The 2004 Formula 1 world championship starts on Sunday 7 March in Australia. The first race of the season has been held at Melbourne since 1996. The start is scheduled at 2:00 p.m. (local time). The engines will start rumbling on Friday 5 March. The first free-practice session of the year is at 11:00 a.m. Michael Schumacher is defending his sixth title, which was conquered on Sunday 12 October 2003 at Suzuka. Rubens Barrichello won the Japanese Grand Prix while Michael suffered beyond all expectations. He was still able to seal the drivers' championship despite finishing in 8th position.
"The motivation is always the same even after six titles. The car changes from one race to another and I participate in its evolution. Tackling a corner 2km/h faster is a thrill. When I exit the pitlane, 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. The German champion drives with karts during the winter break, continuing to hear the sound of an engine. He also pays maniacal attention to the physical preparation and physically prepares for the upcoming season like an iron man. This kind of training allows him to cope with the Australian heat without losing lucidity. Michael is always the first one to knock the door at Maranello when pre-season testing is about to start. He always asks the team to let him drive. The competition at the top is growing every year. The start of the season could be difficult for him. At the same time, though, the pressure to deliver has decreased significantly. There was mounting pressure at the start of the 2000 season, since it had been 21 years since the last triumph. Ferrari won the last drivers' championship in 1979. It is now just a way of working. It is a mental behaviour that allows him to not lose concentration. The torment of the statistics is almost over. Michael needs to beat another record: the number of pole-positions in a season. That record still belongs to Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian driver has 65 pole-positions, while Michael has 55 to his name.
"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 Ayrton Senna. Sunday will mark ten years since his fatal accident at the 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. Reliability will become increasingly crucial from now on. The automatic start control system is abolished. All teams have already adapted to this ban, by using a mechanical system that has the same function as the automatic one. The maximum speed-limit in the pitlane has been increased from 80 to 100 km/h. This is done in order to encourage more pit-stops. Does Formula 1 have the right ingredients to have a spectacular season?
"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 when he won his first championship in 1994. He is committed to Ferrari for three more seasons. He is not worried about getting older:
"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 don't 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".
Schumacher's judgment about his rivals has not changed since the previous winter break. The topic of the day is McLaren. The two McLaren-Mercedes cars are very competitive in winter testing, although the times are not representative. According to the Kaiser, Ferrari should fear 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. Do not forget that the 2003 championship was hard-fought until the end. Formula 1's analysts agree about this prediction. They also 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 confused the ideas to the people who work in the Formula 1 paddock, including journalists. The championship might no longer be a fight between Scuderia Ferrari, Williams and McLaren. Renault and BAR could assume the role of outsiders in the fight for the drivers' and constructors' titles. The Renault team has an outstanding drivers' line-up: Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso. All teams showed a strong performance in different tracks during pre-season testing. However, it is said that almost every team need to resolve some issues. Williams, who is one of the major candidates for the drivers' and constructors' titles, is struggling with imperfect reliability so far. McLaren can either have a strong performance or a bad one, depending on the characteristics of each circuit. 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. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello might struggle at the start of each race, especially if the Michelin-cars are very competitive during the first lap. Starting from the back would be a major handicap thorough the season. The Melbourne circuit could be a good starting point for McLaren. David Coulthard won the 2003 Australian Grand Prix, whilst Kimi Räikkönen took the fastest lap of the race. Michael started from pole position in the old F2002 car. The MP4-17D cars were very fast in the slow and twisty tracks up until now and even managed to set a new lap record in Valencia. It needs to be seen whether the pecking order will be impacted by the new FIA regulations. The most significant rules are: one engine per weekend and double qualifying sessions. Ferrari is predicted to have an advantage, especially since there are many rivals that are competing for victories and podiums. Räikkönen had taken the title fight up until the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix. The Finn counted on a long streak of point-finishes despite only winning the Malaysian Grand Prix. Ferrari is capable of crossing the chequered flag in every single race and does not need to excel all the time. Deep down, 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 Ferrari mechanics, who are overseeing the first baby steps of the new F2004 car. The team is anxiously waiting for the start of the first free practice session on Friday, which will mark the start of the Australian weekend. The Geneva Motor Show is a muffled showcase, especially compared to the decibels that will shortly envelop the Melbourne circuit. 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. Ferrari cannot wait to start the new Formula 1 season with the F2004 car.
It is going to be a long and fascinating eight-month season that is to going to be lived almost in apnoea. Formula 1 has all the ingredients to have an exciting season: Schumacher vs Barrichello, Williams vs McLaren vs Ferrari, an improved Renault car, as well as 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. Montezemolo was taught by Giovanni Agnelli that the most beautiful title is the one that you have yet to win. The president grew up with this philosophy in mind. The Ferrari helmsman also knows that the present is more important than the past. The present is what counts, 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 the championship with either Michael Schumacher or Rubens Barrichello?
"The 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. Luca, 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: who do you think might threaten 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 pranking as much as overtaking, on the condition that he is the only one who makes those jokes and pranks. A candid camera blows up his nerves during a Melbourne press conference. The Formula 1 engines are ready for the first free-practice session on Friday 5 March 2004. Juan Pablo spends Thursday evening in a secret location and entrusts his feeling to the Internet. 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 Williams-BMW team is setting a press conference for a new rich sponsor. The public is unaware about the prank. An actor, who plays the role of a reporter, starts to say Montoya's name wrong. The British reporters pronounce his name as Uan. The point of this prank is to show how his name sounds like the one number. The actor makes the following question:
"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 immediately follow. The actor's cell phone starts to ring. He responds to the call in a high-pitched voice and leaves the room. Another phone starts to ring. A second actor improvises a dialogue with his grandma, who wants to play golf with Montoya. The Colombian decides to storms off, since he does not want to displease the elderly admirer. 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 in the conference room. The sponsor manager Greg Fischer comments the prank:
"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 starts at 11:00 a.m. 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:
"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 believes 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 car. 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. The Kaiser admits his love for Melbourne:
"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".
