The 2004 Formula 1 world championship starts on Sunday 7th March in Australia. Since 1996, the first race has always been held at Melbourne. The start is scheduled at 2:00 p.m. (local time). The engines already start rumbling on Friday 5th March. At 11:00 a.m., the first free-practice session of the year is on. Michael Schumacher defends his sixth title, that was conquered on 12th October 2003 at Suzuka, Japan. Rubens Barrichello won the race. On the other hand, the champion suffered beyond all expectations. Despite finishing in 8th place, he still was able to seal the driver’s championship.
"The stimuli are always the same even after six titles. From one race to another, the car changes and I participate in its evolution. Tackling a corner 2 km/h faster is a thrill. When I exit the pits and onto the track, I know that something different will happen and I noticed it immediately. I just love fighting on the circuit and it's natural to me and as long as I am competitive and the love is there...I will enjoy it as long as I can".
Boredom is not part of Michael Schumacher’s DNA. During the winter break, the German drives with karts in order to not lose the habits of the engines’ sound and smell. In the meantime, he pays maniacal attention to physical preparation. He physically prepares the upcoming season like an iron man to say to least. This kind of training will allow him to cope with both the Australian and Malaysian heat without losing lucidity. Michael is always the first one to knock the door at Maranello when pre-season testing begins. He always asks the team to let him drive. Every year, the competition at the top continues to grow. The start of the season could be difficult for him. Yet, at the same time, the pressure to deliver has decreased significantly ever since 2000. It was piled high at the start of that season. The previous time that Ferrari won the drivers’ championship was in 1979. Now it is just a way of working. It is a mental behaviour that allows him to not lose concentration. Nobody would blame him for a defeat after the last four exhilarating seasons. Even the torment of the statistics is almost over. The last record to beat for Michael is the amount of pole positions that still belongs to Ayrton Senna. Right now it is 65 to 55 for the Brazilian driver.
"I have nothing to win any more, to some degree - but I just love the sport, the fighting on the circuit, it is natural to me. Nobody asks me about Fangio’s record anymore. It was a weight lifted off my shoulder. It was a burden to always answer the same questions".
Let’s talk about Senna. The 10th March 2004 marks ten years since the fatal accident at Tamburello corner in Imola.
"I do not need anniversaries to think about Ayrton".
New rules will be introduced at Melbourne. The engines need to last for an entire race weekend. Therefore, from now on, reliability will become increasingly crucial. The automatic start control system will be abolished. All teams have already adapted to this ban by using mechanical system that have the same function as the automatic one. The maximum pit lane speed-limit is increased, from 80 to 100 km/h. This is done in order to encourage a greater number of pit-stops. Are there all premises for a more spectacular Formula 1?
"The show already exists. Take for example the 2003 season: the championship was uncertain up to the last race. I would rather say that Formula 1 has never been this spectacular. The changes are part of the history of this sport".
Age is not a problem for Schumacher. At 35, he still feels as young as he was back in the 1994, when he won his first championship at the wheel of the Benetton car. The commitment to Ferrari for three more seasons does not worry him.
"In a driver’s career, there are unmistakable signs when it is time to quit. It is a moment that arrives for everyone. Age is not important when talking about the requested attitudes in order to remain at the top in Formula 1. I do not measure my reflexes all mornings. The stopwatch is important in order to understand how I feel. I would say it is going well so far".
What skills should a Formula 1 driver have?
"Nothing supernatural. At the start of my career, I considered myself to be an extraordinary human being. This way of thinking attracted criticism. I then matured and realized that us drivers are the same. Some are much faster or better in some situation but nothing more. There is nothing that makes me better than the others".
Speaking about rivals, Schumacher’s judgment compared to the previous winter. The topic was McLaren and particularly Kimi Räikkönen. During the first testing days, after the breaks that is imposed by the FIA regulations, the two McLaren-Mercedes cars are very competitive. Despite this, it has to be said that the winter testing performances are not always representative. Now the most feared in the Kaiser’s Ker pen are Williams and Renault.
"Williams-Bmw and Renault could be the trickiest opponents. Their results have been good right from the beginning and I have to say that they have impressed in this winter period where their testing results have been good. That's just it: I referred to them without forgetting McLaren".
This upcoming season should be even more difficult and uncertain compared to the 2003 championship. Let’s not forget that it was hard-fought until the last race in Japan. Formula 1’s analysts agree about that prediction. At the same though, they concede that Ferrari will still be the team to beat. It is difficult to say whether some teams had doped performances, during winter testing, in order to find sponsors. Pre-season testing was probably a way to confuse the ideas to Formula 1 employees and journalists. The championship might no longer be a fight between the usual top three teams: Scuderia Ferrari, Williams and McLaren. Renault and BAR could maybe assume the role of outsiders in the fight for the drivers’ and constructors’ titles. Flavio Briatore’s Renault team has an outstanding drivers’ line-up: the expert and very fast Jarno Trulli and the rising star, the Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Despite the performance increase, shown by all teams in different tracks during pre-season testing, it is said that almost every team still need to resolve some issues. Williams, one of the major candidates for the drivers’ and constructors’ titles, has imperfect reliability. McLaren can either do well or badly depending on the type of circuit that the car is run at. Speaking about Ferrari, there is always uncertainty around the performance of the Bridgestone tyres. Progress has been made in that regard but will it be enough to restrain such a well-prepared and numerically impressive competition? From what we have seen so far, qualifying is theoretically going to be a problem for the two F2004 cars that are driven by Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. The two Ferrari drivers might struggle to start the races on the front row of the grid if it is true that the Michelin-cars are very competitive during the first lap. In addition, starting from the back would be a major handicap thorough the season.
The Melbourne street circuit, which will hold the first race of the season, could be a good starting position for McLaren. Last year, David Coulthard won the race whilst Kimi Räikkönen took the fastest lap of the race. Michael started from pole position in the old F2002. Up until now, the Woking cars demonstrated to be very fast in the slow and twisty track and even managed to set a new lap record in Valencia. Let’s wait and see what kind impact the new FIA rules will have on the pecking order. The most significant ones include: one engine per weekend, double qualifying sessions on Saturday 6th March. Thus, if the predictions are to be confirmed, Ferrari might have an advantage if there are many rivals competing for victories and podiums. In 2003, Räikkönen had taken the title fight up until the Japanese Grand Prix. This is because, despite only winning the Malaysian Grand Prix only, the Finn counted on a long streak of point-finishes. A competitive Ferrari, who is capable of arriving at the end of every single race, does not need to excel all the time compared to previous years. Deep down though, the Maranello team hopes to dominate the upcoming season.
The engines are firing up. It is going to be a passionate Melbourne weekend for the Maranello guys that are overseeing the first baby steps of the new F2004 car. The team now anxiously awaits for the start of the first free practice session on Friday, which will mark the start of the Australian Grand Prix weekend. The Geneva Motor Show is a muffled showcase compared to the decibels that will fill the Melbourne air in a couple of hours. Ferrari and Maserati are two brands that glitter with novelty. The two dream factories promote the “made in Italy” of four-wheel sports cars around the world. Luca Montezemolo is the president that pulls the strings at Maranello and Modena. The final products count in the end. The Ferrari team cannot wait to start the new Formula 1 season with its new F2004 car. It is going to be a long and fascinating eight months-long season that is to going to be lived almost in apnoea.
Formula 1 has all the ingredients to have one hell of an exciting season: Schumacher vs Barrichello, Williams vs McLaren vs Ferrari, an improved Renault car and the rules that are tightening the teams like a noose around the neck. Montezemolo is impatient to start. The president is looking to increase Ferrari’s record of four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Giovanni Agnelli taught Montezemolo that the most beautiful title is the one that you have yet to win. The latter grew up with this philosophy in mind. The Ferrari helmsman also knows that the present is more important than the past. What counts is the present and not what was done beforehand. According to him, it is only history. He does not know the meaning of finishing “second” since the start of the Third Millennium. Will Ferrari be able to repeat recent success? Will the team be able to win race with either Michael Schumacher or Rubens Barrichello?
"Tests have told us that we have been grinding out results and shattered records. However, pre-season testing is one thing, the other is to analyse the pecking order during the race. Melbourne will give the first answers that are worth points. This is why it is my passion week".
The F2004 is a result of hard work, tons of laps, checks and discussions with technicians and drivers. The new Ferrari car has to contend the drivers’ and constructors’ championships with increasingly tough opponents. How do you feel a few hours before the start?
"I talked with Todt, the drivers, Ross Brawn, the entire staff, Martinelli and the mechanics. I feel their excitement every day. This F2004 is a step forward to the beautiful F2003 GA, the car with which we triumphed in previous months. I am not the only one who is convinced of this. During the Fiorano, Mugello and Imola tests, the new car was better than the previous one. I trust the judgement of the drivers rather than the stopwatch itself. They are ecstatic with the F2004".
Will 2004 be another dominating season by Ferrari?
"We will for sure be competitive. The championship, though, will be more difficult than last year’s one. I hope to come out on top in the second half of the season as we previously did. The competition is hungry for wins. A tough year awaits us given the battles over tyres and the regulations’ constraints. We are ready to start the season. We are only missing a few kilometres due to the frost given that we were forced to do fewer outings at Mugello and Imola. It is also important to immediately focus on reliability. The car and the drivers are necessary in order to win championships. I expect a concentrated team at Melbourne that is hungry for more wins. Schumacher is on top form. I talked with him on Sunday. He is stronger than ever and ready to tackle this season. Barrichello was strong during pre-season testing. He has matured a lot and increasingly happy with the bond between Ferrari and Michael".
Let’s talk about rivals now: which team do you think might threatened your title defence?
"We know Williams and McLaren’s strength, desire and hunger to beat us. Renault is also joining the big boys as well. It is going to be a lot of fun. I, however, prefer the championships that we dominate and are thus really boring. The great equilibrium and the uncertain battles are good for the public and the media. I do not want to say no more for superstition reasons. Furthermore, this is not the place to speak about this".
Ferrari, Maserati, maybe Confindustria in the future...
"I am not capable of working for honorary posts. One thing is certain: I do not intend to decrease my time and efforts for Ferrari whatever commitments I make. The Red Team is the most important thing that I have after my family and friends. I do not want to leave it".
Juan Pablo Montoya likes pranks as much as overtaking: the condition is that he is the one who makes them. In fact, a candid camera blows up his nerves during a Melbourne press conference. On Friday 5th March 2004, the Formula 1 engine are firing up for the first free-practice session of the Australian Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher’s rival, who spends Thursday’s evening in a secret location, entrusts to the Internet his feelings as a champion. He is happy and determined as usual:
"I am emotional. I cannot wait for the racing to start again. I like Melbourne, I race to win. Winter testing is hard work and not particularly rewarding because you cannot tell where you are in relation to the competition".
