Coulthard finally ends Ferrari run

ON an afternoon filled with enough incident, drama, special effects and quick-fix excitement to fill a James Bond movie, David Coulthard cruised through a bedraggled field to seize the 13th win of his career in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

TIMOTHY COLLINGS

ON an afternoon filled with enough incident, drama, special effects and quick-fix excitement to fill a James Bond movie, David Coulthard cruised through a bedraggled field to seize the 13th win of his career in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

The Australian Grand Prix winner, David Coulthard, is flanked by Juan Carlos Montoya (left), who placed second, and Kimi Raikkonen who took the third slot. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Michael Schumacher, the five-times champion who started from pole position as hot favourite, missed a podium finish for the first time in 20 races as Ferrari's long domination ended at last.

With Rubens Barrichello crashing out on the sixth lap and the `Red Baron' coming home fourth behind Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya in a Williams, and Kimi Raikkonen, in the second McLaren, it was Ferrari's first absence from the rostrum for nearly four years.

No one could argue that the show was not entertaining. The spectacle was just what the Formula One doctor ordered last autumn as rising costs and falling circuit crowds, and significantly television audiences, sparked a minor crisis.

The four-day attendance in Melbourne was still 348,700, a statistic that suggests the sport retains a massive pulling power whatever cosmetics are performed to titillate the armchair viewers.

There was also the added bonus of a post-race flare-up between BAR team-mates Jenson Button and Jacques Villeneuve, after a costly mix-up in the pit lane.

When the Briton went in for his scheduled pit stop after 25 laps, he found Villeneuve already there and the 23-year-old was forced to queue up behind the Canadian.

"He came in on my lap and that completely buggered my race," said Button. "It cost me a hell of a lot of time, it's like doing two pit stops. There is nothing you can do then, it completely destroyed the race."

From pole, Schumacher led to the end of lap seven when he pitted. Montoya took over, at speed, but his advantage disappeared when he also pitted, after 16 laps, and the safety car came out for the first time for three laps. This diminished his advantage, equalised the field and gave everyone a chance to reconsider their strategies.

Montoya pushed hard to lead by seven seconds, but when he pitted after 16 laps, the second safety car appearance undid his efforts and Raikkonen, who had opted to start in the pit lane, along with Jos Verstappen's Minardi, and to use a one-stop strategy, gained the ascendancy.

Raikkonen stayed in the lead until he pitted after 33 laps, with an advantage of nearly 20 seconds, with Montoya taking over at the front again, leaving Raikkonen to use Schumacher-style aggression to defend his position from German attacks that resulted in the Ferrari bouncing across the kerbs.

Any hopes Raikkonen had of winning were wrecked, too, when he was called in for his drive-through penalty, for speeding in the pit lane, while Schumacher limped round with a broken `bargeboard' before pitting for repairs after 46 laps. That gave Montoya another chance, but he threw it away by spinning off at Turn One, named Fangio, before recovering to follow Coulthard home.

"I didn't actually overtake many people out on the track, but we can gloss over that," said Coulthard who, adopting a `steady Eddie' approach in contrast to his playboy image, drove a conservative race. "It's still a great result and obviously I am extremely happy for the team. Maybe we are not quite as competitive on outright speed as Ferrari, but in races like that where there is an element of good fortune, and where there are decisions to be made on strategy, then we can feel quite satisfied."

British debutants Ralph Firman and Justin Wilson, meanwhile, enjoyed mixed fortunes on their first outing.

Firman, in his Jordan, crashed out on the same corner which accounted for Barrichello only five laps in, while Wilson was forced out when the radiator on his Minardi was hit by a loose stone on the track.

The results (Australian Grand Prix at the 5.303-kilometre, 3.295-mile, Albert Park circuit): 1. David Coulthard, Scotland, McLaren, 1 hour, 34 minutes, 42.124 seconds, 58 laps, average speed 194.868 kph (121.1 mph); 2. Juan Pablo Montoya, Colombia, Williams, 1:34.50.799, 58 laps; 3. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, McLaren, 1:34.51.316, 58 laps; 4. Michael Schumacher, Germany, Ferrari, 1:34.51.606, 58 laps; 5. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Renault, 1:35.20.925, 58 laps; 6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Germany, Sauber, 1:35.26.052, 58 laps; 7. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 1:35.27.198, 58 laps; 8. Ralf Schumacher, Germany, Williams, 1:35.27.869, 58 laps; 9. Jacques Villeneuve, Canada, BAR Honda, 1:35.47.660, 58 laps; 10. Jenson Button, England, BAR Honda, 1:35.48.098, 58 laps; 11. Jos Verstappen, Netherlands, Minardi, 1 lap behind 12.