Montoya also likes the Australian capital:
"I feel good here. I like Melbourne because it is warm and informal, a short-pants kind of place".
Attention must also be paid to Rubens Barrichello in regards to the championship fight. He was as fast as his teammate during the second half of the 2003 season. Räikkönen and Alonso can also fight for the championship. Gianmaria Bruni speaks about Fernando 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 Prix is apparently peaceful. Everyone hides the tension that is gripping them. The track will give the first verdicts of the Formula 1 championship in the next few hours. The race offers the first points of the season. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher are defending the world titles. Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher perform in a unique competition at the Vodafone Arena, which includes football, basket and golf. The Brazilian seems to be in great shape and is ready to start his 12th Formula 1 season, his fifth one with Ferrari:
"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 needs to be taken into account. Rubens has matured a lot since the 1994 rookie season. He was very fast in different occasions last year and even started the last six races of the 2003 season ahead of his teammate. His victories at Silverstone and Suzuka determined Scuderia Ferrari's success in 2003:
"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".
According to Barrichello, Michael Schumacher is the driver to beat. 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".
Rubens, the championship starts with many unknowns:
"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 arise impatience in Michael Schumacher. The only two active drivers to have won in Melbourne are Michael Schumacher (from 2000 to 2003) and David Coulthard (in 1997 and 2003). Michael and Rubens are the only ones to have started from pole position. The Kaiser took pole position in 2001 and 2003, while Rubens Barrichello scored one in 2002. Schumacher conquered the Australian people with his results. He also captivates them with small gestures, such as meeting and racing go-karts with a 7-year-old child called Lachlan. As a result of the one-engine rule, there is a lack of track action during the first free-practice session. Schumacher and the other drivers need to limit the engine mileage, in order to make it last for the entire weekend. The two McLaren-Mercedes drivers will do fewer laps than others in free-practice. Räikkönen will only complete 33 laps in total, whilst Coulthard 38. Pantano will do an astounding 61 laps at the wheel of the Jordan-Cosworth car. It is a mechanism that is littered with new traps. For example, a driver can use the T-car if he has an accident but it is perhaps prepared for a teammate. The driver that suffers an engine failure is 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 runs the new F2004 cars since the first race of the season. It is largely a direct evolution of the F2003GA car. Williams brings the FW26 car on track. 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 car 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. Those are also mounted asymmetrically in order to reduce the section of the sidepods. This means that it is necessary to open slits, in order to favour cooling. The Saturday qualifying has slightly changed this year. There are going to be two consecutive sessions. Every driver has to set one quick lap before diving into the pitlane. The standings determine the order for the second qualifying session, which takes place hours later. The second session then determines the grid 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 will serve a 10-place grid penalty for the start of the race. Each car has an engine that has already done around 300 kilometres. This mileage is almost half of its life expectancy. The teams and drivers that save 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, given the abolition of the starting electronic system. 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. It would be impossible to do so without a system that manages the 900 horse-power. A 10 rating has to be given to the engineers for coming up with this system. Albert Park is approached with an average speed of 220 km/h. David Coulthard won last year. The Scottish driver was able to take advantage from an incredible series 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. Four Italian drivers will take part in the 2004 Australian Grand Prix, including Gianmaria Bruni and Giorgio Pantano. The driver from Rome is the first to go out on track on Friday. Pantano immediately receives 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 car 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°C degrees at Imola. It is about 30°C here in Australia:
"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 Rubens pushing you to do better?
"Rubens improves year after year. Let's hope that he does not drive any faster than that".
Which teams do you fear the most?
"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".
The German national team goalkeeper 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. Do you think it is 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".
Ralf Schumacher is married with the ex-photo model Cora and has a son, David. The German driver started 115 races, scoring 6 victories, 4 pole position, 236 points. He finished 5th in the 2003 drivers' standings. He is Michael's brother and is driving for Williams since the start of the 1999 season. Ralf is 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. He has so far gained around 30 million dollars in terms of salary alone. Ralf, what is your goal in 2004?
"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".
You do not seem to have doubts about the FW26 car:
"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".
Your teammate wants to become World Championship before going to McLaren:
"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".
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".
Will a fight develop between Williams and Ferrari?
"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 on track for the first two practice session of the year. Michael Schumacher only does two runs in FP1. The first lap was similar to the one that was good enough for pole-position in 2003. He then sets a blistering 1'25"127 lap time, which is a new track record. The Ferrari driver dives into the garage to watch the other drivers. Barrichello is 3 tenths slower than his teammate and will start alongside Michael. Trulli is an astounding 1.8 seconds behind the Ferrari champion. The other drivers are two seconds slower than Michael, despite the change of regulations, new tyres and the replacement of car pieces.
The reigning champion sets a really impressive 1'24"718 time in FP2. Barrichello is a tenth behind in 2nd place. Jarno Trulli is a second slower than Michael with a 1'25"759. The two Ferrari drivers are able to set those laps times with ease. Some of the greatest drivers are at Albert Park to see the two practice sessions. They are astounded by Ferrari's domination so far. Stirling Moss, who was the eternal runner-up in the 1950s, comments:
"I would feel psychologically shattered if I were a Ferrari rival".
The three-time champions Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda agree with this statement:
"We knew that Ferrari worked well through the winter break but not to this extent".
The Scuderia Ferrari mechanics are trying to calm the enthusiasm, despite setting a new lap record on Friday. Being cautious is never enough in these cases, especially since 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".
Michael, are you happy with the performance of the car?
"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".
