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Australian GP analysis 04 Mar 2002

Four times world champion Michael Schumacher won the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne yesterday (Sunday), after an astonishing race that saw yellow flags waved right from the beginning of the usually innocuous formation lap. The Ferrari driver headed the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya and the McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen across the finish line.
Melbourne was coming to the end of its coldest summer for years as the Australian GP got underway from March 1st, and the entire weekend took place under grey skies and was beset by rain showers. Race day was no different with morning warm-up taking place on a sodden track. Although it had dried by the 14.00 race start time, the thermometer was showing only 18°C as the cars began to form up on the grid for the first race of 2002.

Humidity levels were also high, and showers were predicted for some time during the afternoon. In the end Sunday afternoon actually saw some of the best weather of the entire weekend, and the sun even broke through in the latter stages of the race.

This did not prevent an incident-filled event taking place in front of the packed grandstands, and the Australian fans were able to celebrate the success of home boy Mark Webber in his debut GP, when he finished fifth in his Minardi. He was preceded across the line by Jaguar's Eddie Irvine, up from his starting place of nineteenth on the grid, and only just fended off Mika Salo's Toyota, which still ended up scoring one point in the team's maiden F1 race.

Minardi, understandably, were thrilled with this success, their first points since Marc Gene's sixth place at the 1999 European GP. "The thing that got to me the most was in the last couple of laps, every time I came down the pit straight, I could see the crowd in the grandstand rise, but there was no chequered flag, and I wasn't sure if the race was over or not. I have to say, I was relieved when I came around and finally saw it being waved!" Webber said afterwards.

Both Arrows were left stranded on the grid at the start of the formation lap, and even while mechanics were desperately trying to start the two cars from the pit lane there was a huge accident as the grid barrelled into the first corner. Rubens Barrichello got away cleanly from pole but Ralf Schumacher had an even better start and was soon looking threatening in the Brazilian's rear mirrors.

Barrichello was seen to change line twice and, as he braked for Turn One, Ralf collided with the rear of his Ferrari, launching the Williams skywards and sending Barrichello spinning out the race. Thankfully neither driver was hurt, but the repercussions of this incident saw another six cars eliminated from the race - Giancarlo Fisichella, Felipe Massa, Nick Heidfeld, Jenson Button, Olivier Panis and Allan McNish all had to pull out.

The Safety Car came out allowing Raikkonen time to pit for a new nose and to have debris removed from his seat and after five laps racing finally resumed, with David Coulthard in the lead. However, another Safety Car period was to be the beginning of the end of the Scot's dominance, after Jarno Trulli span out of the race under pressure from Michael Schumacher.

As the Safety Car prepared to return to the pits Coulthard backed the field up, ready for his sprint down the pit straight and into the first corner. However, he ran off the track at the penultimate corner of the lap and lost five places in the process. He initially fought back, setting a fastest lap in the process, but then began to fall down through the field again, and even suffered the ignominy of being overtaken by both Minardis.

It was not until lap 33 that the gearbox problem which had plagued him for most of the race finally proved terminal, bringing him to a halt on track. "My car developed a gearbox down-selection problem and when the safety car pulled in it put itself into neutral, which caught me out and I went off the track," he commented. "I managed to rejoin but the problem continued and eventually the car jammed in sixth gear and that was the end of my race.

Lap 14 and Takuma Sato could be seen touring back to the pits in the Jordan to retire, as his bad luck continued throughout the whole weekend. The young Japanese had experienced problems on all three days, leading to him being unable to qualify and requiring special dispensation from the race stewards to start from P22.

"I had an electronics problem which meant I couldn't select all the gears," he explained. "The team called me in to the pits to try to fix the problem but, although I went out again, ultimately I had to retire. I seem to have gone through quite a lot this weekend, except a proper qualifying, so it has been a very exciting and interesting experience!"

Arrows' disappointment also continued, despite them eventually getting both drivers out on track - although several laps down on the leaders. Both cars were black-flagged by the stewards in the end - Frentzen on lap 20 for having left the pit lane when the red light was on and Bernoldi four laps later for taking the spare car after the start of the race.

On lap 29 Jacques Villeneuve joined his team mate on the list of retirees, after a rear wing failure propelled him into the barriers and out the race. He was less than pleased. "It's frustrating to finish the race like that, especially after the hard work that everybody has put in over the weekend," he told waiting journalists.

The planned pit stops took place around lap 37, and signalled the end of the action in the 58-lap race. Salo made a last minute charge on Webber's fifth place in the closing laps but eventually outdrove himself, his harmless spin ensuring that Webber crossed the chequered flag to a hero's welcome from the crowd.

After the race talk mainly centred around the first-corner accident and the decision not to re-start, and instead continue running under the safety car. Many drivers and team bosses were frustrated by the decision that eliminated almost half the grid, however the FIA stated that races were only re-started if it became a safety requirement - something that did not factor in the Australian GP.

There was also discussion over whether Barrichello or Ralf had contributed most to the accident, with some taking the side of the German and stating that Barrichello made two moves, something that is illegal according to FIA regulations. Others felt that Ralf braked too late, and hit the Ferrari driver as a result of this. Both drivers stated that they felt it was a normal racing incident, although they had their own explanations for how it came about!

Finally, Ferrari's dominance even though they are yet to race their 2002 contender was found surprising by some. The car should have been off the pace of rivals McLaren and Williams, who had been expected to have made large steps forward when designing their new challengers. Instead Ferrari topped the time sheets in every session, suggesting that they will be a country mile clear of the rest of the field come the debut of the F2002.

Malaysia's race could see this momentous occasion, and will give a glimpse of what to expect for the rest of 2002. However, it will not be until the first European GP, San Marino, that a reliable benchmark for how the championship will progress this year can be found.
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