The Australian Transmission Channel 7 pulls a prank on Montoya. The setting is the press conference of a rich sponsor for the Williams-BMW team. The public is unaware about the prank. An actor, who plays as a reporter, starts to say Montoya’s name wrong. The British reporters pronounce his name as Uan. The point of this prank is that his name sounds like the one number. The actor’s question is:
"As the wonder kid, the rising number Uan [one], Uan, Uan [one] wonders, should Juan win only Uan [one] in Uan [one] year, would Uan want to have Uan [won] that Uan [one] in round Uan [one], Juan?"
Montoya nervously dismisses the interlocutor with a hand gesture. Another two questions follow. Soon after, the actor’s cell phone starts to annoyingly ring. He responds to the call in a high-pitched voice and leaves the room. Another phone then starts to ring. A second actor improvises a dialogue with his grandma, who wants to play golf with Montoya. The latter probably does not want to displease the elderly admirer and thus decides to storms off. Whilst doing so, he hisses these words: "When you are doing a day for a sponsor you have got to be very professional in what you are doing. And when it is not handled professionally, I do not think you have got to be there". The excuses are not useful though. Uan scolds the sponsor for allowing the two buzz killers to sit the conference. The sponsor, represented by manager Greg Fischer, comments:
"I guess Juan did not appreciate the Australian sense of humour. We had a lot of important corporate clients and basically it has ruined the day for them".
Jokes and jitters aside, the first act of the 2004 season will start in a bit. At 11:00 a.m., in Melbourne, the first free-practice session is about to start. There is renewed talk of favourites and outsiders, pit- stops and strategies, tyres and engines. The mood of the season is taking place. Everyone is against the dominant forces of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. The German driver admits to feel some nerves going into this season:
"I feel tense but at the same time ready to tackle my 14th career season in Formula 1. At last, the speculation about the test results is over. The track is what counts now".
Montoya, before the show against comedy, promises that the championship fight will be tough:
"Ferrari’s domination? I think that Ferrari is going to be strong again, like every year. I'm going to try to win the championship. It is very straightforward. When it is your time, it is your time and it was not meant to be last year. I think that 2004 could be the year to take the championship. Our car is a big step forward from last year. It is an excellent cat. It was presented early in order to test and develop it in the best possible way. We had some gearbox issues which have been solved".
The love for Australia unites the two big rivals. Schumacher admits:
"In addition to the importance of the event, there are other sensations coming through. Australia is fantastic and the people here are very relaxed. Melbourne is the ideal city to start the season. I like Albert Park even if it is a street circuit. Years ago, I did not think that I would like it. Yet, the security improved and I found the right feeling".
Meanwhile Montoya declares:
"I feel good here. I like Melbourne because it is warm and informal, a short-pants kind of place".
Speaking of the championship battle, attention must also be paid to Rubens Barrichello. Halfway through the 2003 season, he was as fast as his teammate. Then comes Räikkönen (McLaren) and Alonso (Renault). Young rookie Gianmaria Bruni speaks about the Spaniard during the presentation of the Minardi car:
"Fernando stood out at the wheel of this car without scoring a single point. I also want to do well".
The eve of the Australian Grand Premix is apparently peaceful. Everyone hides the tensions that is gripping them. The track, within a couple of hours, will give the first verdicts of the Formula 1 championship. The race, on Sunday 7th March 2004, is offering the first points of the season. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher are defending the world titles. Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher perform at the Vodafone Arena in a unique competition that includes football, basket and golf. The Brazilian seems to be in great shape and is ready to do his 12th season in Formula 1, his fifth one with Ferrari after the Jordan and Stewart stints.
"Someone might think that I am old. It is not true: I am 31 years old. I do not know why so many people worry so much about me. Why should I stop doing something that I enjoy so much? I do not feel so old that I cannot keep driving at the top level. I maybe have the opportunity to demonstrate my value this year. The rivals are many and are very strong. I will give my contribution to the team and to Michael if needed. However, I will race to win".
Is Barrichello a possible rival for Schumacher? It is a scenario that cannot be excluded. Rubens has matured a lot since his 1994 rookie season in Formula 1. He was very fast in different occasions last year and even started ahead of his teammate in the last six races of the 2003 season. His Silverstone and Suzuka victories were determined for Scuderia Ferrari’s success.
"It is definitely better than the F2003-GA, but it is hard for me to explain in what areas. I can describe it as feeling more complete. We can see the improvement on the stopwatch and from the data, but from the cockpit it is difficult to say why it is better".
Barrichello still thinks Michael Schumacher is the driver to beat. According to him, it is not easy to make a prediction regarding the first race of the season:
"We do not know what the rivals did. Williams was very fast at the beginning and then seemed to have a drop in performance. McLaren is an unknown. Apparently, Räikkönen and Coulthard are neither excited nor happy about the new car. Renault has improved a lot. I would not be surprised if Trulli and Alonso were protagonists right from the start. BAR stood out in pre-season testing".
The championship starts with many interrogatives:
"We should verify many things. The start without launch control or automatic gear change could be a major innovation. I think it is good and it gives more responsibility back to the drivers. There is also the matter of reliability with the one-engine rule for the entire weekend. The technicians prepared race strategies with the engines at maximum efficiency. Friday will be limited to studying the set-up and to understand the behaviour of the tyres. The findings will only arrive after the qualifying sessions on Saturday. Ferrari should go well but let’s wait and see. The polemics and the words are no more. What counts are the results on track. I hope to be very fast throughout the season. The results will then go down in history".
The statistics arouses impatience in Michael Schumacher. They say that the only two active drivers to have won in Melbourne are the Ferrari German driver (from 2000 to 2003) and David Coulthard (in 1997 and 2003). The only ones to have achieved pole position are Michael (2001 and 2003) and Rubens Barrichello (2002). Schumacher conquered the Australian people with his results. In addition, he captivated them with small gestures such as meeting and racing go-karts with little Lachlan. The child is 7 years old whose desire was to meet the German champion. As a result of the one-engine rule, the is a lack of track action during the first free practice session. Schumacher and the other drivers have to limit engine mileage in order to make it last for the entire weekend. The two McLaren-Mercedes drivers do fewer laps than others. Räikkönen only completes 33 laps whilst Coulthard 38. Rookie debutant Pantano, at the wheel of the Jordan-Cosworth, does an astounding 61 laps.
It is a mechanism that is littered with new traps. For example, a driver that has an incident can be able to use the T-car that is perhaps prepared for a teammate. The ones that have an engine failure are penalized with a 10-place grid drop, assuming that the mechanics can fit a new one in time. The drivers that run with low fuel have to do a pit-stop during the interval. There is thus the risk of driving an unbalanced car. Scuderia Ferrari, compared to previous two seasons, runs the new F2004 cars since the first race of the season. It is largely a direct evolution of the F2003GA. Williams brings on track the FW26 car. It has an unconventional anterior aerodynamics, a short and large nose that is connected to the aileron by two particularly long and forward-arching supports. This solution is designed to maximize the air flow below the car. For this reason, the front suspension is realized with a double keel. The aspect of the MP4-19 is equally characteristic. It is the evolution of the MP4-18 that never debuted last season.
The new McLaren is characterized by a low and very tight nose, in the terminal part of the car, as well as very compact sidepods. Renault is concentrated on the reduction of the reduction in the size of the radiating masses. They are also mounted asymmetrically in order to reduce the section of the sidepods. This means, however, that it is necessary to open slits in order to favour cooling. During the afternoon of Saturday 6th March, qualifying has a slight change compared to 2003. There are going to be two consecutive sessions. Every driver has to do one quick lap before diving into the pits. The standings determine the order for the second qualifying session. Two hours later, the grid is determined for Sunday’s race. There are other substantial modifications of the regulations such as the one-engine per race weekend. If it is not respected, a driver has a 10-grid penalty for the start of the race.
The cars install an engine that has already done around 300 kilometres at the start of the Grand Prix. This mileage is almost half of its life expectancy. The teams and drivers that saved mileage during the free-practice sessions (like for example Scuderia Ferrari and the Schumacher/Barrichello combo) will probably have more reliability on Sunday. Attention should also be paid at the start of the race. The starting electronic system, that managed this phase, is abolished. This does not mean that the drivers will have to use a traditional system. The clutch will be managed by a button in the steering wheel and the engine will automatically rise to the right rpm. This is demonstrated when the 20 drivers exit the pit lane without any wheel spin. This would be impossible to do without a system that manages the 900 engine horse-powers. A 10 mark has to be given to the engineers for coming up with this system.
The Albert Park street circuit is approached with an average speed of 220 km/h. David Coulthard won in 2003. The Scot was able to take advantage from an incredible serious of mistakes: Barrichello’s incident after just 5 laps, wrong tyres on Schumacher’s car, Montoya’s spin, Räikkönen’s penalty for speeding in the pit lane. Another interesting fact is that four Italian drivers will take part in the 2004 Australian race, including rookies Gianmaria Bruni and Giorgio Pantano. The Roma driver is the first to go out on track on Friday. The Padova one instead has a fine for speeding in the pit lane. The photocells find out that he is going at 62.8 km/h instead of the imposed 60 km/h (the limit is increased to 100 km/h during the race). The total fine is 750 thousand dollars. The Melbourne track has low-to-medium speed corners and two 300km/h straights. Schumacher likes it very much and the Ferrari F2004 seems to be on great form. Michael was really quick throughout the Imola test.
"It was not only Imola where the car went well".
It was somewhere around 3° degrees. In Australia, it is about 30 °C.
"It was three degrees for the others as well. It is not a concern. We do not know. Nobody knows. That is why we are here. We will find out".
Michael, do you like the new qualifying format?
"To be honest, last year’s Friday qualifying was strange. I thought the track was in bad shape due to other cars running after the last free practice session. I think this will not be the case on Saturday. It is a definitely a step forward. However, the approach to a Grand Prix weekend is different because you need to save the engine to last for three days".
How do you feel?
"I feel great".
Did you lose motivation?
"I lost none of it. Winning the championship last season after having a tough time during the middle of the year has made me even more motivated this year. It's still pure pleasure and thrill. I'm looking forward to this season. I think it is going to be special".
Is your teammate stimulating you to do better?
"Rubens improves year after year. Let’s hope that he does not drive any faster than that".
Jokingly says. Which team do you fear the most?
"Us, Williams, McLaren and Renault will fight for the championship".
What about the great drivers of the past? Who was your myth?
"It is actually not anything I was interested in. I wasn't interested in racing before I got into Formula 3 or sports cars. So I never watched any of those guys or had a hero in that era. Not in the way you would say. Not in the way I did in soccer because Toni Schumacher, he was my idol in soccer. But I didn't have the same thing for any of the racers".
