheless, Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were still armoured with a very strong F2001 to take the fight to the expected closest challengers, McLaren Mercedes and BMW Williams. Everything started well in qualifying for Maranello, sweeping up an all-red front row in a rain-interrupted session. However, it was Rubens rather than Michael starting from the front of the pack. The nearest competitor, Ralf Schumacher was nearly half a second behind in his newer Williams chassis. Eyebrows were already being raised at the prospect of a runaway championship.
Before every season, all preparations are made to fix issues with speed, durability and reliability, but in a matter of seconds, the 2002 season had started in chaos. Almost half the field were decimated in a monstrous multiple pile-up which you expect to see on a wet November Monday morning on the M25! The omens weren’t good from the moment the Arrows Cosworth cars of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi were left stranded on the grid with software glitches. The pair would be forced to start from the pitlane and eventually, separate technical infringements saw both men disqualified.
At the green light, Ralf stormed past his bigger brother to split the Ferrari’s, then had strong ambitions to snatch the lead. What happened next was utterly catastrophic. Ralf tried to overtake, Barrichello defended stoutly and the result saw the Williams BMW connect with the Brazilian’s rear end. Schumacher Jnr was launched skywards into the air, fortunately landing on the right side before a trip towards the tyre barriers. Barrichello had spun into the gravel with his wingless car and McLaren new boy Kimi Raikkonen followed him into the dirt having outbraked himself. Even the world champion had to take an excursion onto the grass. In the midfield, Nick Heidfeld took to the wet grass and lost control of his Sauber Petronas, t-boning Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan and his own team-mate Felipe Massa. To complete the mayhem, Olivier Panis followed Heidfeld’s tactic with similar results, ripping off the radiators from Jenson Button’s Renault and finally Scot Allan McNish collided with his Toyota team-mate Mika Salo, knocking McNish out and forcing Salo into the pits with heavy damage.
With so much carnage and eight cars out, it was to the disbelief of many that the Safety Car was scrambled. David Coulthard led Jarno Trulli, Juan Pablo Montoya, Schumacher Snr and Eddie Irvine. When the pace car pulled in, DC saw the chance to increase his lead. Montoya conceded third place on the restart to Schumacher when he ran wide at turn three, but Trulli was shining on his Renault debut and was doing a great defensive job to keep back the heavyweights. Just when it looked like the Italian was getting into a solid rhythm, he lost control of his car exiting turn two on the ninth lap. With his car in a hazardous area, Coulthard’s lead was trimmed to nothing and now had Schumacher and Montoya right behind him again.
Then on the second restart, Coulthard went straight on at the penultimate corner, caused by a faulty downchange on the gearbox. It was a strange moment and the Scot dropped to fifth. In the meantime, Schumacher got distracted by this incident and took a tighter line through the last corner. As a result, Montoya used the slipstream to great effect, driving around the outside of the German to snatch the lead. Irvine’s Jaguar was in a remarkable third place, but quickly lost out to the recovering Raikkonen. For four laps, Schumacher climbed all over the back of Montoya and on lap 17, finally forced the Colombian to lock a brake into turn one, compromise his exit and slingshot past into the lead. From then on, he ran away and hid for the rest of the afternoon. The rest of the Grand Prix was now about two stories.
Minardi’s local man Mark Webber had made the most of the attrition to get up to sixth place. He quickly gained on Coulthard, who was hobbling around with an issue that looked terminal. Nevertheless, the Minardi team rejoiced in the garage when Mark cruised past Coulthard’s defenceless McLaren on Lap 22. Soon afterwards, Coulthard cruised to a halt, as his gearbox finally packed up. Jacques Villeneuve had climbed up to sixth place in his BAR, but for the second time in four seasons, he suffered a collapsed rear wing and crashed. With his demise, just 8 out of the 22 starters were left remaining.
Back near the front, the pitstops would decide who out of the young chargers, Montoya or Raikkonen would claim the runners-up spot. JPM was first to peel into the pits, giving Kimi a couple of clear laps to maximise his potential, during which time he set fastest lap. When he dived into the pits, McLaren produced the usual faultless service and Raikkonen rejoined second, but only temporarily. He ran wide on the pitlane exit, used the grasscrete at turn one and handed back second to Montoya. Nevertheless, it had been an impressive debut at his new team for the next Flying Finn.
In the closing stages, nerves were fray in the Minardi camp. A faulty fuel rig had delayed Webber dramatically at his sole stop and now Salo was gaining on him considerably. It seemed like it would only be a matter of time before the faster Finn claimed fifth place. However, with just six laps to go, the whole of Australia could rejoice when Salo spun his car and ruined any hope of a better position. Webber was safe and sound.
At the front, Michael Schumacher had almost been forgotten by the ease he had pulled away at the front and made himself the man to beat again from the start of the season. His third Australian win in a row turned out to be a simple cruise ahead of Montoya and Raikkonen. Irvine did well to finish fourth on a day when keeping the car going to the finish would win points. Then, the moment Australia had been waiting for. Mark Webber beat the steering wheel in delight and team boss Paul Stoddart was exultant on the pitwall as Webber clinched two valuable points for the under funded Minardi outfit. Despite Salo’s late mistake, he hung on for a point for Toyota on their F1 debut.
Michael Schumacher may have given a indication of what would happen in F1 2002 over the next seven months, but never had two points been celebrated and welcomed in such a exuberant way. This was the day when Minardi deservedly took top headline spot in the next morning’s newspapers.