You are 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 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 car's performance. We are ready for first race of the season".
The rivals are shaken by the performance of the two F2004 cars. They nonetheless 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".
Plenty of aspirin tablets are circulating in the pit lane throughout the afternoon. Many people are struck with sudden headaches. It is a sickness that does not certainly involve Flavio Briatore, who is very motivated for the performance of the Renault car:
"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".
Bernie Ecclestone is smiling when asked to comment the free-practice sessions. 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 from Italy to Melbourne:
"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 5 March 2004. In the meantime, the longest championship is about to start. 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 Brits 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".
The drivers' salaries could maybe 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".
Whoever 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?
What about Valentino Rossi?
"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 held on Sunday 4 April 2004. Is the circuit ready?
"It is absolutely perfect. It is an amazing facility".
It is then China's turn to held a race, which will be on Sunday 26 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 going so far with the manufacturers regarding Formula 1's profit-share?
"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 guarantee victory. Michael Schumacher chases a 7th world championship title after overtaking Juan Manuel Fangio. Everyone is getting tired of getting overpowered by Schumacher. It is been many years since we saw so many drivers race at the start of a Formula 1 championship. There are 10 teams present in Formula 1. Four teams are aiming for success. They duelled and demolished the lap records of all circuits during winter testing, from Mugello to Barcelona and from Jerez to Valencia. Williams, McLaren and Renault are performing very strong so far, even BAR-Honda is competitive. The list of Schumacher's heirs has increased. Kimi Räikkönen, who finished 2nd at the end of the 2003 championship, is fast and makes little mistakes. Juan Pablo Montoya is very intemperate. He will become a great driver if he matures. Fernando Alonso has excellent technical skills and has been compared to the Benetton Schumacher, who won in 1994 and 1995. 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. Last but not least, Ralf intends to shake off the reputation of being Michael's younger brother. The Melbourne result must not deceive or disappoint. There could be design flaws that will emerge from the first race of the race, which will corrected in the future. David Coulthard won the Melbourne race in 2003, whilst Schumacher finished 4th. Ferrari and Williams, who became protagonists of the 2003 season, were struggling a lot during that particular race. One of the most abused phrases in motorsport is that the championship is long. It will be repeated once again in 2004. There are 18 races in this year's calendar, which is a new all-time record.
The FIA regulations stipulate that a maximum of 17 Grand Prix 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 Bahrain and in China. Spa-Francorchamps and the legendary Eau Rouge corner are back on the calendar, whilst the Austrian Grand Prix has been cancelled. Ferrari tackles the upcoming season with the F2004 car. It is a revised and corrected evolution of the F2003-GA world championship car. The car has been reinforced in order to withstand the 700 kilometres per weekend, as imposed by the new rules. The engine still maintains the 900 horsepower. The aerodynamics has gained in efficiency despite the limitations in the wind-tunnel. The tyres are the great unknown. The battle between Bridgestone and Michelin has already started. We will see this battle in the suffocating heat of Malaysia and Bahrain, in the typical Belgian and English rain and in the variated climate of the other European races. In a technological world such as Formula 1, details and good luck, as well as a faster pit-stop, a puncture and a gamble strategy, could decide the outcome of the race. This is sport. After overtaking Fangio, the German champion and the Ferrari team are chasing a new record. However, the competition is growing. Many drivers, such as Montoya, Räikkönen and Alonso, are trying to beat the German champion for the ultimate glory. Michael is the fastest driver in FP3 with a 1'25''786. Barrichello is 2nd in 1'26''159. Montoya sets the 3rd fastest time in 1'26''390. The Kaiser also top the timing sheets in FP4, setting a blistering 1'25''093. Montoya and Ralf are 2nd and 3rd respectively. The man of the records strikes again on Saturday 6 March 2004, setting a 1'24''408. Michael Schumacher will have a clear road ahead of him at the start of the Australian Grand Prix. This is his 56th pole position in Formula 1. He is still behind Ayrton Senna, who tragically passed away on Sunday 1 May 1994. The Brazilian has 65 pole-positions. Schumacher dedicates this result to president Montezemolo ("I know how tense he becomes when the first race is about to start"). The Ferrari star scores 46 pole-positions with the same team, equalling yet another record. Senna in fact did the same thing with McLaren. The reigning champion starts ahead of teammate Rubens Barrichello. It is the 14th front-row lockout for the Ferrari duo. 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 the 2003 Australian weekend. Ferrari dominated Friday and Saturday's sessions. The race did not reflect the initial pecking order, due to the Safety Car conditions. The rest of the championship became significant. The Ferrari team lost the enormous performance edge from the dominant 2002 season. Williams became competitive from Monte-Carlo onwards. McLaren regularly scored points with Kimi Räikkönen. The Fin ended the season with a passionate head-to-head with Michael Schumacher. This is the reason why the reigning champions invites everyone to be cautious at the start of the season. everyone has to contend with many variables and innovations. 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, in order to avoid an engine failure. A new element of uncertainty is enlivening the competition. On the other hand, the double qualifying sessions on Saturday are not nice. The first half of the session lasts almost an hour and 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 the order in which the drivers have to start the second part of qualifying. The drivers are also perplexed by this rule. 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".
Michael Schumacher states:
"These are the rules".
