New formula voted an unqualified failure

Australian Grand Prix: Concern over lack of drama in protracted session overshadows pleasing progress of Button
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There is no truth in the rumour that Charlie Whiting of Fia, the sport's governing body, has been consulted about the leading teams incorporating headlights into their front-wing endplates, but when qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix lasted 20 minutes longer than the previous year's race you knew that Formula One was in trouble.

Under the new rules a one-hour qualifying session begins at two o'clock local time on Saturday and drivers do their usual out lap, qualifying lap and in lap, starting in the finishing order of the previous race. The resultant list of lap times is then reversed, to provide the starting order for a second hour of running, which follows immediately and determines the starting grid.

Besides giving tail-enders such as Minardi no time whatsoever to make any changes to their car set-up, this proved a dismal failure. It was, most observers agreed, an hour too long. Even Michael Schumacher, who snapped up yet another pole position in a new Ferrari that looks every bit as deadly as its five-in-a-row title- winning predecessors, didn't like it. "Maybe you should complain," he suggested. "It's not that interesting for us, either, to be honest."

The ITV presenter Jim Rosenthal was equally disenchanted. "It lacked a genuine sense of drama," he said. "And if it's going to last longer than the race, that's bad. We have lost the last-minute sense of excitement of the old days, but even last year we had the uncertainty that a heavyweight might make a mistake and have to start at the back. But the first impression of this new format is that must-see moments were few and far between."

The drama was largely confined to rookie Christian Klien going off-road when his Jaguar's power-steering hydraulics played up, and David Coulthard very publicly getting the final corner wrong and banging his McLaren around on the grass. Those with memories long enough to recall the visceral thrill of watching Ayrton Senna preparing for his final run in the free-for-all days, and executing it with chilling precision, cringed unhappily.

"I was punch-drunk at the end of the first hour," one eminent writer ventured. "It was too long and all it did was highlight the stupidity of not knowing what fuel load each car is carrying."

However, the new rule that obliges each driver to make do with one engine for a grand prix weekend would militate against a return to the Senna days, when drivers had 12 laps of qualifying and generally split them into four three-lap runs.

There were suggestions here that Formula One might revert to the 2003 format, where the second session on Friday afternoon determined the running order for a single hour of qualifying on Saturday afternoon. That would help, and it would please the F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who described the new format as "all nonsense". He had been against it from the outset but was outvoted.

All this disappointment was a shame, because as usual the first race of the season threw up as many new questions as it did answers to old ones. Ferrari scared the life out of everyone, especially the fancied Michelin runners BMW Williams and Renault, when Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello pulped the opposition with frighteningly quick times on Friday, but it transpired these were achieved on soft Bridgestone tyres that would not last long enough in the race. But even on harder rubber on Saturday, the red cars were worryingly quick as they wrapped up the front row of the grid for the second year in succession.

BMW Williams regained a lot of ground on Saturday as they got their tusk-nosed car going better, and Juan Pablo Montoya edged Schumacher out after the first hour of qualifying. But when it mattered he came up short and had to share third-fastest time of 1min 24.998sec - half a second off Schumacher's pole lap of 1:24.408 - with Jenson Button. The Englishman and his BAR Honda boss, David Richards, were cock-a-hoop to prove that their winter performances were no flash in the pan, and the latter's 33-1 £1,000 bet on Button winning his first GP looked less like a wild punt and more like a smart wager. Of all the teams here, BAR had made the most progress.

"Jenson told me several weeks ago that he thought he would be P3 in Melbourne," Richards said, "but he obviously didn't predict a dead heat! We have had our fair share of glitches over the last couple of days, and having to switch Jenson to the T-car with just an hour to go was not exactly as planned. This year that means changing the engine as well, but the faultless way the team dealt with it shows how far we have come, and is further proof that we have the ability to challenge the established order."

"I really enjoyed that," Button grinned. "It's always difficult to achieve the perfect lap but I'm very happy, though it's a little bit disappointing to miss out on third after I matched Montoya's time."

But nowhere near as disappointing as it was for McLaren, only 10th (Raikkonen) and 12th (Coulthard) in the line-up. Both cars obviously carried more fuel than most, but all weekend the sleepless mechanics worked their hearts out to tickle performance out of a car that still appears to have more bugs than the United Nations headquarters.

If Ferrari started the year with a bang, and Michelin realised they had serious competition once again on the tyre front, McLaren's lesson was that they have an awful lot more work to do.

Melbourne grid

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:24.408

2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:24.482

3 J-P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:24.998

4 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:24.998

5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:25.699

6 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:25.805

7 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda 1:25.851

8 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:25.925

9 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:26.290

10 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:26.297

11 N Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:27.065; 12 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:27.294; 13 C Da Matta (Br) Toyota 1:27.823; 14 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:27.845; 15 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Cosworth 1:28.178; 16 G Pantano (It) Jordan-Cosworth 1:30.140; 17 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi 1:30.681; 18 O Panis (Fr) Toyota no time; 19 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar no time; 20 G Bruni (It) Minardi no time