Thus, the ex-Colonia and German national team goalkeeper who is not related to the Scuderia Ferrari driver. If you were not involved in motor sport, what job would you like to do?
Which sport would you suggest to your children?
"Soccer. It is less dangerous compared to Formula 1. However, they can do whatever they like. I will not force their choice".
There are often incidents during the Australian Grand Prix. Is it because you lose the habit of driving during the winter break?
"No, I do not have this sensation. We do many pre-season tests on January and February. I also race with kart as well. It is only a coincidence in my opinion".
A race prediction?
"I am afraid that it will be my most difficult year because I expect a big improvement from the other team. However, I have great faith in Ferrari. We are very well prepared and we have the desire to win and so I don't see why we cannot aim to win both world titles".
Twenty-nine years old Ralf Schumacher is married with ex photo model Cora. He has a son with her (David). He has 115 Grand Prix starts, 6 victories, 4 pole position, 236 points scored so far and a 5th place finish in the 2003 drivers’ standings. He is Michael’s brother who is a 6-time world championship. He is at Williams since the start of the 1999 season. The German has in dispute with the English manufacturer for venal reasons. He has not yet renewed the contract with the Grove team because they offered less than what he asks for. Up until now, he has already gained around 30 millions of dollars in terms of salary alone.
"What do I intend to do this year? Win the title. It is time to beat Ferrari and my brother. Either this time or never".
Ralf does not seem to have doubts.
"My security comes from the qualities of the car that they prepared for us. The FW26 is the best car that I have ever driven. If we do not achieve the championship, then we will have no more excuses. We have lost two championships by a whisker. We must make up for those".
What is the difference compared to previous seasons?
"We always started the championships with some problems and various doubts. Last year I tried to take the title away from my brother. I'm particularly confident this year: I really think that our chances are better this year than twelve months ago. We can be very fast right from the first race here in Australia".
There is a detail to discuss: your teammate wants to become World Championship before going to McLaren. Ralf has maximum respect for him but he is sure of his position within the team:
"Montoya is a strong rival. I do not think that he will have difficulties in expressing his full potential. Someone said that he could have some difficulties with the team for his prematurely announced departure in 2005 but I do not think it will be the case. All Williams needs to do is win, no matter who the driver is. He will be a tough competitor but I am not inferior to him. Let’s see".
Another problem still needs to be resolved. It is about the quarrel on the money issue with big boss Frank Williams.
"I do not think so. We will think later about the money. Let’s win races and championship first".
Are you sure that Ferrari is beatable?
"It is true; Ferrari remains the team to beat. With these conditions, how can one understand what is the potential of the cars? It's impossible. Anyway, I haven't even looked at the F2004 during the Imola test. It is not enough to be fast for a couple of laps. We are firmly convinced that we have a package that should allow us to aim for victories right from the first few races of the season".
Williams, Ferrari. What about the other teams, do the other drivers not count?
"We will see about McLaren in the next few days. They went very well in some circuit and struggled in others. However, there's something I already know: they'll be quick. Maybe they will be the favourites at Melbourne but I do not know what they will be able to do in the long term".
There is someone betting on Renault and even on BAR.
"BAR has caused a stir in the winter testing. They certainly made progress as well as Renault although they do not convince me completely. I am not sure whether they will be consistent throughout the season".
Williams vs Ferrari and vice versa. Will a fight develop along these lines? Ralf smiles:
"It will be a fun championship regardless. I will not be afraid of anyone".
Not even your brother?
"No one. Ferrari impressed me during testing. Racing is another thing though. It is not enough to be fast for a few laps".
The talks are over. The drivers head out of track for the first two practice session of the year. In FP1, Michael Schumacher only does two runs. The first lap was similar to the one that was set for last year’s pole position. He then goes on to set a blistering new lap record with a 1:25:127. The Ferrari drives then dives into the pits to watch the other drivers. Barrichello is 2nd fastest, 3 tenths slower than his teammate in 2nd place. Trulli is an astounding 1.8 seconds behind the Ferrari. The other drivers are trudging along. Despite the change of regulations, new tyres and the replacement of car pieces, the other drivers are two slower than Michael. In FP2, the German sets a really impressive 1:24:718 time. Barrichello is a tenth behind in 2nd place. The best of the rest remains Jarno Trulli. The Renault drivers gets within a second of Michael. What is most striking is the ease with which the two Ferrari drivers are able to set those laps times. Some of the greatest drivers are present to see the two practice sessions and are astounded by Ferrari’s domination so far. Stirling Moss, the eternal runner-up in the 1950s behind Fangio, comments:
"I would feel psychologically shattered if I were a Ferrari rival".
Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda, who have three titles each, agree with this statement and add:
"We knew that Ferrari worked well through the winter break but not to this extent".
People inside the Scuderia Ferrari team try to calm the enthusiasm despite setting record during the first day of the Australian Grand Prix weekend. In fact, to be cautious is never enough in these cases especially when it is only the first race of the season. There many other unknowns to be discovered even if the Maranello team is satisfied by these results. It is better to wait until the end of the race to celebrate.
"It is too early to think that we are safe from the other teams. We do not know what the others did so far. The positive thing is that we understood that we have an exceptional car. If the situation does not change – this is always possible in Formula 1 - then we know that we can compete for the championship once again. However, let’s not forget what happened at Montevallo last ear. We were flying on Friday and then we were nowhere in both qualifying and race".
The German driver is happy with the work done so far:
"I am happy with the performance of the car which has matched our expectations after winter testing. The rational and methodical work allowed us to fully understand the F2004. We are on the right track. It was not necessary to do a revolution (referring to Williams and McLaren who changed almost everything on their respective cars). It was enough to improve on last year’s car. We have nothing spectacular to show but we made progress in terms of performance. I am proud of the team, everyone worked incredibly well. It is fantastic".
Schumacher is not surprised by Renault’s performance:
"I expected Renault and Williams to be much closer to us. We should not read too much into the lap times, as it is too early to say if this is a true picture of the order among the teams: in fact, I doubt that it is. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow".
It is a curiosity that also intrigues Rubens Barrichello, who is impatient to do the race. He does an eye panoramic tour of the Ferrari garage before speaking to the press:
"I am very happy with the car. We still have some more work to do on the set-up, but the car shows great potential. So I think there is more to come from it this weekend, which is encouraging. The car is still quite new for me, as I only got one and a half days running in it in dry conditions. I am still learning it. We must not read too much into today's result but it is a good way to start the season".
The Brazilian is not worried by the new rules and the obligation to use one engine per weekend:
"Our mechanics and technicians worked with caution. There should be no surprises in that sense. You probably noticed that Renault is overall performing well and that Williams is very fast on a single lap. McLaren remains an unknown car. I am convinced that no tricks have been used in order to hide the cars’ performances. We are ready for first race of the season".
The rivals are shaken by the lap times set by the two Ferrari drivers. Yet they prefer to say the usual things such as:
"The first day does not count much. We focused on trying to find the right tyres for the weekend and went through our planned programme".
Räikkönen is the only one to express some doubts over the performance of the MP4-19 car:
"I am not too happy with the set-up of the car at the moment, but we will work on it overnight and hopefully improve for tomorrow".
Throughout the afternoon, plenty of aspirin tablets are circulating in the pit lane. Many people are struck with sudden headaches. It is a sickness that does not certainly involve Flavio Briatore, who is very motivated for the car by his Renault team:
"Ferrari honestly surprised me. We are continuing to progress regardless. We want to push off the podium one of the three teams that was ahead of us in 2003. There are tensions within some teams whilst we are beginning to enjoy ourselves".
On the other hand, Bernie Ecclestone is smiling whilst commenting the free-practice session. The English manager jokingly declares:
"The first probes have landed on Mars. We will also bring Formula 1 then when possible".
The patron is in great form after quickly recovering from a 24-hour flight and 11 of time difference.
"I continue to do this job because I enjoy it. It is not like I need the money".
Formula 1 is in good health. 51.000 spectators pay the Thursday ticket to only ask an autograph to the drivers who were still on holiday. 80.000 assist the free-practice sessions on Friday 5th March 2004. The longest championship starts in the meantime. There are new circuits, talks are ongoing with other circuit organizers and the pace between manufacturer is almost there. In terms of predictions, Ecclestone previously bet on Räikkönen. Do you still stick with him after Ferrari’s exploit?
"This championship will go to the most reliable team. I will say more: it is possible to win the title without winning a single race".
According to you, who is the best driver ever?
"Difficult to day. Michael Schumacher would have probably won less titles had Ayrton Senna not left us ten years ago. I would have liked to see the two battle on track".
Four Italian drivers are in Formula 1 this year. Is it a new trend?
"I think that it is only a coincidence. There were more German drivers previously. In the past, many Brit drove in Formula 1. There are also commercial reasons behind this Italian phenomenon".
What do you think about the 2004 championship?
"It looks like it is going to be a good season. I see five very competitive teams who can fight for the championship. Let’s wait a couple of races in order to have a more precise idea of the pecking order".
Do you like the new introduced rules?
"Some yes, others not. The ones that I do not like were necessary to save money".
Like the one-engine per weekend rule?
"Yes, it is a restrictive rule. The collateral effect is that you see fewer cars on track during the free-practice session since the teams are trying to limit the engine mileage".
Was there any other way to contain the budget?
"No, this is not the aim of the regulations".
Maybe but the drivers’ salaries could be reduced...
"There is always someone that has lots of money to spend for the drivers. The Expenditure would only decrease if the income is decreased".
Does Formula 1 need someone like Schumacher?
"Formula 1 needs Ferrari".
Thus whoever who drives the scarlet car?
Do you miss Villeneuve?
"No, he was no longer the champion who won the title for some years now. I still believe in him through and I am convinced that he could still be competitive in a top team. I would like to see him at Ferrari".
Do you think is possible?
"I would like to have him with us. Having said that, I do not know whether or not he is able to drive a Formula 1 car".
The first Bahrain Grand Prix will be raced on Sunday 4th April 2004. Is the circuit ready?
"It is absolutely perfect. It is an amazing facility".
Then it is China’s turn on Sunday 26th September 2004: will the expansion to the East continue?
"We will go to Istanbul in 2005 and maybe in Italy in 2007. The change is inevitable because the new markets are in the East. Europe will become the Third World within a decade. The Grand Prix organizers are historically businessmen. Today, the governments do. Hosting a Grand Prix offers a world advertising showcase at low cost".
How are the negotiations with the manufacturers on Formula 1’s profit-share going so far?
"A few details are missing. There will never be an alternative championship".