The moral is that you cannot tell who is the fastest driver. Some drivers have less fuel on board in order to qualify better. Others instead put more fuel at the start of the session, in order to not do an extra pit-stop during the race. It is difficult to understand who stomped on the accelerator and who did not do that. The Italian drivers do not shine during the qualifying session. Jarno Trulli set the 9th fastest time, while Giancarlo Fisichella will start 14th. The rookie Giorgio Pantano will line up in 16th position. Gianmaria Bruni is really unlucky during the first qualifying session. As he is 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. He previously tested at Phillip Island for Yamaha. The MotoGP championship is about to start on the following weekend. 50.000 spectators are gathering at Albert Park for qualifying and the race. Many fans have gathered at Albert Park to see local hero Mark Webber, who is driving for Jaguar. It can also be said that the flags, t-shirts and merchandising are almost all-red. Montoya and Button matched lap times at the end of the second qualifying session. The Colombian will start ahead nonetheless, since he was the fastest driver during the first session. Button qualified at the wheel of the T-car which had Friday's Honda engine, in order to avoid a 10-place grid penalty. He will start alongside Montoya in 4th position. Panis, Klien and Bruni did not complete a single flying lap. Bernie Ecclestone bets a symbolic dollar on Kimi Räikkönen and McLaren. According to the Formula 1 boss, the Finnish driver and the Mercedes-powered McLaren team will snatch the titles from Ferrari. It is probably wishful thinking from the astute English manager but it could happen. He would like to see several race winners this season. 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 and Williams-Bmw. Ferrari and Schumacher should theoretically fear the Juan Pablo Montoya/Ralf Schumacher duo. The new Williams car appeared very fast during pre-season.
The Groove-based squad did the most mileage in pre-season testing. 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 Montoya and Ralf Schumacher will pan out. Among other things, Montoya 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 had various difficulties so far, despite preparing the 2004 car since the end of the 2003 season. The cockpit is tight. Räikkönen says that the new car lacks overall speed and could go only well in the tight and twitchy circuits. The underdog team is Renault. Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso are ready for Melbourne. Jarno will be able to demonstrate his driving skills if the R24 car is competitive. Same goes for Alonso. In addition, the Spaniard need to keep a close eye on Trulli throughout the season. Jarno never gave in to the supposed superiority of a teammate. Let's talk about the other remaining teams. Despite the presence of the talented Mark Webber, Jaguar seems to have not made any progress. Same goes for Toyota. On the other hand, the Honda-powered BAR team came out of nowhere to fight for point-scoring positions. The chassis is good. The Japanese often showed that they know what they are doing with the engine, albeit with impressive ups and downs. After setting astonishingly fast lap times in pre-season testing, Jenson Button aims to fight for at least one victory and many podiums. The first test for Ferrari's rivals is on Sunday 7 March. It will take three races to understand the pecking order for this season. 2004 could be the year in which Renault becomes a top team. The Williams-Bmw car has a very particular walrus nose. The Grove-based team is Ferrari's most feared rival for the drivers and constructors' championships. The MP4-19 is the first car to go out on track. The Woking team had lots of ups and downs during pre-season testing. In the meantime, Italy becomes the Formula 1 queen. The last time that four Italian drivers were in Formula 1 was in 1999. Alex Zanardi, Luca Badoer, 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 on the grid: the Schumacher brothers and Heidfeld. These are British drivers on the grid, the Scotsman Coulthard and Button. The remaining eight drivers represent the other countries that are making the Formula 1 World Championship even more attractive (in terms of sponsors). The team of Italian drivers has increased in its quality and ambitions. The rookies Pantano and Bruni are content to do some learning this year. On the other hand, Fisichella and Trulli share starting to think big. Jarno will turn 30 years old on Tuesday 13 July, which is halfway through the championship. It is an important and mature age for an athlete. This season could be the turning point for his Formula 1 career. The driver from Pescara can steadily fight for the top positions and for a maiden victory. He can achieve this goal 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 old Renault car lacked in engine horsepower. It was seen especially on the high-speed circuits, such as Monza.
"Now we should go well everywhere".
Trulli's best result in 2003 was a 3rd place finish at the German Grand Prix. He finished 2nd at the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, Father Enzo introduced him into karting as a child, and he became world champion in 1991. He then won the German Formula 3 championship in 1996, he. Jarno, what do you think about the Michelin tyres?
"On dry conditions, the Michelin tyres have an advantage everywhere".
Giancarlo Fisichella is a recognized talent and earned the title of best driver in 2002. He was also able to win an incredible Brazilian race in 2003. Apart from his colleagues' esteem and the Brazilian exploit, the Italian driver never had a competitive car at his disposal. In 2004, he makes a big step forward with Sauber. The Swiss team uses the same Ferrari spec-engine that Schumacher and Barrichello have. In addition, the team develops a chassis that is similar to the F2003-GA one, thanks to the use of the new wind tunnel. Fisichella has another advantage this year. He has been hired as Ferrari test driver this year. He could thus become an important token for the 2005 drivers' market. There are two conditions to make this happen. First of all, Sauber has to be competitive. Secondly, he needs to able to score good results at the wheel of the Swiss car. Some important places will be available. For example, Williams will mostly likely lose Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. Giancarlo drove for Minardi on his Formula 1 debut in 1996, after an apprenticeship in the minor categories He won the Formula 3 Italian championship in 1994. He gives 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 believes that it is absolutely possible to have a stand-out performance at the wheel of a Minardi car. Nobody expects him to score points or to step on the podium. In addition, he has the chance to learn and accumulate experience in Formula 1. The important things are to extract the maximum out of the car, 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 nine teams. This is what Fernando Alonso did in 2001.
