Farce in the fast lane as Formula One prepares for the green light

David Tremayne on why Minardi's fight with motor racing's governing body is distracting for a new season

All the Minardi owner, Paul Stoddart, lacked as he stood by the podium waving to his home crowd, his cars still closed away in their garage, was a Batman suit like one of those disaffected fathers who climb public buildings to voice their parental protests. He was arguing the toss why he alone should be allowed to run to the old technical rules. While all this went on (or, rather, didn't), everyone else concentrated on going as fast as they could while trying to preserve their equipment. Ferrari ran only 37 laps all day. David Coulthard branded the new regulations "ridiculous".

All the Minardi owner, Paul Stoddart, lacked as he stood by the podium waving to his home crowd, his cars still closed away in their garage, was a Batman suit like one of those disaffected fathers who climb public buildings to voice their parental protests. He was arguing the toss why he alone should be allowed to run to the old technical rules. While all this went on (or, rather, didn't), everyone else concentrated on going as fast as they could while trying to preserve their equipment. Ferrari ran only 37 laps all day. David Coulthard branded the new regulations "ridiculous".

Welcome to Formula One, 2005 vintage.

If you wanted a cause célèbre with which to kick things off, there could barely have been a more tedious choice than the Stoddart Affair. The Australian's idea was to make a stand against the new rules mandated by Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, international motor sport's governing body, which he believes are unconstitutional. Inevitably, there were suggestions that Stoddart was a stalking horse for bigger teams anxious to oppose Mosley, as if the big boys in the playground had pushed him into the fight against the school bully.

Whatever the true reasons behind Stoddart's defiance, it was precisely what the sport did not need as its dirty laundry was aired so publicly. First, it was that nasty Jean Todt, at Ferrari, who was not going to sign the necessary agreement that Stoddart needed from all of his rivals before he could run his cars with the bigger and older front and rear wings and a different grip-generating diffuser. But then it transpired that the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, was not going to sign, either, and that the signature Stoddart was relying on there came from the former chief Tony Purnell when the team were known as Jaguar in 2004. Eventually, Horner was persuaded to honour Purnell's marker, whereupon another newcomer, Colin Kolles of Jordan, said that he was not going to sign because his team, too, was under new ownership.

Round and round it went, like some ghastly remake of Groundhog Day. Stoddart was acting from sincere motives, irrespective of how clear they were, but appeared stymied when the race stewards issued a statement yesterday afternoon in which they said they did not care how many signatures Stoddart got, as far as they were concerned he is only welcome to run his cars if they meet the 2005 regulations. Stoddart responded by seeking a temporary injunction against the stewards from the Victorian Supreme Court. He won the right to participate even if his cars are subsequently disqualified, meaning Minardi can take part in first qualifying this afternoon, although further court deliberations will follow today to decide if they can race. Pray God this farce is brought to an end soon.

The fact that the new regulations oblige everyone to conserve their engines led to the ludicrous situation yesterday morning when drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella never put together complete laps, and the enthusiastic crowd had to wait for the afternoon session to get better value for their money. Some teams kept their powder dry and did not reveal their full potential, but it was an entertaining hour in which the advantage went back and forth between a number of drivers. Coulthard, Alonso, Fisichella, Juan Pablo Montoya, his McLaren team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, and Schumacher all had their turns at the top of the time-sheets before McLaren's Spanish test driver, Pedro de la Rosa, slapped in a final effort to stop the clocks in 1min 25.376sec. Raikkonen improved to 1:25.676, and another late run, 1:25.940 from Nick Heidfeld in a Williams-BMW, pushed Schumacher and his 1:26.081 best from first to fourth. Behind this quartet, Montoya, Felipe Massa in a Sauber-Petronas, Jenson Button in the BAR-Honda, Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari and Fisichella were blanketed by half a second.

It is still too early to say with any authority who will ultimately set the pace. That will only become clear in qualifying this afternoon when it is in everyone's interest to run as fast as possible with light fuel loads. The lap times that result will then be aggregated with times from tomorrow morning's second qualifying session, when the teams must run with their race fuel loads and the same tyres, to form the grid.

How you interpreted all the day's information depends on how much you believed those who were trying to disguise their disappointment. McLaren looked as potent as their winter lap times suggested. Their team chief, Ron Dennis, said they felt "encouraged". At Williams-BMW it was more a case of surprise, given that they had expected to struggle more. Renault put a brave face on a surprising lack of grip, blaming the "green" track surface. Button admitted: "It's still difficult to know where we are in respect to the other teams, but we know which direction we want to go tomorrow."

Which left Ferrari. There was a feeling of dread when Schumacher went fastest, even though he is running a modified version of last year's car (unlike the Minardi, to 2005 spec). But opinion on the champion team's real performance varied according to how much rivals wanted to delude themselves.

"It looks as though our pre-season idea of who would be our main opposition was pretty accurate, although I was surprised at the pace of the Red Bull and Sauber cars," Schumacher said.

Besides Vitantonio Liuzzi who starred by setting the fastest time for Red Bull in the morning before spinning off early in the afternoon, the unluckiest man was the Indian rookie Narain Karthikeyan. He had an oil leak after only six laps in the morning and then got slapped with a $6,750 (£3,500) fine for exceeding the pit lane speed limit - while leaving the pits to start his first lap of the circuit.

First Practice Session (Melbourne): 1 P de la Rosa (Sp) McLaren-Mecedes 1min 25.376secs; 2 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +0.300sec; 3 N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams-BMW +0.564; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +0.705; 5 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes +0.851; 6 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas at 0.981; 7 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +1.186; 8 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda +1.235; 9 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +1.263; 10 G Fisichella (It) Renault +1.291; 11 R Zonta (Br) Toyota +1.432; 12 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull +1.641; 13 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota +1.786; 14 J Trulli (It) Toyota +1.819; 15 M Webber (Aus) Williams-BMW +1.953; 16 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-Petronas +2.13; 17 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull +2.186; 18 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda +2.515; 19 R Doornbos (Bel) Jordan +2.792; 20 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan +3.244; 21 V Liuzzi (It) Red Bull +3.550; 22 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan +4.235.

Out With The old the changing face of Formula One

As the drive to cut speed and costs continues, F1's latest rule changes include:

Tyres

Teams can no longer change tyres during a race, except in an emergency. They can use only two sets per race weekend, one for practice and the other for qualifying and the race. Should a tyre puncture during the race, the Friday set must be used. In the event of rain, a wet-weather set can be used.

Engines

They must last two whole race weekends this season, as opposed to just one in 2004. If an engine dies in a free practice session, a 10-place grid penalty will be imposed on drivers.

Qualifying

Grid places will be decided on the aggregate of two qualifying sessions, the first on Saturday lunchtimes with a light fuel load and the second on Sunday morning with the race fuel on board.

Aerodynamics

Front wings have been raised, and rear wings moved forward, to reduce grip and slow cars.

Driving dates the F1 season

6 March: Australia (Melbourne); 20: Malaysia (Sepang); 3 April: Bahrain (Manama); 24: San Marino (Imola); 8 May: Spain (Barcelona); 22: Monaco (Monte Carlo); 29: European (Nürburgring, Germany). 12 June: Canada (Montreal); 19: US (Indianapolis); 3 July: France (Magny-Cours); 10: Britain (Silverstone); 24: Germany (Hockenheim); 31: Hungary (Budapest); 21 August: Turkey (Istanbul); 4 Sept: Italy (Monza); 11: Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps); 25: Brazil (Interlagos); 9 Oct: Japan (Suzuka); 16: China (Shanghai).

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