Let’s leave aside Ferrari’s triumphs for a moment. In Formula 1, an honorary curriculum does not in guarantee victory. Michael Schumacher chases a 7th world championship title after overtaking Juan Manuel Fangio. Everyone is getting tired of getting overpowered by Schumacher. Many years have passed since we have seen so many drivers race at the start of a Formula 1 championship. There are 10 teams present in Formula 1. Four are aiming for success. During winter testing, they duelled and demolished the lap records of all circuits, from Mugello to Barcelona, from Jerez to Valencia. Going into the first race of the race, Williams, McLaren and Renault seems to perform very strong. Even BAR-Honda, who is using the Michelin tyres, is also competitive.
The list of Schumacher’s heirs has increased. The 23-year old Finnish driver, Kimi Räikkönen, who finished 2nd at the end of the 2003 championship, is fast and makes little mistakes. Juan Pablo Montoya, 29-years old Colombian driver, is very intemperate. He will become a great driver if he matures. Fernando Alonso was well spoken of in 2003. He has excellent technical skills and has been compared to the Benetton Schumacher, who won in 1994 and 1995 for Benetton. Flavio Briatore knows what he is talking about when making this comparison. Jarno Trulli is also a talented driver. At 29, the Italian driver dreams about the maiden Grand Prix win and maybe something more. Michael must pay particular attention to Barrichello. In 2003, he was a constant and mature driver. The Brazilian triumphed in Japan. In addition, he is ready to battle Schumacher after four squire seasons. Lastly, Ralf intends to shake off the reputation of being Michael’s younger brother.
The Melbourne result must not deceive or disappoint. Design flaws emerge from the first race of the race which will corrected in the future. In 2003, David Coulthard won the Melbourne race whilst Schumacher finished 4th. Ferrari and Williams, who then become future protagonists of the season, were struggling a lot during that particular race. One of the most abused phrases in motorsport is that the championship is long. In 2004, it needs to be repeated once again. There are 18 races in this year’s calendar. It is a record. The regulations stipulate that 17 Grand Prix maximum have to be held. It thus took the unanimous opinion of all the teams to lengthen the season. The Formula 1 circus will run for the first time in Bahrein and in China. Spa-Francorchamps and the legendary Eau Rouge corner are back whilst the Austrian Grand Prix has been cancelled.
Ferrari tackles the upcoming season with the F2004. It is a revised and corrected evolution of the GA world championship car. The car has been reinforced in order to withstand the 700 kilometres of a weekend as imposed by the new rules. The engine still maintains the 900 horsepower. The aerodynamics has gained in efficiency despite wind-size limitations. The tyres are the great unknown. The battle between Bridgestone and Michelin has already started. We will see it with the Malaysian and Bahrein’s suffocating heat, the Belgium and England rain and the variable climate of the other European races. Yet, even in a technological world such as Formula 1, details and good luck could decide the outcome of the race as well as a faster pit-stop, a puncture and a gamble strategy. This is the sport. After overtaking Fangio, the German champion and the Ferrari team chase new record. However, the competition is growing. Many drivers, such as Montoya, Räikkönen and Alonso, are trying to beat the German champion for glory.
Meanwhile, though, the record beat strikes again on Saturday 6th March 2004. He will start ahead of everyone for the start of the Australian Grand Prix. This is Michael Schumacher’s 56th pole position in Formula 1. They are less than the ones scored by Ayrton Senna until the fatal Sunday 1st May 1994. The Brazilian qualified 65 times with the fastest time. Schumacher dedicates this result to president Montezemolo (“I know how tense he becomes when the first race is about to start”). The Ferrari start equals another record: 46 pole-positions with the same team. Senna did the same with McLaren. The reigning champion starts ahead of teammate Rubens Barrichello. It is the 14th front-row lockout for the Ferrari duo. As it was the case in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya starts in 3rd place for Williams. At the eve of the Australian Grand Prix, Schumacher warns:
"Yeah, it has gone quite well for us and honestly we are not too surprised about it. Australia has always been very good for us. If you take last year, we were very strong last year. I do not know by how much we sort of led the time trial last year. Then we came to Malaysia and the thing looked completely reversed".
Let’s recap in 2003: Ferrari dominated Friday and Saturday’s sessions. The race, instead, did not reflect the pecking order. The initial race and the Safety Car confused the standings. The rest of the championship became significant. The Ferrari team lost the enormous performance edge that allowed them to dominate the 2002 season. Williams became competitive starting from Monte-Carlo. McLaren regularly scored points with Kimi Räikkönen. Speaking of the latter, 2003 ended with a passionate head-to-head with Michael Schumacher. This is the reason why the record man invites everyone to be cautious at the start of the season. There are many variables and innovations with that everyone has to contend with.
For example, the one-engine rule is yet to be metabolized. Ferrari, Williams and Renault do around 280 kilometres before the race. Coulthard and Räikkönen stop at 200 kilometres for fear of an engine failure. Overall though, a new element of uncertainty enlivens the competition. On the other hand, Sunday’s double qualifying sessions are not nice. The first half, which last almost an hour, is useless. One car at a time has to go out on track for one flying lap. What is the point of it? The goal is to determine in what order the drivers have to start the second part of qualifying. The drivers are also perplexed by this as well. Jarno Trulli recounts:
"I tried to reach the finish line without any damage during the first part of qualifying. I then concentrated on the session that allows us to try achieve pole position".
His colleagues comply with this explanation because an accident would have excluded them. As Michael Schumacher says:
"These are the rules".
The moral is that you cannot tell who is the fastest driver. Some put little fuel on board in order to qualify better. Others put more in order to do one less pit-stop during the race. It is difficult to understand which drivers stomped on the accelerator and those who did not do that. The Italian drivers do not shine during the qualifying session. Best of all is Jarno Trulli (Renault) with the 9th fastest time. Giancarlo Fisichella (Sauber) is 14th, whilst the rookie Giorgio Pantano (Jordan) is 16th. Gianmaria Bruni is really unlucky. As he was about to engage first gear, the hydraulic system that controls the Minardi gearbox breaks down. Valentino Rossi is among one of the many celebrities to arrive at Albert Park for the start of the Australian Grand Prix. The Formula 1 circus woos him with distrust. They are admired by his character but are afraid that a four-wheels ride could turn out to be a flop. Valentino is not in Australia as a tourist. In previous days, he was at Phillip Island for a series of tests with Yamaha. The Motogp championship is about to start as well.
Meanwhile, 50.000 spectators will gather at Albert Park. The reason behind this record is that local hero Mark Webber is driving for Jaguar. It can also be said that the flags, t-shirts and merchandising are almost all-red. Montoya and Button match lap times. However, the Colombian will start ahead because he was the fastest driving during the first session. Button qualifies with the T-car. In order to not have a 10-place grid drop, the Honda technicians install Friday’s engine. Panis, Klien and Bruni do not complete the lap. Bernie Ecclestone bets a symbolic dollar on Kimi Räikkönen and McLaren. According to the Formula 1 boss, the Finnish driver and Ron Dennis’ team, powered by Mercedes, will snatch the titles from Ferrari. It probably is wishful thinking or rather a dream coming from the astute English manager.
He would like to see different race winners. According to him, it would make the championship even more compelling and uncertain. Let’s not forget that the new rules do not favour Scuderia Ferrari, Williams-Bmw and the Juan Pablo Montoya/Ralf Schumacher line-up should theoretically be Ferrari and Schumacher’s most feared rivals. The new Williams car appeared very fast during pre-season. Furthermore, it was the team who did the most mileage out of every other team. The engine and the chassis are fine-tuned. The only question mark is the imperfect reliability. However, this applies for all teams that will tackle the first race of the season in very hot conditions. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how the co-existence between the Colombian and Michael Schumacher’s brother will work out. Montoya, among other things, already signed a contract with McLaren for 2005. This does not favour him even if Frank Williams kicked out drivers who had just conquered the title.
McLaren has various difficulties so far despite preparing the 2004 car since the 2003 season. The cockpit is tight. Furthermore, Räikkönen says that the new car lacks overall speed and could only go well in tight and twitchy circuits. Then there are the outsiders. Renault, with Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso, is ready for Melbourne. If the R24 car is competitive, then the Italian driver will be able to demonstrate his driving skills. Same goes for Alonso. In addition, the Spaniard has to watch out for Trulli throughout the season. Jarno never gave in to the supposed superiority of a teammate. Let’s talk about the other remaining teams. Jaguar (despite the presence of the talented Mark Webber) and Toyota seems to have not made any progress. On the other hand, the Honda-powered BAR team came out of nowhere to fight for point-scoring positions. The chassis is good. Furthermore, the Japanese often show that they know what they are doing with the engine albeit with impressive ups and downs. Jenson Button, after setting astonishingly fast lap times in pre-season testing, can fight for one win and many podiums at least. The first test for Ferrari’s rivals is on Sunday 7th March 2004. At least three races will be needed in order to understand the pecking order for this season. 2004 could be the year in which Renault becomes a top team. Williams-BMW, with the very particular walrus nose, is Ferrari’s most feared rival for the drivers and constructors’ championships.
The new McLaren-Mercedes is the first car to go out on track. During pre-season testing, the Woking team had lots of ups and downs. In the meantime, Italy becomes Formula 1 queen. Four Italian drivers were never seen since 1999. Alex Zanardi and Luca Badoer, as well as veterans Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, are part of the Formula 1 grid. There are only three Brazilians left: Massa, Barrichello, Da Matta. Pizzonia was dropped by Jaguar in the middle of the 2003 season. There are three German drivers (the Schumacher brothers and Heidfeld), two British (the Scotsman Coulthard and the Brit Button). The remaining eight drivers represent the other countries that can make the Formula 1 World Championship even more attractive (in terms of sponsors). Apart from the number itself, the team of Italian drivers has increased in its quality and ambitions. Pantano and Bruni, who are this year’s rookies, are content to do some learning. On the other hand, Fisichella and Trulli share starting to think big. On Tuesday 13th July 2004, halfway through the championship, Jarno will turn 30 years old. It is an important and mature age for an athlete. This season could be the turning point for his Formula 1 career. The Pescara driver can steadily fight for the top positions as well as scoring a maiden victory. The latter is his personal goal. He can achieve this thanks to his skills and talents. In addition, the R24 car became competitive really quickly.
"Our most significant step forward is on the engine. We progressed a bit on the aerodynamic side because the limitations imposed by the new rules imposed held us back".
The lack of engine horse-power was a defect of the old Renault car. It was seen especially on high-speed circuit such as Monza.
"Now we should go well everywhere".
His best result in 2003 was a 3rd place finish at the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. In 1999, at the Nürburgring, Trulli finished in 2nd place. Father Enzo introduced him into karting as a child and he became world champion in 1991. In 1996, he won the German Formula 3 championship. This is his opinions regarding the tyres:
"On dry conditions, the Michelin tyres have an advantage everywhere".