The Spanish driver is now 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. He won the European Formula Renault championship in 1999. Giorgio Pantano is 20th after the second qualifying session. The Italian makes his debut for the Jordan team, a team that does not often guarantee extraordinary performances. The two parties founded a comprise beforehand. Pantano is able to debut in the magical world of Formula 1. In return, the sponsors offer total of 4.5 million dollars to the Jordan team. The 25-year-old 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 driver. Nick won the German Formula 3 Championship in 2000. He finished 9th, 2nd and 3rd in F3000. Giancarlo Fisichella is the oldest one out of the four Italian drivers. 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 Sauber car in 2003, which is often called a Swiss Ferrari. This is because the V-10 Maranello engine rumbles under the blue bodywork of the Sauber car, even it is re-branded by the Petronas sponsor. The Sauber headquarters are at Hinwil since 1970, which is not far from Zürich. The team is in Formula 1 since 1993. It is Ferrari's client since 1997. Sauber debuted in Formula at Kyalami on Sunday 14 March 1993. This was the 1st out of 173 Grand Prix starts. 1993 was dominated by Prost and Senna. Sauber scored a 5th place finish at the South African Grand Prix 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 so far. Sauber succeeded twice in the prototype Sport championship. The team won the 24 Hours Le Mans twice. Apart from this, the team has not enjoyed a single victory in Formula 1.
The Swiss team hopes to break this drought in 2004. Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa will drive the Swiss cars. They are talented and ambitious drivers. Peter Sauber is a man who knows about talent. At the start of the 90s, he entrusted the Sauber-Mercedes C11 sports cars to a certain Michael Schumacher. After a couple of laps, the German was already faster than his much more experienced teammates. Peter threw into the mix a Finnish adolescent in 2001, who did not yet have a Formula 1 super licence. Kimi Räikkönen had to tackle the first three races of the season with a provisional super license, a sort of pink paper that you are using to drive. Kimi then signed with McLaren for a sum of around 25.000.000 dollars. Sauber used the money to build a really modern wind tunnel. The sponsors were also generous in raising enough money to build the infrastructure, in particular Credit Suisse. The Swiss team was thus able to survive in Formula 1 without any sort of anxiety. In contrast, Jordan and Minardi are struggling to get by in the sport. Petronas, was late able to close an engine deal with Ferrari. Sauber approached Jean Todt in 1996 to discuss a potential engine supply. The Ferrari team principal left no hopes for it to happen. The negotiations started anyway. The Swiss manager managed to seal an engine deal with Todt in 1997. The contract terms are changing in 2004. The blue arrows received the previous year's Ferrari engine until 2003. It is now impossible to do what was done beforehand, given that the rules state than one engine has to last for an entire race weekend, 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 any technical updates throughout the season. The Bridgestone tyres are also the same. The chassis makes the difference. It is similar to the Ferrari F2003-GA's chassis but is it is an original one, as certified by the Federation. The car is called C23. The C stands for Christiane, which is the name of Mrs. Sauber. The goal is to score 5th place in the constructors' championship. 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 is a character who sometimes indulges in peculiar comments. He previously declared:
"I would like the cars to be equipped by only one tyre supplier".
He is right in this instance. The tyres are a determinant factor for the final result. A team can create the perfect car that has an exceptional engine and world champion driver. However, it 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. This 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 supplies Ferrari, Sauber, Jordan and Minardi. Scuderia Ferrari is the best team since 1997 and it is the only team to develop the tyres for the Japanese supplier. The Bridgestone mechanics focus 90% of their time on the F2004 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 with at least 10 cars. The team might lose precious points and be relegated to the back of the grid. Michelin did around 100.000 kilometres during winter testing, while the four Bridgestone teams did 30% less in terms of mileage. The difference in testing mileage can also mean 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. There was a fierce controversy over tyres which was precisely triggered by Ferrari. Starting from the Monaco Grand Prix, Michelin had an important advantage in performance. It was thus accused of incorrectly interpreting the regulations. Those tyres 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 a normal tyre, the balance of power shifted. Ferrari and Bridgestone strung together a series of results 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 one flying lap in qualifying. Bridgestone does not stand by and watch. The Japanese technicians bring 1400 different compounds to Australia. They started to test tyres during the Valencia tests, which have a different construction: stiffer and squarer shoulder in order to have more footprint on the asphalt. These are solutions that should adapt to the low-to-medium speed tracks. The tyres could use narrower and more rounded shapes in the high-speed ones, in order to favour top speed. The Japanese supplier did not probably bring the latest-spec tyres at Melbourne. According to them, it is necessary to do many more tests before bringing them to the race track. They will maybe be used from Imola onwards. Michelin also worked hard on the compounds. The Michelin drivers are satisfied with the new tyres. Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin motorsport director and expert, 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".
It is perhaps superstition but it always better to stay cautious. The Michelin tyres were massively improved for the damp conditions. The French tyre supplier was beaten by Bridgestone in wet races up until 2003. The battle between Bridgestone and Michelin is resuming. It will be a gruesome fight for the ultimate glory. The tyres will be more important nowadays. The team who finds the right formula will have an advantage. Michelin will also supply BAR-Honda. As per the 2004 regulations, the bonnets of the Formula 1 cars are larger in size. The teams thus have 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. The partners of various teams are not limited to finance the track activity in exchange for brand appearance and image. Many are technical suppliers. Magneti Marelli, Shell, Brembo, AMD and Bridgestone are the sponsors that determine Scuderia Ferrari's success. In addition, Acer is Ferrari's official supplier since 2003. It is one of the world's leading manufacturers in the computer production. The Taiwan sponsors provides notebooks, PC, Server, LDC monitors and LDC handhelds to the Scuderia Ferrari. 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 allows Acer to have an impressive growth in terms of brand's image and sales, as well as offering an important collaboration to Ferrari. The European market sales have increased considerably in 2003. There was an increase of almost 60% in that regard. Scuderia Ferrari also makes its partners win. The exchange is reciprocal. Acer recently 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 performance, the measurements of this computer are reduced. It weighs less than 3 kg and is just over 2.5 cm thick. 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 off the line. Michael maintains the lead of the race. Alonso has a cracking start from 5th position and is immediately able to overtake Button. the Spaniard gets alongside Montoya at turn 1. The Colombian driver tries to defend the position by breaking late into the first corner. Montoya locks the front right tyre in doing so, goes way too deep into the corner and into the grass. He drops to 7th position. 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. Michael Schumacher is leading the race at the end of the first lap, Barrichello is 2nd, ahead of Alonso, Button, Trulli, Ralf Schumacher and Montoya. The Ferrari drivers are flying at the moment and are breaking away from Alonso. The other competitions cannot keep up with Ferrari's race pace. The Italian team is proving to be a dominant force at the front. At the start of the 7th lap, Schumacher is 6.3 seconds ahead of Alonso. Schumacher smashes the lap record at the end of the lap, setting an impressive 1'24"170 lap time. Alonso is the only driver who is running a comparable pace to the Ferraris. In the meantime, Montoya overtakes Ralf Schumacher and Trulli for 4th place. On lap 9, Räikkönen gets overtaken by Massa for 11th place at the start/finish straight. The McLaren car is easy prey for the Sauber. The Finn surely has a technical problem. The Finn suffers an engine failure on lap 10 and is out of the race. The only doubt is whether Ferrari has a different strategy or not.
