Michael Schumacher took the
predictable top honours for Ferrari in the first qualifying session of the 2001 season in
Melbourne for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix. Adding to the pressure he kept up last
season on his main rivals, McLaren his position at the front looked unshakeable from the
beginning as the grid made an early roll-out to test the waters in the southern Australian
Losing pole position briefly to teammate Rubens Barrichello, he returned to the front in a
demonstration of superior driving that left all others in the shade. By contrast the
McLarens looked to be all at sixes and sevens, Mika Hakkinen only snatching pole briefly
and then, from the number two slot, being relegated to the second row by Barrichello in
the final seconds of the session.
Teammate David Coulthard made an untimely mistake on his first set of flying laps, and
failed to qualify until well into the session. He was eventually sixth. Heinz-Harald
Frentzen's Jordan Honda was fourth and Ralf Schumacher's BMW powered WilliamsF1 was fifth
and faster than the Scot by more than a tenth of a second
Young hearts were
undoubtedly beating fast as the seconds ticked away and the green light signalled the
start of the session. First out through the shimmering heat haze was Enrique Bernoldi in
the Arrows, anxious to establish his credentials with the team, followed some eight
minutes later by the Minardi of Tarso Marques who proceeded to spin and dance his car
around the circuit in all directions. It was unsurprising that the young Brazilian rookie
failed to qualify at the end of the session, spoiling his last chance with 12 minutes to
go by spinning onto the gravel.
The triumph of actually getting his under prepared cars onto the Australian track was
probably reward enough for new team owner Paul Stoddart, however.
Bar Honda driver Jacques Villeneuve looked uneasy at first as he took his car extremely
loosely around the circuit and he eventually qualified eighth. Fernando Alonso raised some
eyebrows by taking the second Minardi to a brief third place before being usurped by Jos
Verstappens Arrows, they eventually finished 19th and 15th respectively.
The first big gun to be fired 20 minutes into the session, was Schumacher whose regal
procession round the track was cheered on from every grandstand by a large contingent of
Australian tifosi. They were not to be disappointed when he topped the timing sheets a
clear two seconds ahead of French Canadian Villeneuve with a 1.28.178.
Staying out for an interim lap he then cranked the car through another gear to improve his
time making canny use of the heat retention in his scrubbed tyres to better his original
time by almost half a second. He also retook his pole from Rubens Barrichello who had
sneaked a quick time in between the German's two flying laps, and Hakkinen who was only
able to get the merest glimpse of a number one slot
Meanwhile new BMW WilliamsF1 driver Juan Montoya had done the important first flyer faster
than his teammate Ralf Schumacher and gained a temporary 4th. Another newcomer Kimi
Raikkonen was doing stirling work along with his partner Nick Heidfeld for Sauber and even
managed a glorious second for a moment with a 1.30.123 before being eclipsed by the big
But it wasn't going to be McLaren's day. Coulthard was still way down the field and both
drivers were finding it hard to find the right balance for their cars which had been
worked on continuously through the night.
As the battle began to heat up between the two Williams drivers - Ralf taking over as the
quicker of the two in fourth place, his Colombian partner dropping to tenth - Barrichello
put in a careful drive to take pole back from Schumacher by a mere 1000th of a second.
With 14 minutes remaining a deflated left rear tyre saw Luciano Burtis Jaguar plough
into the barriers at turn five, scraping along the side of the track for a hundred yards
before coming to a halt.
The red flag came out halting promising laps from both McLaren boys and when the session
started some nine minutes later the traffic on the track prevented most drivers from
setting better times in the closing stages.
Hakkinen managed to grab second place back briefly and Coulthard clawed his way up to
fifth, before being pushed back down a place by the young Schumacher.
A disappointed Jenson Button could not better 16th place after fighting an unwieldy and
unreliable Benetton for most of the day, and even top gun Schumacher was forced by some
mechanical gremlin to have a last fling in the spare Ferrari when his race car refused to
With the first session of the new season done and dusted there seems little doubt that it
will be the same four cars gracing the front rows of the grid in the coming season.
Despite their unreadiness, it was clear that McLaren had the speed if not the balance
which team boss Ron Dennis talked about at length only the day before. The back of the
grid too, unfortunately looks to be disappointingly similar to last year with the
under-tested Minardis struggling manfully to do their new owner proud.
It will be the mid field as usual which will continue to chop and change and it is here
that the added two or three seconds a lap that the new super soft tyre compounds will
bring will make a marked difference.
There seems little doubt as to the small elite group from whom tomorrow's winner will
emerge but the lesser points are there for the taking and today's line-up should by no
means reflect the outcome of Sunday's race.