Giancarlo Fisichella is a recognized talent. His colleagues vote him as best driver in 2002. In 2003, he is able to win an incredible race in Brazil. However, apart from esteem and the exploit, the Italian never had a competitive car at his disposal. In 2004, he makes a big step forward with Sauber. The latter has the same Ferrari engine that Schumacher and Barrichello have. In addition, with the new wind tunnel, the team develops a chassis that is similar to the F2003-GA’s championship one. Fisichella has another advantage this year. He is hired as Ferrari’s test driver. In 2005, he could become an important market token. There are two conditions to make this happen. Firstly, Sauber has to be competitive. Secondly, he needs to able to score good results at the wheel of the C23 car. Some important places will be available. Williams, for example, will lose Montoya and - most likely - Ralf Schumacher. In Formula 1, the Italian debuted with Minardi in 1996 after an apprenticeship in the minor categories. Talking about those, he won the Formula 3 Italian championship in 1994. This is his opinion regarding the tyres:
"Michelin’s performance is superior in the first lap. Then it quickly gets worse. Our Bridgestone tyres instead guarantee a much more regular performance".
Gianmaria Bruni. Is it possible to stand out at the wheel of a Minardi? Absolutely. Nobody expects you to score points or to step on the podium. In addition, he has the possibility to learn and accumulate experience in Formula 1. The important things are to extract the maximum out of the car at disposal, find the right set-up and drive to the limit. Gianmaria’s job is to consistently be faster than teammate Baumgartner. It is something that he can easily achieve. From time to time, he can occasionally overtake the worst driver of the other 9 teams. This is what a certain Fernando Alonso did in 2001 for the Faenza team. The Spaniard is today hailed as the new Schumacher. Bruni is one of three rookies. He was born in Rome in 1981 and did the typical move up the ladder from karting to F3000. In 1999, he won the European Formula Renault championship.
Giorgio Pantano is 20th and last. The Italian debuts for Jordan, a team that does not guarantee extraordinary performances. However, thanks to the 4.5 million that the personal sponsors bring to the team, Pantano is still able to debut in the magical world of Formula 1. The 25-years old Padova driver is alongside Nick Heidfeld, who is already on his 5th season in Formula 1. The German is a good bench mark for the Italian. His curriculum consists of the German Formula 3 Championship in 2000. He finished 9th, 2nd and 3rd place respectively in F3000. 31-years old Giancarlo Fisichella is the oldest out of the four Italian driver. At the same time, he is the only Italian driver to have already won a race. Trulli, who is 29 and a half years old, closed the 2003 season in 8th place; Giorgio Pantano, was the last driver to sign a contract. Gianmaria Bruni is the youngest Italian driver and will turn 23 on the 30th of May.
Giancarlo Fisichella drives the car that is called a Swiss Ferrari. This is because the V-10 Maranello engine rumbles under the blue bodywork of the Sauber, even it is re-baptized by the Petronas sponsor. Since 1970, the Sauber headquarters are at Hinwil, which is not far from Zürich. The team is in Formula 1 since 1993. It is Ferrari’s client since 1997. On the 14th March 1993, Sauber debuted in Formula at Kyalami. This was the 1st out of 173 Grand Prix starts. 1993 was dominated by Prost and Senna. At the South African race, Sauber scored a 5th place finish with Lehto. The best result in F1 was a 4th place in the constructors’ championship at the end of the 2001 season. The team has scored six podiums. Sauber succeeded twice in the prototype Sport championship. The team also won at the 24Hours Le Mans race two times Apart from this, the team has not enjoyed a single victory in Formula 1. the Swiss team hopes to score a win in 2004. Roma driver Giancarlo Fisichella and the Brazilian Felipe Massa will drive the Swiss cars. They are talented and ambitious drivers.
Patron Peter Sauber is a man who knows about talent. At the start of the 90s, he entrusts the Sports cars to a certain Michael Schumacher. After a couple of laps, the German was already faster than his much more experienced teammates. In 2001, Peter throws into the mix a Finnish adolescent who does not yet have a Formula 1 super licence. Kimi Räikkönen has to tackle the first round of the championships with a provisional super license, a sort of pink sheet that you are using in order to drive. Kimi, after a year with the Swiss team, goes on to sign with McLaren for a sum of around 25.000.000 dollars. This amount of money is then used to build a really modern wind tunnel. Even the sponsors were generous, in particular Credit Suisse. Thanks to it, the team is able to survive in Formula 1 without any sort of anxiety. In contrast, Jordan and Minardi are struggling to get by in the sport. The Malaysian sponsor, Petronas, enable to close the deal with Ferrari. In 1996, Sauber approach Jean Todt to discuss a potential engine supply. The Ferrari dg leaves no hopes for it to happen. Despite this, negotiations start. In 1997, the manager manages to seal a deal with Todt in order to use Ferrari engines for the start of that season. In 2004, the contract terms change.
The blue arrows receive last year’s Ferrari engine. This is the case until 2003. However, given that the rules state than one engine has to last for an entire race weekend, it was impossible to do what was done before. Therefore, Fisichella and Massa will tackle the Melbourne Grand Prix with the same engine horse-powers as Schumacher and Barrichello. However, the two Sauber drivers will not benefit from technical updates during the course of the season. The Bridgestone tyres are also the same. The chassis makes the difference. It is similar to the Ferrari F2003-GA’s one (answering to the doubts of the rivals. The Federation certified its originality). The car is called C23. The C stands for Christiane, name of Mrs. Sauber. The goal is 5th place in the constructors. Speaking about another matter, Max Mosley is the president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. This body should manage the Formula World Championship even if Bernie Ecclestone is the real leader. Mosley è a character who sometimes indulges in peculiar comments. In the previous days, he declares:
"I would like the cars to be equipped by only one tyre supplier".
He is right in this instance. The tyres are a determinant element for the final result. You can create the perfect car that has an exceptional engine and world champion driver: however, you will not be able to win races if the tyres do work properly. A powerful engine can mean a three-tenths difference per lap on a medium-high speed track. The difference, between the best compound and a discrete one, can equal around two seconds. Those difference become even greater in wet conditions. Formula 1 has two tyre suppliers for the time being. Michelin plays a leading role with six teams: Williams, McLaren, Renault, Toyota, Jaguar and BAR. Bridgestone, instead, only supplies Ferrari, Sauber, Jordan and Minardi. Scuderia Ferrari is the best team since 1997. Yet, it is the only team to develop the tyres for the Japanese supplier.
It can be an advantage only if the Bridgestone mechanics focus 90% of time on the Maranello-based cars. On the other hand, it is certainly a handicap for other reasons. If Michelin is vastly superior on a track, then Ferrari has to battle at least 10 cars. The team might lose precious points and thus relegated to the back of the grid. Let’s show you the disparity of forces in the field. Michelin did around 100.000 kilometres during winter testing. The four Bridgestone teams did 30% less in terms of mileage. However, it can also mean that the difference in testing mileage in case that the work was prolific and the right path has been taken. The two suppliers start from a different base compared to the previous year. In 2003, there has been a fierce controversy over tyres which was precisely triggered by Ferrari. Michelin, starting from the Monaco Grand Prix, had an important advantage in their performance. It was thus accused of incorrectly interpreting the regulations. Those tyres, during the races, had a tread that was wider than the maximum permitted measurements. It may have been by chance. However, when the French supplier, was forced to return to normal, the balance of power shifted.
Ferrari, together with Bridgestone, strung together a series of results that allowed the team to win the drivers’ and the constructors’ championships. Michelin and Bridgestone start from scratch this year. In pre-season testing, the Michelin teams highlights the possibility of extracting the best tyre performance during the first lap. This means a lot especially since the drivers can only do 1 flying lap in qualifying. Bridgestone, although, do not stand by and watch. The Japanese technicians brings 1400 different compounds in Australia. During the Valencia tests, they started to test tyres that have a different construction: stiffer and squarer shoulder in order to have more footprint on the asphalt. Those are solutions that should adapt to the low to medium speed tracks. In the high-speed ones, the tyres could use narrower and more rounded shapes in order to favour top speed. At Melbourne, the Japanese supplier did not probably bring the latest-spec tyres. According to them, it is necessary to do many more tests before bringing them to the race track. Maybe they will be used from Imola onwards. Michelin as well worked hard on the compounds. The drivers, that are supplied by the French supplier, are satisfied with the new tyres. Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin motorsport director and expert in that section, puts his hands forward:
"Our tyres have performed strongly and consistently so far and I am confident they will continue to do so in the race. Watch out for Ferrari. Schumacher and Barrichello are the team to beat in my opinion".
Perhaps it is just superstition. Yet, until proven otherwise, it is always better to stay cautious. What is known is that Michelin improved massively in damp conditions. Up until 2003, The French tyre supplier was previously inexorably beaten by Bridgestone in wet races. The battle between Bridgestone e Michelin is resuming. It will be a gruesome fight for the ultimate glory. The tyres will be more important nowadays. The team who has found the right formula will have an advantage going into the season. From this year on, Michelin will also supply BAR-Honda. From 2004, as per regulations, the bonnets of the Formula 1 cars are larger in size. This rule was decided in order to give the teams the opportunity to either add sponsors or to offer more space to the existent ones. Therefore, only two rear wings can be installed in the cars in order to allow this to happen.
The partners of various teams, though, are not limited to finance the track activity in exchange for brand appearance and image. Many are technical suppliers. Speaking about Ferrari, Magneti Marelli, Shell, Brembo, AMD and Bridgestone are the ones that determine the team’s success. In addition, from 2003, Acer is Ferrari’s official supplier. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers in the computer production. The Taiwan home give to the Scuderia Ferrari team notebooks, PC, Server, LDC monitors and LDC handhelds. The technicians and the engineers use those tools to gather data, elaborate race strategies and send information to Maranello. It is a qualified assistance that, as well as offering an important collaboration to Ferrari, allows Acer to have an impressive growth in terms of brand’s image and sales. In 2003, the European market sales have increased considerably. There was an increase of almost 60% in that aspect. Scuderia Ferrari also makes its partners win. The exchange is obviously reciprocal. Recently, Acer produced a notebook that is called Ferrari 3000. It is grey and red. The cover of it has the yellow-black Cavallino logo.
It is obviously a high-end model which is equipped with the processor AMD Athlon XP-M 2500 with a 60 GB hard disc. Particular care has been given to the graphical part of the computer. Considering its performances, the measurements of this computer are reduced. It weighs less than 3 kg and is just over 2.5 cm thick. Sunday 7th March 2004. The long winter break is over. It is time for the start of the Australian Grand Prix, first round of the Formula 1 World championship. The two Ferrari drivers have a good getaway from 1st and 2nd place. Michael maintains the lead of the race. Alonso has a cracking start from 5th place and is immediately able to overtake Button. Going into turn 1, the Spaniard gets alongside Montoya. The Venezuelan tries to fight back by breaking late into the first corner. In doing so though, he locks the front right tyre, goes way too deep into the corner and gets onto the grass. As a result of this mistake, he drops to 7th behind teammate Ralf Schumacher. Other drivers end up in the grass in the first corner. Sato hits Trulli. This contact damages the diffusor of the Renault car as well as the nose of the BAR. At the end of the first lap, Michael Schumacher leads from Barrichello, Alonso, Button, Trulli, Ralf Schumacher and Montoya.
