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Ferrari on Front Row, Schumacher at Pole
March 3rd, 2001

At the press conferenceMichael 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 heat.
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, andDavid Coulthard 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 Verstappen’s 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 boys.

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 Burti’s 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. Ferrari
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 start.

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.

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