Formula One exploded back into life in Melbourne yesterday. On the track, the world champion, Michael Schumacher, gave a demoralising performance, and off it the Minardi owner, Paul Stoddart, attacked the Arrows owner, Tom Walkinshaw, as the latter prepared to boost the grid to 12 teams by facilitating a last-minute buy-out of the financially troubled Prost team.
If Juan Pablo Montoya really believed that Ferrari's decision to bring its 2001 car to Australia would play into Williams-BMW's hands, Schumacher's speed comprehensively disabused him of the notion. While everyone else ran their 2002 machinery, it was Schumacher and his partner, Rubens Barrichello, who set the fastest times after two separate hours of free practice which kick-started the new season into life.
A damp track was something of a novelty by the standards the racers have become used to in Melbourne's Albert Park, but otherwise it was business as usual for Ferrari as their drivers ended the day 1.5sec clear of the Williams-BMWs of Ralf Schumacher and Montoya. They redefined the word untouchable.
On their Bridgestone tyres the red cars looked poised and powerful, but the Williams-BMWs and the McLaren-Mercedes cars of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen may have paid a price for the governing body's refusal to allow the French company to race rubber with asymmetric grooves. Right up until the last minute Michelin had intended to race the tyres on which its winter testing had been conducted, but the tough stance of the sport's governing body, the FIA, finally obliged it to bring tyres with the standard symmetrical grooves.
"We are quite pleased with today's performance and we feel more confident than before arriving here," Schumacher said. "But I am not over-confident because a lot can change between today and Saturday. Actually, I am a little bit surprised about the gap to the other teams, but as usual on Friday you can never be sure about what fuel loads teams are running."
Schumacher promised to study his data more fully to get a more complete picture, but nobody was fooled. The world champions are every bit as strong as they were last year, old car or not. Sir Frank Williams summed up the situation most succinctly when he admitted: "There is always room to learn but what we did learn yet again, unfortunately, was that Ferrari are in a class of their own."
To rub it in, Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, added: "We don't know in which configuration the others ran, but they weren't expecting our cars to be so fast."
The Scottish rookie Allan McNish was the first to leave the pit lane as practice opened at 11 o'clock, officially inaugurating Toyota's entry into Formula One. "Certainly I would have preferred it to be dry and it would have been easy to make a mistake in the first hour," he said, "but it all worked out well. It was important that we got the first day over with and did our jobs and didn't get caught up in all the hype. I think we did that quite well, so now we can get on with the job."
"Ferrari appear far away, but I hope that we will be able to catch up during the weekend," Ralf Schumacher said, rather limply trying to hide his consternation. McLaren's faster runner was Kimi Raikkonen in only seventh place behind Nick Heidfeld's Sauber- Petronas and Mika Salo in the leading Toyota. Salo admitted that he ran with a minimal fuel load – "enough to go around" – and the Japanese team is not expected to maintain that form in qualifying. David Coulthard's day was blighted by a rear hub problem.
Meanwhile, Stoddart pulled no punches, believing that Prost's revival will cost his team its share of television money allocated to the top 10 teams.
"It's Tom Walkinshaw, for sure, maybe under another company name," he claimed. "It's outside the Concorde Agreement, the document that governs the sport. As far as I'm concerned, liquidation is a virtue of its word, it's the final state, and there is only one way you can pull something out of liquidation under any law, and that is to simply pay all the creditors. The administrator was offered between $30m [£21m] and $60m for this team only some weeks ago. For whatever reason he rejected those offers and, the rest is history; it was placed into liquidation." The team is believed to have been sold for $1.8m. TWR will supply Hart V10 engines, and the drivers will be the Czech Tomas Enge and the Argentinian Gaston Mazzacane.
Stoddart called it a "travesty of justice", and threatened legal action prior to the Malaysian Grand Prix, but Walkinshaw says the deal will proceed.
"Minardi was the 11th team in 2001 and therefore isn't eligible for the television money," another team owner said. "The fact that Prost appeared to have dropped out for 2002 didn't change that. You don't automatically move up if another team isn't there."
Australian Grand Prix (Albert Park, Melbourne) First practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 27.276sec; 2 R Barrichello (Ger) Ferrari +0.523sec; 3 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams +1.545; 4 J P Montoya (Col) Williams +1.594; 5 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +2.296; 6 M Salo (Fin) Toyota +2.325; 7 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren +2.599; 8 F Massa (Bra) Sauber-Petronas +2.661; 9 G Fisichella (It) Jordan +2.911; 10 J Trulli (It) Renault 3.022; 11 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 3.022; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +3.076; 13 T Sato (Jap) Jordan +3.264; 14 P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar +3.290; 15 J Button (GB) Renault 3.312; 16 A McNish (GB) Toyota +3.326; 17 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar +3.697; 18 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda +3.851; 19 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Arrows-Cosworth +5.189; 20 M Webber (Aus) Minardi +5.420; 21 E Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows-Cosworth +5.608; 22 A Yoong (Malay) Minardi +6.735.Reuse content