The Ferrari drivers are flying and are setting a race pace that is unsustainable for the other competitors. The Italian team is proving to be a dominant force at the front. At the start of the 7th lap, Schumacher is already 6.3 seconds ahead of Alonso. On lap 8, Schumacher smashes the lap record. He improves the pole position time with a 1’24"170. The only driver who is running a comparable pace to the Ferraris is Alonso. The Spaniard though is, lap after lap, slipping back. In the meantime, Montoya overtakes the Ralf Schumacher-Trulli for 4th place. On lap 9, Räikkönen, gets overtaken by Massa for 11th place down the start/finish straight. Unbelievably, the McLaren is easy prey for the Sauber. The Finn surely has a technical problem. Two corners later, the Finn retires due to an engine failure. So far, the only doubt is that Ferrari has a different strategy and might then need to pit one more time compared to the other teams. However, on the start of the 10th and the 12th lap, the top teams dive into the pits to refuel and change tyres.
This is the consequence of a new rule that was underestimated. However, it is crucial. In the pits, the speed limits increases to 100 km/h compared to the previous 80 km/h. Thus, a pit stop requires less time in total. The first series of pit-sop is opened by Fisichella on lap 8. Two laps later, Montoya dives into the pits for fuel and tyres. Barrichello, Alonso and Button do the same on the next lap. On lap 12, Michael Schumacher and Ralf Schumacher are in the pit-lane for the first pit-stop. Zsolt Baumgartner, the Hungarian driver who drives for Minardi, is out of the race due an engine failure on lap 13. Onto the next lap, the McLaren mechanics are ready to service Coulthard. The last remaining McLaren is on two-stop strategy. Schumacher and Barrichello, at the wheel of the two F2004 cars, continue to dominate the race out front. Alonso, who is still in 3rd place, continues to lose ground on the two leaders. Then there is a big gap covering the Spaniard Renault driver and the others behind, including Button, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli, Montoya and Webber.
On lap 24, Alonso opens up the second pit-stop phase whilst Montoya cruises past Trulli for 6th place. Two laps later, The Colombian dives into the pits together with Button. Onto the 28th lap, Ralf Schumacher and Trulli makes the second pit stop as well. Schumacher and Barrichello pit on lap 29 and 30 respectively and are still able to firmly retain the lead of the race. Meanwhile, Ralf Schumacher gets ahead of Button for 4th place thanks to a better pit-stop by the Williams crews. The German though is very far behind Alonso. The BAR driver has to now defend 5th position from the likes of Montoya, who is gaining rapidly on him. Whilst this is going on, Mark Webber is forced to retire due to a transmission issue. In the midfield, Juan Pablo Montoya continues the battle with Jenson Button. On lap 38, the Williams-Bmw driver is finally able to dispatch the BAR for 5th place. The third pit-stop phase does not change the story of the race. The only change to the race standings is Nick Heidfield’s retirement. On lap 40, the German Jordan driver is out of the race due to a transmission issue. Four laps later, Felipe Massa retires as well with an engine failure. With 10 laps to go, Schumacher is noticeably slowing down.
The cameras immediately focus on Jean Todt’s tense face, on Ross Brawn’s imperturbable gaze and on the Ferrari mechanics in the hope of catching expressions of disappointment. Everything is under control. The two F2004 cars do not have any sort of technical problems whatsoever. Michael and Rubens are simply cruising to the finish. At the end of the 58th lap, the Suzuka party, that ended on the night of the 12th October 2003, begins again. Michael Schumacher takes the chequered flag to win the Australian Grand Prix, first round of the Formula 1 world championship. This is his fourth consecutive victory since Monza 2003. Barrichello finishes 2nd ahead of Alonso, Ralf Schumacher, Montoya, Button, Trulli and Coulthard. The latter is able to score one point thanks to a two-stops strategy that was adopted by the McLaren team. Gianmaria Bruni is not classified. Despite crossing the finish line, the Italian covered less than 90% of the total race distance. Halfway through the race, the Roma driver was forced to endure a very long stop due to a candle issue.
There is only one adjective to define Ferrari’s performance in Australia: dominant. The team always leads from the first free-practice session on Friday 5th to the chequered flag on Sunday 7th March 2004. The gap between Ferrari and other teams is abysmal. In addition, both F2004 cars, raced well below their real possibilities during the first race of the season. Schumacher and Barrichello would have probably shown an even stronger race pace had they been attacked by other teams. Despite the cautiousness, the reigning world championship set a lap record that was over 0.3 tenth quicker than the one set during qualifying. The one, that was set on Saturday 6th March 2004, is already a fantastic track record. Ferrari simply interpreted the new regulations with perfection. Everything works well in the F2004.
In light of the results, despite the expressed and unjustified doubts, the Bridgestone tyres are perfect. The F2004 is extraordinary in all its mechanical and aerodynamic components, from the brakes to the superb engine and aerodynamics. There have not been any reliability problems through the three-days event, excluding from the brake pedal that was denounced by Barrichello. It was an inconvenience that the technicians are investigating. It must have been a casual and minor issue. However, it would be misleading to claim that the opponents will compliantly chase Ferrari from afar throughout the entire season. It is way too early to say this. This sport teaches that the twists and turns are frequent. Things can radically change from one circuit to another. The Albert Park circuit seems particularly favourable for Ferrari. In 2003, the team could have won had they messed up with the wet and dry tyres.
However, it is necessary to wait at least three or four races in order to judge the pecking order. For sure though, the first race answers some questions that come up during the Melbourne eve. First of all, the F2004 exceeds expectations. Secondly, Renault is growing in terms of car performance. Thirdly, Williams has a valid car but needs time to develop it. Fourthly, BAR and Jaguar are also on the rise. Lastly, McLaren: the difficulties that Räikkönen and Coulthard encountered in pre-season testing are confirmed. It is unexplainable though given that the McLaren car was prepared beforehand. The Woking team did tens of thousands of kilometres during testing. There are no surprises in terms of drivers. The journalists that who thought that Schumacher was lacking in confidence were completely wrong. Barrichello continues his growth. Good news also for Alonso. The Spaniard remains the most promising youngster that has that killer, determined and ruthless attitude that distinguishes champions especially when they have to make way through the ranks at the beginning of his career.
Unfortunately for him, Juan Pablo Montoya also proves himself to be a strong driver as well. The Williams-BMW driver is good, fast yet inconsistent. Jenson Button and Mark Webber need to be reviewed since they never had the change to stand out. The Brit and the Australian may find themselves several times fighting at the top if they have the right car to do so. In terms of old and new regulations, there is some perplexity within the paddock. The two Sunday qualifying sessions were really depressing to watch. The second one was pitiful since the mechanics had to put the fuel that the drivers then used for the first stint of the race. The one-engine rules may save costs but it affects the race in some ways. There is a risk of transforming Formula 1 into an endurance category. New proposals will be made in order to change the regulations. The first one is a 1-hour qualifying session on Friday and Saturday with aggregated times. The second is the reduction of winter and in-season testing to 15 days. Therefore, all teams will need to test as much as possible during the race weekend and thus giving to the fans the spectacle that they want.
Speaking of the results of the first race in Australia, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello dominate with disarming ease. After a great start, the two Ferrari drivers are followed for a couple of kilometres by Fernando Alonso. Afterwards, nobody is able to challenge a team that is in great form: no uncertainties during the pit stops, perfect strategies and reliable engine. Furthermore, Schumacher is unleashed. The catchphrase about a possible retirement is over. A couple of days before the race weekend, the journalists continued to ask where does he want the motivation to continue racing after beating all records, including the one regarding tax returns. He replies that he likes the challenge especially if he wins. He then adds that he would not know how to live without the driving. Since Schumacher returned to the track on Friday 5th March 2004, nobody questions neither the truthfulness of his words neither the physical integrity despite the 35-years of age. The Tifosi were right to set the alarm clock at 4:00 a.m. in order to not lose the first race of the 2004 Formula 1 championship. They saw the sunrise and one of the best Ferraris ever. Someone might have thought that the television transmitted a replica of the 2000 Australian race which ended with the same result. It was the debut race for the Schumacher-Barrichello duo which would go on to become one of the most successful line-ups in Formula 1 after surpassing the myth Prost-Senna one. Stirling Moss, a great driver who had the bad luck of racing with Fangio, is convinced that the rivals will not recover from this result, at least not in 2004. Ferrari is superior in everything, starting from the drivers. Schumacher costs very much. However, he is a monster of a driver.
"Michael is a dear boy".
Jokes the president Luca Montezemolo by emphasizing the literary term of the word “dear”. The investment of bringing Michael into the team in 1996 is bearing fruit. The team quotas are at peak levels. Barrichello is the ideal sidekick. He is fast and reliable and, alongside the German champion, is learning the tricks of the job. So much so that Rubens could steal the championship away from Michael. From this point of view, Renault is in better shape whilst McLaren is technically at year zero. The superiority of the F2004 is mechanically and aerodynamically unquestionable. If the Bridgestone tyres work, then the gap between the scarlet cars and the others is around a couple of seconds per lap. The nipponic tyre suppliers work with oriental rhythms and methods. They, without any breaks, mix all kinds of compounds and test the tyres for thousands of kilometres until finding a quick solution to pass the upcoming and torrid Malaysian Grand Prix. Ferrari’s rivals are the most important brands of motorsport. They invest resources, hire engineers, discover new talented drivers but are yet unable to bridge the gap to the Maranello team. Williams-Bmw and McLaren-Mercedes are historic rivals. In addition, in 2004, Renault and BAR-Honda are added onto this list. Between the drivers, such as Montoya, Räikkönen and Alonso, there are new potential world champions. However, for the time being, Schumacher is the champion to beat.
"We like Australia".
Said the Maranello guys at the eve of the Australian Grand Prix. In the end, they take everything in order to avoid mistakes: the fastest time in practice, the pole position, the front-row lockout, the 1-2 finish, the fastest lap of the race and the new track record. Ferrari’s rivals are left with the scraps. Renault takes comfort in Fernando Alonso’s first podium in F1. BMW finishes with both cars in the points. McLaren leave the track with a 10th place finish and a DNF. It is a disappointing result and the Woking team is already thinking about next year’s car. This MP4-19 is slow and breaks easily.
