They came, they saw, they blitzed the opposition. And they did it with last year's car. Who else but Ferrari? The long-awaited confrontation between the heavyweights worked out overwhelmingly in the world champion team's favour yesterday.
Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello ran rings round their rivals' 2002 machinery, and the only flies in Maranello's ointment were the fact that the Brazilian snatched pole position by taking advantage of some unseasonal rain to beat his team leader, and was then asked a potentially embarrassing question. You are on pole position, you have the same number of points in this year's world championship as Michael; does that mean you are going to be allowed to have the spare car tomorrow? Barrichello made a manful attempt to deflect the question with the same deft touch he had applied at the wheel, for Ferrari are very sensitive to suggestions that they favour Schumacher at his expense. As if. "There is no crying," he began tactfully. "I just get on with it. They give me a car tomorrow and I just drive it and I see what it is."
Nobody had been bamboozled by Schumacher's ingenuous "surprise" at his car's speed the previous day, and equally nobody was fooled this time, either. Ferrari is Michael Schumacher and Michael Schumacher is Ferrari. And nobody expected anyone but Schumacher to lead into the first corner. There is, after all, that record-equalling fifth world title at stake this year.
Assuredly, the odds favoured a Ferrari victory. Make that a Ferrari one-two. The 2001 car upholds that old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and if there is one thing that Ferraris rarely do these days, it is break. Rivals may have more recent designs but Ralf Schumacher, third on the grid for BMW Williams after a weekend of matching team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, put things into perspective. He pointed out that while Williams have done 6,000 kilometres of winter testing with their new car, Ferrari have more like 20,000 under their wheels after running theirs all last year as well.
Part of Ferrari's dominance was in the car, part in their Bridgestone tyres. The final component was in the weather. Michelin's rubber prefers heat, and this year the Australian GP has been notable for mediocre weather only marginally better than back home in England. It rained briefly on Saturday morning, and again halfway through qualifying in the afternoon.
Those who managed a good first run, or just squeaked in their second before the rain came, were sitting in the pound seats. Others, particularly the hapless Japanese rookie Takuma Sato, who crashed his DHL Jordan Honda in the morning due to an electronic transmission problem and then had the spare car malfunction on him on his first lap in the afternoon, found themselves in trouble.
David Coulthard survived a brush with Jacques Ville-neuve to take fourth, ahead of new team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Montoya, but after putting his Renault team-mate Jarno Trulli in his place after their first runs, Jenson Button lost out when his second came just too late. Sauber Petronas's Nick Heidfeld and the BAR drivers, Villeneuve and Olivier Panis, had similar tales of woe.
Felipe Massa was the fastest rookie in an impressive ninth place for Sauber, while Allan McNish's F1 debut for the new Toyota team brought 16th place and left Jaguar in the shade. Sato, who was scheduled to take over team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella's car, was only able to do so on a wet track. He had no chance of qualifying within 107 per cent of Barrichello's time, but sensibly the stewards allowed him to start his first GP.
The British businessman Charles Nickerson, meanwhile, has been named as the man behind the plans for a 12th team to enter F1. Nickerson's Phoenix Finance Ltd company has bought some of the assets of the bankrupt Prost team as well as their entry into this season's championship. The team could be competing at the next race in Malaysia in a fortnight's time, though they might still face a court battle with Minardi boss Paul Stoddart, who insists rival team chief Tom Walkinshaw is behind the deal.
There could also be problems regarding an entry for the remainder of this season, depending on the exact state of the liquidation process involving the team run by four-time former champion Prost.
Walkinshaw says he has not bought some of the assets of Prost, declared bankrupt in January, but confirmed that his Leafield-based TWR group will provide technical support.Reuse content