If this is the case, Michael and Rubens might need to make an additional pit-stop at the end of the race. The new rule was underestimated but it is crucial. The pit lane speed limit has been increases from 80 to 100 km/h, meaning that a pit-stop will require less time in total. The first series of pit-stop is opened by Fisichella on lap 8. From lap 10 to 12, the top teams will dive into the pits to refuel and change tyres. At the start of the 10th lap, Montoya dives into the pits for fuel and tyres. Barrichello, Alonso and Button do the same on the next lap. Michael Schumacher and Ralf Schumacher dive into the pit-lane for fuel and tyres on lap 12. Baumgartner, the Hungarian driver who drives for Minardi, retires with an engine failure on lap 13. The McLaren mechanics are ready to service Coulthard at the start of the 14th lap. The sole remaining McLaren driver is on two-stop strategy. Schumacher and Barrichello continue to dominate the race at the end of the first pit-stop phase. Alonso is still in 3rd place but is continuing to lose ground on the two leaders. There is then a big gap covering the Spaniard and the others behind, including Button, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli, Montoya and Webber. Alonso opens up the second pit-stop phase on lap 24, whilst Montoya cruises past Trulli for 6th position. Juan Pablo and Button dive into the pits on lap 26. Ralf Schumacher and Trulli make the second pit stop on the 28th lap Schumacher and Barrichello pit on lap 29 and 30 respectively and are still able to firmly retain the leadership. Ralf Schumacher gets ahead of Button for 4th place thanks to a better pit-stop from the Williams crew. The German driver is a long way from catching Alonso. The BAR driver has the mirrors full of Montoya, who is gaining rapidly on him. Mark Webber is forced to retire with a transmission issue, while Juan Pablo Montoya continues the battle with Jenson Button. The Williams-BMW driver is finally able to dispatch the BAR on lap 38 and is up to 5th position. The third pit-stop phase does not change the story of the race. On lap 40, Nick Heidfeld is out of the race with a transmission issue. Felipe Massa becomes the latest casualty to retire with an engine failure on lap 44. There are 10 laps until the end of the race. 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, hoping to catch any 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. The Suzuka party, which ended on the night of the 12th October 2003, is once again resumed. Michael Schumacher takes the chequered flag at the end of the 58th lap. He is the winner of the Australian Grand Prix, first round of the Formula 1 world championship. This is his fourth consecutive victory since the 2003 Monza Grand Prix. Barrichello finishes 2nd ahead of Alonso, Ralf Schumacher, Montoya, Button, Trulli and Coulthard. The Scottish driver scores one point after executing a two-stop strategy. Bruni is not classified. Even if he crossed the finish line. He in fact covered less than 90% of the total race distance. The driver from Rome was forced to endure a very long stop halfway through the race. The Jordan team was trying to solve a candle issue. There is only one adjective to define Ferrari's performance in Australia: dominant. The team led the standings from the first free-practice session on Friday 5 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 if needed. Despite the cautiousness, the reigning world championship set a lap that was over 0.3 tenth quicker than the qualifying one, which was already a fantastic track record. Ferrari simply interpreted the new regulations with perfection. Everything works well in the F2004 car. 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 3-day event, aside from the brake pedal issue. Barrichello denounced a problem with it during free-practice. It was an inconvenience that the technicians are still investigating, even if it must have been a casual and minor issue. The opponents will not compliantly chase Ferrari 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.
The team could have won the 2003 race had they messed up with the wet and dry tyres. It is necessary to wait at least three or four races to judge the pecking order. For sure though, the first race answers some questions that come up after pre-season testing. The F2004 exceeds expectations. Renault is growing in terms of car performance. Williams has a valid car but needs time to develop it. BAR and Jaguar are also on the rise. The difficulties that Räikkönen and Coulthard encountered in pre-season testing were confirmed during the race. The journalists are wondering how it is possible, since the McLaren car was already being tested in 2003. The Woking team did tens of thousands of kilometres during testing. Some journalists thought that Schumacher was lacking in confidence but they were proven wrong. Barrichello continues his growth. Alonso is the most promising youngster who has the killer, determined and ruthless attitude that distinguishes champions, especially when they have to make way through the ranks at the beginning of their career. Juan Pablo Montoya also proves to be a strong driver. 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 can fight for the top positions if they have the right car to do so. There is some perplexity within the paddock regarding the old and new regulations. The two Sunday qualifying sessions were really depressing to watch. The second session was pitiful to watch, since the mechanics had to put the fuel that the drivers would use during 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 proposal is to make a 1-hour qualifying session on Friday and on Saturday with aggregated times. The second one is to reduce winter and in-season testing to 15 days. All teams would therefore need to test during the race weekend, thus giving a good spectacle to the fans. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello dominate the Australian Grand Prix with disarming ease. The two Ferrari drivers were chased by Fernando Alonso for a couple of kilometres. Afterwards, nobody is able to challenge a team that is in great form: no uncertainties during the pit stops, perfect strategies and reliable engine. Schumacher is unleashed. The catchphrase about a possible retirement is over.