"We did not anticipate it".
"We knew that Ferrari is strong but not this much. It is exaggerating".
Michael Schumacher talks about a perfect race whilst Jean Todt keeps the guard high:
"We did a technical meeting that lasted an hour. The goal was to see the weak areas of the F2004 car and where to improve it".
What did you discover?
"We found everywhere...".
Reading between the lines: we did not find anything but we are still continuing to work and improve. This is Ferrari’s philosophy which allowed for four consecutive winning years.
"We told Michael to slow the pace down. The aim was the 1-2 finish and not lapping our rivals".
Explains the Ferrari team principal, Jean Todt, at the end of the race. In the meantime, Michael Schumacher comments:
"I don't think it is hard at all to be motivated, at least from my point of view. I race for Ferrari. I'm in the best team around. We have a fantastic atmosphere. It is Ferrari and I have nothing to win any more, to some degree. I just love the sport and I just love the fighting on the circuit. It's natural to me, and as long as I am competitive and the love is there. I am just going to do what is easiest to do for me and enjoy this as long as I can".
This was evident on the track, where he kept up maximum pace for three days like a kid. Michael Schumacher, on his 24th season in Formula 1 and did not leave space to his rivals, young and old. Even Rubens Barrichello tried to take him to the limit by engaging in a half-hearted duel during the first of the Grand Prix. This confirms that, this year, Michael’s Brazilian teammate could become a dangerous rival for the championship.
"That is what I said before. If you look at previous years, how Rubens has developed, it is going to be a very tough competition. You saw qualifying that it's by almost nothing and you saw in the race we were really together until he faced his problems. It's whoever can make his car work a little bit better than the other who might be up front. It was a tough one because at the beginning, for the first half of the race before Rubens had some problems. He was pushing very, very hard and it was really a close fight. I could not allow any mistakes and it was very exciting, I have to say. But the F2004 is going well, we've seen this all weekend long and the great thing is that from my personal point of view, I have come home with two more points than last year after three races so that's a good start of the season for me. I missed one thing: my wife Corinna. Also, the children have the priority in family support".
According to the German newspaper, a third child is on the way for the couple. What about Schumacher’s rivals? They are dismayed and shocked.
"I guess there will be a reason for it, I do not know. I think Kimi had an engine problem? Was there anything I should know of? Was there an incident? I heard Räikkönen retired. Montoya, I saw him off in the first corner, so that means he was obviously behind someone before he got going, and then Ralf, I don't know, he was further back on the grid as well so maybe he couldn't push on a clear track. So that allowed Fernando to open up the gap he did and then he stayed consistent. I don't know. The car was going well, it's a step forward and more consistent to drive. At the same though, we have no illusions. I am keeping my feet on the ground. We will know well that it will not be always be the case".
Did you expect to be this superior?
"After the last test at Imola and knowing the characteristics of this track, I was sure we would be competitive but I did not expect such a performance. I am keeping my feet on the ground because this race and the weather conditions suited us perhaps better than the others. We will have to wait and see what happens in Malaysia where it will be much hotter".
The start of the season is reminiscent of the 2002 championship, when Schumacher and Ferrari dominated:
"Honestly not, because I think if we'd a clean race last year, I think we would have seen a similar situation, in my view, because the sort of time gap we had was about that much so that's why I'm always mentioning Malaysia. I think that race shows the true picture a little bit more compared to what it is now. The Melbourne track is completely ideal for us and maybe not so ideal for our competitors' tyres or cars. Obviously, after we saw Fernando slowing down, we all decided to slow the pace down a bit and save everything we could. Let’s not forget that we had a completely new engine that should last 800 km. It's the first race of the season. The confidence is there but maybe not as much as if it was the last race of the season. Therefore, you just save everything as much as you can. While driving, I kept my ears straight ahead to pick up any strange sounds: luckily, I did not hear any? Is the F2004 the best car ever produced by Ferrari? Alright, I cannot deny it. The other team will not stand by and watch. In some occasion, it will be difficult to win".
At Ferrari, there is someone who is about making life difficult to Schumacher, in a sporting sense. It is Barrichello. The Brazilian is a candidate for the role of challenger:
"I was happy with my start and it gave me a chance to run deep into the first corner and try and pass Michael, but I decided the move was too risky. Then I tried again at Turn 3, but there was no way round. I kept on pushing him hard and closed up when he got delayed a bit in traffic. But by then, I started having brake problems, although I kept pushing and trying to pass him up to the point of the second pit stop. But after the stop, the brakes did not seem to have cooled very much and I had a very long pedal. Combined with the extra fuel load I was worried that I might crash if I pushed too hard, so from then on I backed off".
If the performance of the F2004 is similar in Malaysia, do you think this is your best chance to win the championship, is it not?
"Yeah, we basically have to wait and see. but this is definitely my best shot, absolutely. That depends on how we see the other races but, as we said before, in all honesty, we have a fantastic team and we are so proud to work for them because, for me, the car that they have developed for the first race is incredible. So, we are going to have nice fights throughout the year".
Jean Todt, Scuderia Ferrari’s team principal, is ecstatic about this result:
"After several years of success obtained after so many battles, to start the season with such a clear superiority, I have above all to thank everyone at Ferrari, from President Montezemolo to every last one of them who has worked hard for this result. Next, I wish to thank our technical partners - first and foremost Bridgestone and Shell - and the Fiat Group, which through Magneti Marelli and the Research Centre plays an important role in producing our cars. This one-two is the result of the ultimate effort in our own work, the cohesion, stability and determination of our team".
Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, is enthusiast about this victory. He speaks about the race from Bologna:
"After testing, I expected a Ferrari ahead of everyone. What I did not expect was a clear superior performance in both qualifying and in the race. It is an exceptional victory. This result will boost our team to continue working much harder and concentrated as ever before. We expect a reaction from the competitors who are who are strong and hungry for victory. This extraordinary team allowed us to start the season in the best possible way. I am proud of the guys who are behind this team. Skills and a great deal of technological innovation are behind this victory, as well as a formidable contribution from Bridgestone. Does Ecclestone not want a Ferrari domination? I hope that this happens instead. Does he consider the new regulations boring? They cannot be changed overnight, let’s wait a couple of races to judge".
Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello exchange greetings after the parade lap. This is their 16th 1-2 finish, driving for Ferrari. The Maranello team remembers the criticism that was written during the previous winter:
"McLaren started to test the new car two months in advance, they will be at an advanced stage in terms of development and reliability".
"Why are you not using the walrus nose like Williams?"
"The Michelin teams have an unbridgeable advantage. BAR-Honda, after changing tyre supplier, immediately became competitive".
When the F2004 continued to set the records during testing (Fiorano, Mugello and Imola), the last objection was:
"It is hot in Australia and things will change".
This is truly the last objection. Since Friday 5th March 2004, Ferrari continues to be the team to beat. The rivals are desperate. Todt explain:
"There is no secret in our working method. We are trying to do thing well and to our best of our abilities".
This is far from obvious. During the interview, the general director of the Cavallino speaks about the stability of the team and the trust given to the technical partners. Bridgestone as to not mention names.
"When hearing some of the comments from this winter break, it seemed like we were doomed even before starting the season. Our tyre supplier instead did an amazing job: seriousness and commitment always pay off".
Hsiao Solanum, Bridgestone Motorsport’s technical director, knows how important is the relationship with Scuderia Ferrari. The top guys, that lead the Scuderia Ferrari team, always publicly confirmed their esteem and trust in him. On the other hand, the discussion between the two parties must have been heated inside the garage. It was surely covered up by the sound of the engines.
"After all the hard work put into winter testing, it seems that everyone's hard work has paid off this weekend. Today's victory was a good indication that our development direction has been correct over the past few months. we will continue our efforts to make even better and faster tyres. This is only the first race but our target is to continue as we started. Michael continually posted fastest lap times this afternoon".
What changed from August?
"Ferrari understood the direction in which we were going. We understood theirs. That’s it".
Solanum anxiously waits for the Malaysian Grand Prix. The track will be scorching hot, with a temperature of 40 °C. The Japanese tyres would have melted the previous year. In the meantime, on Saturday 6th March 2004, at Albert Park, the Bridgestone tyres pass the first exam with flying colours. Before the race, the Melbourne track had a track temperature of 30 °C.
"Malaysia will be key for our season. We did not go well in last year’s Malaysian race. We are satisfied for now: we partly reduced the understeer and decreased the exercise temperature".
Apart from Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello’s 1-2 finish, the Bridgestone supplier only obtains a 10th place finish with Giancarlo Fisichella (Sauber) and a 14th position with Giorgio Pantano (Jordan) at Melbourne. All other positions, in the standings, are occupied by Michelin’s 6 client teams. Why is Ferrari going faster than the others?
"We are preparing specific tyres for Sauber, Jordan and Minardi. I'm sure that the other Bridgestone teams will all gain momentum as the season progresses so I look forward to assisting them achieve their potential".
The testing days will resume on Tuesday 9th March until Friday 12th at Valencia. Barrichello and Badoer try the fourth F2004 and the old F2003-GA. The latter is used as a laboratory car that suitable for the Bridgestone tyres’ development. Ferrari is though unable to test at Mugello and Fiorano due to bad weather especially snow. The successes do not slow down the work ahead. Jean Todt smiles whilst admitting:
"Are our rivals worried? I cannot say that I am sorry for it. We realized an extraordinary car that allows us to look at the future with optimism. However, we will not let our guard down. Let’s keep out foot on the ground, and concentrate on the tests".
According to Todt, is Barrichello the most dangerous rival for Schumacher?
"At the Australian Grand Prix, Rubens and Michael were rivals. No one has given anything to the other. What is more important though is Ferrari and they know this".
Since 2000, rivals have not been able to contrast Scuderia Ferrari’s dominance.
"In reality, we already won the constructors’ championship in 1999. In contrast, during the 2000 season, we were afraid of losing everything. 2001 and 2002 were exceptional years. In 2003, there was uncertainty up until the last race of the season. Every championship is different. There are still 17 races to go this season. Luckily, we have fantastic tyres. Let’s make sure that we let this known to Bridgestone".
The Bridgestone technicians worked well and cancelled any unjustified perplexity. The equilibrium of the car allowed Michael to beat a series of records. Speaking of Fernando Alonso, what does Michael Schumacher think about him?
"He is alright as a driver. He is fast, aggressive and determined. He is a good guy, in my opinion. I think he is in the perfect position. Honestly, he has a strong car, they're very quick, very consistent".