The journalists argue that he may not have 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. His critics were proved wrong ever since he started the first free-practice session on Friday. His physical integrity is still good despite the age. The Tifosi were right to set the alarm clock at 4:00 a.m. They saw the sunrise and one of the best Ferrari cars ever. Someone might have thought that the television transmitted a replica of the 2000 Australian race. 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. Stirling Moss had the bad luck of racing with Fangio in the '50s. He 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 but is a monster of a driver. The president Luca Montezemolo jokes:
"Michael is a dear boy".
He emphases the word "dear". Hiring Michael in 1996 is an investment that is now bearing fruit. The team quotas are at a peak level. Rubens Barrichello is the ideal sidekick. The Brazilian driver is fast and reliable and is learning the tricks of the job, so much so that he could steal the championship away from Michael. Renault is in better shape from this point of view, whilst McLaren is technically at year zero. The superiority of the F2004 car is mechanically and aerodynamically unquestionable. When the Bridgestone tyres work, the gap between the scarlet cars and the others is around a couple of seconds per lap. The Japanese tyre suppliers work with oriental rhythms and methods. They are mixing all kinds of compounds without any breaks, testing the tyres for thousands of kilometres. They are aiming to find 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. Renault and BAR-Honda are new rivals for Ferrari. Montoya, Räikkönen and Alonso are new potential world champions, but Schumacher is still the champion to beat. The Maranello guys shared his thoughts at the eve of the Australian Grand Prix:
"We like Australia".
They took everything during the Australian weekend: 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 fought for the scraps. Renault takes comfort in Fernando Alonso's first podium in Formula 1. Williams- BMW finishes in the points with both cars. McLaren leaves the track with a 10th place finish and a DNF. It is a disappointing result. The Woking team is already thinking about next year's car, since the MP4-19 car is slow and unreliable. The other teams are shocked by Ferrari's performance:
"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 analyse the weak areas of the F2004 car and where to improve it".
What did you discover?
"We found areas to improve everywhere...".
In other words, we did not find anything but we are still continuing to work and improve. This is Ferrari's philosophy. Jean Todt explains in details:
"We told Michael to slow the pace down. The aim was the 1-2 finish and not lapping our rivals".
Michael Schumacher argues that he still enjoys racing:
"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".
The reigning champion was so fast throughout the 3-day event and was driving like a kid. Michael Schumacher is racing his 24th season in Formula 1 and did not leave space to his young and old rivals. Rubens Barrichello was the only driver to engage Michael in a half-hearted duel during the first half of the race. Michael, do you think that Rubens 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, the Schumacher couple is expecting a third child. Michael, your rivals are dismayed and shocked after your performance:
"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".
Ferrari was superior today:
"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:
"Honestly not, because I think if we had 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".
Barrichello reveals that he had brake issues in the second half of the race:
"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".
Rubens, do you think this is your best chance to win the championship?
"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".
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".
Luca di Montezemolo 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. A great deal of technological innovation is 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 for Ferrari. These were the headlines before winter testing:
"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 is Ferrari not using the walrus nose like Williams?"
"The Michelin teams have an unbridgeable advantage. BAR-Honda, after changing tyre supplier, immediately became competitive".
The F2004 continued to set record lap times during testing (Fiorano, Mugello and Imola) but the journalists were sceptical:
"It is hot in Australia and things will change".
This is truly the last objection. Ferrari continues to be the team to beat. The rivals are desperate. Todt explains:
"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. The Ferrari general director talks in detail about the stability of the team and the trust given to the technical partners, in particular Bridgestone:
"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 knows the importance of the relationship with Scuderia Ferrari. The top Ferrari members always publicly confirmed their esteem and trust in him. There have been heated conversations inside the garage, which were 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".
The Bridgestone Motorsport technical director anxiously waits for the Malaysian Grand Prix. The track is expected to be scorching hot, since the temperature will be around 40°C. The 2003 Bridgestone tyres would have melted under this heat. This year's Bridgestone tyres passed the Albert Park exam with flying colours on Sunday. The Melbourne track had a track temperature of 30 °C before the race:
"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".
Aside from Ferrari's 1-2 finish, the Japanese tyre supplier only secured a 10th place finish with Giancarlo Fisichella. Giorgio Pantano crossed the line in 14th position at Melbourne. All other positions were occupied by Michelin's six 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 resume from Tuesday 9 to Friday 12 March at Valencia. Barrichello and Badoer try the fourth F2004 and the F2003-GA. The old car is used as a laboratory car, which is used for the developed of the Bridgestone tyres. Ferrari is unable to test at Mugello and Fiorano due to the bad weather conditions. Ferrari is not slowing with the car development. Jean, your rivals are worried about the performance of the car:
"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".
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".
Your 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 did a great job in cancelling any unjustified perplexity. The balance of the car allowed Michael to beat a series of records. Michael, what do you think about Fernando Alonso?
"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 driver has an enormous talent. He will not be satisfied in finishing 3rd in every single race. He is the most dangerous driver for Ferrari. Fernando Alonso gives a summary of his race:
"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".
Flavio Briatore agrees with Alonso's analysis. The Spaniard is nonetheless satisfied with the result:
"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 are not the only secret for the extraordinary F2004 car. The nose is slightly more sloping compared to the F2003-GA's one. It 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 aerodynamic guys accentuate the lower part of the side pontoons and change 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. 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. They are shaped like two small hangers, which guide and speed up the air flow. The design of the chimney 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 worked much on the weight reduction but 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. On Monday 10 March 2004, this Australian newspaper's headline catches our attention:
"Catch me if you can".
This is obviously referred to Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. As a matter a fact, the F2004 was over a second faster than the other cars in qualifying trim. Alonso was the only driver who was able to stay under the second limit, finishing 0.909 seconds behind Michael and Rubens. Ralf Schumacher was 1.699 seconds slower than his brother. Coulthard's lap was 2.203 slower than Michael's one. Taking all this into account, the two F2004 cars seems unreachable for the other competitors. Aside from Ferrari, Renault is the only team to demonstrate a good level of competitiveness. The Enstone-based squad has no reliability issues to solve at the moment. In addition, Alonso and Trulli had a lighting reaction at the start of the Melbourne Grand Prix. Alonso's lap times were nowhere near as fast as the Ferraris but were consistent. The team result could have been better than Williams' one if it wasn't for the collision between Jarno and Sato at the start of the race. It was a positive result overall, which confirms the R24's good aerodynamic qualities, chassis and 720-engine. The Renault engine is the narrowest of all V10s in contention. Reliability is not something that is lacking at Williams, even if the FW26 car's performance was disappointing at Melbourne. 20.000 kilometres were carried out during winter testing, although the milage was not enough to find a good set-up balance for the two Williams cars. Montoya and Ralf Schumacher had issues with understeer/oversteer and struggled under breaking. The performance was discontinued in terms of lap times. The famous walrus nose did not seem to give any sort of advantage at the Albert Park circuit. The Williams mechanics were in fact forced to make continuous set-up changes to the two cars. The McLaren situation is even worse. The Woking-based squad rightly speaks of a disastrous start to the 2004 season. The MP4/18 project never raced in 2003, which led to the early production of the MP4-19B. The McLaren drivers are complaining about the car and the Mercedes engine. The engine failure on Räikkönen's car, which occurred on lap 10, says a lot about McLaren's current situation.
The two cars did 100 kilometres less than the other cars during the Friday and Saturday free-practice sessions, in order to safeguard reliability. Nevertheless, it was not enough to avoid Räikkönen’s DNF. The plinth built directly by Mercedes in Germany (and not by Ilmor in England) does not solve the problems that already emerged in the past. Engine power and reliability are also missing. It can be said that one aspect came to light during the Australian Grand Prix. Michelin, who supplies the tyres to Ferrari's rivals, was inferior to Bridgestone on Sunday. The pecking order might be reversed on the hot asphalt of the Sepang circuit. However, it might not be the case. The Japanese tyre supplier has in fact prepared new compounds that should have an optimal and constant performance in different conditions. Renault might be able to replicate last year's performance. Alonso in fact took pole position in 2003. What about Ferrari's rivals? Williams has the possibility to catch up on Ferrari in the car development, which means fine-tuning the FW26. McLaren's recovery is a difficult and steep road. The Woking-based squad hopes to make some steps forward but it will take time. BAR, Jaguar and Sauber’s performance were quite decent. Toyota was indecent during the race. It was difficult to evaluate Jordan and Minardi's level of performance, given the few resources available. Ralf crossed the line in 4th position ahead of Montoya. Button finished 4th, indicating BAR's progress. Trulli crossed the line in 7th. Coulthard rounded up the point-scoring position. Räikkönen retired with a blown-up engine on lap 10. The Woking team leaves Australia with only one point. It is a disastrous start for them. Williams, Renault and McLaren hope that the Malaysian heat will slow down the two F2004 cars and put a strain on the Bridgestone tyres, as it was the case in 2003. It might not be the case though. If the Maranello cars have a dominant performance at Sepang, the other teams might need to give up their championship hopes already. The Australian race was a real debacle for McLaren. Räikkönen retired with an engine failure whilst Coulthard only finished 8th. Alonso was the author of a start that was within the limits of the regulations. He then overtook Montoya and squeezed him into the grass. As a result, the Colombian lost four places. The two Ferrari cars were immediately competitive, gaining two seconds a lap on everyone else. Kimi Räikkönen was betrayed by a Mercedes engine failure on lap 10:
"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".
Kimi Räikkönen was a championship contender up until the end of the 2003 championship. In the end, the Finn lost the title by only two points. McLaren-Mercedes worked hard to build the 2004 car in December, in order to have enough time to test and develop it. The goal was to do the necessary step to reach Ferrari. The MP4-19 car did 14.000 kilometres against the 6.000 of the F2004. On Sunday, though, the McLaren car stopped after just 50 km of racing. The Finn was defending 11th position against Massa, who has a car that is very similar to the F2003-GA 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 admits that the team expected a different start to the season:
"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".
The 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".
Ron Dennis justifies the unprecedented performance, claiming that the engine issue derived 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".
Ron Dennis is maybe forgetting that McLaren was not competitive in qualifying, despite the 28°C track temperature. There is a similar climate down at Williams-BMW. Juan Pablo Montoya is infuriated with his teammate and Alonso:
"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 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".
Montoya will race with McLaren in 2005: 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".
Mario Theissen, who is the 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' 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 whether Ferrari will dominate in Malaysia".
The Formula 1 Circus is now preparing the luggage for Malaysia. The second round of the season will take place on Sunday 21 March 2004 at Sepang. In the meantime, Ferrari gives Schumacher a couple of days off. Barrichello will do the European testing in preparation for the next race. He and Luca Badoer will try the old F2003-GA and the fourth F2004 car at Valencia, which exited from the Maranello factory. 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 car. The Maranello technicians are not content with the win. Immediately after the race, they examine the collected data for more than an hour, in order to understand where the car can be improved. This is not good news for the other teams.