It is clear that the Renault Spanish driver has an enormous talent that will not be satisfied with 3rd place finishes throughout the season. He is the most dangerous driver for Ferrari. Fernando Alonso tells:
"I made a great start, even though Montoya forced me onto the grass. After he out-braked himself at the first corner, I found myself third and from then on, it was a pretty easy race. I was too slow to fight with Barrichello and Schumacher. I was in the middle of nowhere and I didn't have any big problems. I had no one in my mirror and I had 58 laps like that. At one point, I had a thirty second gap to Rubens and a thirty second gap back to Jenson and there was no point in risking third place. It was a tough race".
Alonso’s analysis is also shared by Flavio Briatore. The Spaniard is still satisfied:
"To be on the podium, in front of Williams and McLaren, is a little surprise for us. This podium is much better than we expected at the beginning. The two Ferraris were uncatchable today. We will see in Sepang if we can be close to these guys again. We know that there are steps in the engine coming at Imola. We achieved it in record time, in ten months".
The tyres, however, are not the only secret to this extraordinary F2004 car. The nose is slightly more sloping compared to the F2003 GA’s one. It, for example supports a new front wing that has a corrugated profile and a raised outer part. The sidepods are also unprecedented on the F2004. They are shorter and squarer initially but then descend abruptly towards the rear end in order to speed up the air flow to the rear wing. For the same reason, the Ferrari aerodynamics guys accentuate the lower part of the side pontoons and changed the shape and size of the inlet. It is now smaller and raised above the ground. There are some small updated to the lateral flow deviators, to wing profiles. The shape of the engine air intake is still triangular but much rounded. Its snorkel conformation is also new. It is higher and squarer, in accordance with the new regulations. At Melbourne, Ferrari added two small appendices to implement the aerodynamic load onto the rear axle and to compensate the loss of it due to the decrease in air foils on the rear one.
The wind tunnel also shows in details the development of the rear mirrors, shaped like two small hangers, that guide and speed up the air flow. The design of the chimneys and drain has also changed. They are now close to the centre of the car. The profile of the rear wing, the fairings of the drive wheels and the rear extractor are also new. There are also under the skin improvements to the internal fluid dynamics, location and inclination of radiators within the sidepods. An improved engine-gearbox is present in the car. Ferrari has not so much worked on weight reduction as on the use of new materials capable of withstanding the 800-kg weight. The engine power is close to 900 horsepower at approx. 18,800 rpm. These are exceptional figures that, in theory, makes the 053 (acronym of the new Maranello V10 engine) the best the best powertrain among the other. Thus, on Monday 10th March 2004, the funniest Australian newspapers’ headline, after the Grand Prix which was dominated by Ferrari, is this one:
"Catch me if you can".
This is obviously referred to the Maranello team and Michael Schumacher. As a matter a fact, during qualifying, F2004 was over a second faster than the other cars. Alonso was the only one able to stay under the second limit, finishing 0.909 seconds behind Michael and Rubens. Ralf Schumacher’s Williams was 1.699 seconds slower than his brother. Courtyard’s McLaren was 2.203 seconds behind the reigning world champion. Taking all this into account, the two F2004 cars seems unreachable for the other competitors. Among Scuderia Ferrari’s rivals, Renault is the only one to demonstrate a good level of competitiveness. The French team has no evident reliability issues to revolve. In addition, Alonso and Trulli had yet again a lighting reaction at the start of the Melbourne Grand Prix. The Spaniard’s lap times were nowhere near as fast as the Ferraris but were consistent. The team’s result could have been better than Williams’ one if Jarno Trulli had not been hit from behind by Sato at the start of the race. Overall though, it was a positive result that confirms the R24’s good aerodynamic qualities, chassis and 720-engine. Speaking about the latter, it is the narrowest of the V-10s in contention.
Reliability is not something that is lacking at Williams either even if the FW26 car’s performance was disappointing at Melbourne. The 20.000 kilometres of testing, that were carried out during the winter break, were not enough to find a good set-up balance for the two Williams cars. They have issues with understeer/oversteer and are not exceptional under breaking. Further the performance, in terms of lap times are discontinued. The famous walrus nose did not seem to give any sort of advantage at the Albert Park circuit. In fact, the Williams mechanics were forced to make continuous set-up changes to the two cars. Down at McLaren, the situation is even worse. The Woking team rightly speak of a disastrous start to the 2004 season. After aborting the MP4/18 project (the car that never raced in 2003) and the early production of the MP4-19B, Ron Dennis’ team is struggling. The drivers are complaining about the car in general and the Mercedes engine. The engine failure on Räikkönen’s car, after just 10 laps into the Melbourne race, says a lot about McLaren’s current situation. During the free-practice session on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th March 2004, the two cars only did about 100 kilometres less than the other cars in order to safeguard reliability. In the end though, it was not enough to avoid Räikkönen’s DNF.
The plinth built directly by Mercedes in Germany (and not by Ilmor in England) leaves the problems, that already emerged in the past, unresolved. Engine power and reliability is missing. It can also be said that one aspect came to light during the Melbourne Grand Prix. On Sunday 21st March, the Michelin company, who supplies the tyres to Ferrari’s rivals, was inferior compared to Bridgestone. In prospective of the Malaysian Grand Prix, it can be said that the cars’ ranking might be reversed on the hot asphalt of the Sepang circuit. At the same time though, it might not be necessarily be the case since the Japanese tyre supplier has prepared new compounds that should have an optimal and constant performance in different conditions. Renault might be able to replicate last year’s performance. In 2003, Alonso took pole position. What about Ferrari’s rivals? Williams has the possibility to catch up on development and fine-tuning. McLaren’s recovery is a difficult and steep road. They hoped to make some step forward by redesigning the car. It will take time. BAR, Jaguar, Sauber’s performances are quite decent. The inscrutable Toyota is indecent.
It is difficult to evaluate Jordan and Minardi’s level of performances, with few resources available. In this inaugural Grand Prix, Williams finishes in 4th and 5th with Ralf finishing ahead of Montoya. BAR confirms the progress made with Button’s 6th place finish. Trulli is 7th. Coulthard rounded up the point-scoring position in 8th in the remaining McLaren. After 10 laps, Räikkönen retired with a blown-up engine. The Woking team leaves Australia with only one point. It is a disaster for them. Williams, Renault and McLaren hope that the Malaysian heat slows down the two Ferraris puts a strain on the Bridgestone, as it was the case in 2003. Although this might not be the case. Thus, if the Maranello cars have a dominant performance at Sepang, the mentioned teams might need to give up their championship hopes. The Australian race is a real debacle for McLaren. Räikkönen retires due to an engine failure whilst Coulthard only finishes 8th. The Spaniard Alonso, who is author of a start at the limit of the regulations, overtakes Montoya in the grass and then squeezed him. As a result, the Colombian loses four places. Trulli also loses out from this squabble. The two Ferrari cars are immediately competitive, gaining two seconds a lap on everyone else. On the other side of the spectrum, Kimi Räikkönen is out of the Australian Grand Prix who he should have won. On lap 10, he was betrayed by a Mercedes engine failure:
"The car felt good but lacks speed. We need to work a lot. It was a bad surprise and I retired with an engine failure. I was unlucky but we expected it".
The previous October, at Suzuka, Kimi Räikkönen contends until the very end for the title with Michael Schumacher. In the end, the Finn loses it for only two points. McLaren-Mercedes works hard to give him the new car as early as December in order to have enough time to test and develop it. The goal is to do the necessary step to reach Ferrari. The MP4-19 does 14.000 kilometres against the 6.000 of the F2004. On Sunday, though, the McLaren car stops after just 50 km of racing with a blow-up engine. At that moment, the Finnish driver is running in 11th place and defending against Massa, driving Sauber, a car very similar to the 2003 Ferrari car.
"It is definitely not the best way to start the season. I stalled at the start and lost a few places but managed to regain most of them during the first couple of corners. Unfortunately, it didn't last very long".
David Coulthard also admits that they expected a different start:
"We were the first team to try out the new car and thus we expected an easy season. We are not where we want to be, but we will work very hard on getting there and hopefully should be able to improve. The difference compared to Ferrari is evident: we couldn't tackle the corner as well as Schumacher and Barrichello".
However, Mercedes Motorsport responsible, Norbert Haug, tries to shake up the team:
"Our target has been to go for wins from the very first race, and we didn't achieve this today. Our technical package has to be improved and everybody in the team knows what is required. In two weeks in Malaysia we all want to see an upwards trend. Kimi's engine failure will be investigated and we will tell the media the result afterwards".
Promises Norbert Haug. In the meantime, Ron Dennis, McLaren team principal, justifies the unprecedented performance by claiming that the problems derive from the weather conditions:
"Our poor performance was amplified by the low ambient temperatures which certainly did not favour any of the Michelin runners. To say it was a difficult weekend for the team would be somewhat of an understatement".
What Ron Dennis maybe forget is that, on Saturday 6th March 2004, despite a temperature of 28 °C, McLaren was not at all competitive in qualifying. There is a similar climate down at Williams-BMW. Juan Pablo Montoya is infuriated and declares:
"I made five overtakes. The only problem that I had was when I overtook Ralf. We even touched sidepods. That's not how it's done. At the start, I was trying to defend my position from Alonso and I went off track, losing four places. I also experienced a problem with my right rear wheel during my third pit-stop which lost me some more time and I was re-overtaken by Ralf".
The problem, though, is Scuderia Ferrari’s dominance:
"When I saw their times on Friday, I told myself: Jesus Christ, it will be a nightmare here. Impressive. In Malaysia, I am sure that something will change. I want to win there because it is a track that I like. It suits our tyres".
In 2005 Montoya will race with McLaren: are you still happy about this decision?
"Two years ago, Williams was in the same conditions after the first Grand Prix. Then we won in Malaysia".
Even Mario Theissen, BMW-Motorsport director, is amazed by Scuderia Ferrari’s dominance:
"The result does not really match our expectations, especially not the size of the gap to Ferrari. Today we could have been aiming for 3rd and 4th place at most. Our lap times were similar to Alonso’s ones. Shame for Juan Pablo’s mistake. Ferrari proved that they remain the leading team but let’s be careful: the order can change multiple time during a season. Let’s think to 2003, for example. I am curious to see if Ferrari will also dominate in Malaysia".
The Formula 1 Circus prepares the luggage for Malaysia. On the 21st March 2004, the second round of the season will take place at Sepang. In the meantime, Ferrari gives Schumacher a couple of days off and calls Barrichello in Europe to do the testing in preparation for the next race. The Brazilian driver and Luca Badoer will try the old F2003-GA and the fourth F2004, which exited from the Maranello factory, at Valencia. The three cars, that were brought at Melbourne, will be directly transported to the Sepang circuit. This week’s testing will also allow Ferrari to do in-depth work on the F2004. Not content with this fantastic success, immediately after the race, the Maranello technicians examine the collected data for more than an hour to understand in what areas the car needs to be further improved on. This is not good news for the other teams.