Drivers' standings: 1. David Coulthard, Scotland, McLaren, 10 points, 2. Juan Pablo Montoya, Colombia, Williams 8, 3. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, McLaren 6, 4. Michael Schumacher, Germany, Ferrari 5, 5. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Renault 4, 6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Germany, Sauber 3, 7. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault 2, 8. Ralf Schumacher, Germany, Williams. 1.

Constructor's standings: 1. McLaren, 16 points, 2. Williams-BMW, 9, 3. Renault, 6, 4. Ferrari, 5, 5. Sauber, 3.

EVEN though the first Grand Prix of the season is a thing of the past, the jury is still out on the new and controversial rule changes introduced before the first race.

For some, the rule changes were the reason hy the lengthy Ferrari win-streak came to an end and Ferrari failed to get a podium finish for the first time since 1999, for others the rule changes had nothing o do with Ferrari's defeat.

Five-times world champion Michael Schumacher, who started race in pole position and won the last three races in Melbourne, is adament that the outcome had nothing to do with the changes.

"The circumstances in this race were chaotic. I maintain that the outcome had nothing to do with the new changes. If the safety car is out so often, that influences the outcome a lot.

"If the circumstances for Ferrari had not been so unlucky, we would certainly have had our chances," he said.

Mercedes sports boss, Norbert Haug, who saw his drivers David Coulthard and Kimi Raikonen finish first and third, shares Schumacher's views. "The rules had no influence on the outcome. The only thing that mattered was the fact that Mercedes, BMW and Ferrari all had competitive cars in the race." He said that he hoped the season would be exciting. "I hope it stays Rule changes _ thelike this. But, as I have said, this is not achieved through rule changes, it can only be achieved through cars that are equally fast. And that was the case in Australia."

Minardi boss, Paul Stoddart, who used the new rules to have an advantage in the race by not finishing the qualifying laps, thereby being the only team that was allowed to work on their cars in the night before the race, said he would do it again.

"What we did was within the rules. It was carefully thought out, it was checked and re-checked before we did it _ it was not a loophole." Ironically though, the Minardis did not have an advantage as the rains, that Stoddart had been banking on, stayed away for the 58 laps.

"It was worth a try, and we'd do it again,' Stoddart said, adding that he believed the rule changes had worked. "The winner is Formula One and I reckon the rule changes should be applauded." BAR team boss, David Richards, agreed with Stoddart. "The objective was to make it better racing and I think the weather played into our hands to a certain extent, but overall it was a good race and very encouraging." The race winner Coulthard said that he reserved judgement on the rule changes. "I think we will only be able to judge that (whether the rules contributed to the excitement) on reflection of the season.

ANDREW BAKER

A race of relentless incident and ceaseless excitement, and a Ferrari-free podium for the first time in more than a season. Everything, in short, that motor racing's guardians could have wished for when they introduced new rules to Formula One for the first Grand Prix of the new season.

Except that the new rules had very little to do with it. The excitement at Albert Park, Melbourne, was created by bad weather and human error, two things that cannot be legislated for, no matter how much fun they facilitate.

The wet, but rapidly drying track that greeted the drivers as they left the pits and drove around to the starting grid was the first cause of chaos. Some, like Michael Schumacher, felt that the surface was sufficiently damp to start the race on grooved wet-weather tyres. Others, like Juan Pablo Montoya, correctly surmised that slick tyres were the ones to go for, and changed to them on the grid.

Others went further still. Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren's audacious young Finn, radioed his pit on the warm-up lap to say he was coming in for slick tyres, and could he please have some petrol too? He thus earned a footnote in Formula One history as the first man to make a refuelling stop before his race had even begun.

Had it not been for a pit-lane speeding offence on his only subsequent pit-stop, Raikkonen's outrageous strategy would have been rewarded with his first Grand Prix victory. But then any of half-a-dozen drivers could, or should, have won this extraordinary contest.

Montoya certainly felt that he deserved to win, and the expletives decorating his post-race statement were testament to his disappointment. He spun away the lead with the race in his pocket, but he had earlier been the victim of others' mistakes when his tactics were twice undone by the appearance of the safety car.

This was the other randomising element in the Melbourne mix. Planned strategies go out of the window when the Mercedes with the flashing lights takes to the track, because it affords teams a tremendous opportunity to refuel and change tyres without losing much time to the rest of the field.

But it also negates the efforts of anyone sprinting away at the front of the field, which is what happened to Montoya. The first appearance of the safety car was to allow marshals to tidy up what was left of Ralph Firman's Formula One debut, the Anglo-Irishman having wiped most of the left-hand side of his Jordan off against a wall.

The next time it was deployed it was to allow track staff to drag Mark Webber's Jaguar from the side of the track after the local hero had parked it with a wobbly wheel. Webber would later claim that with a little more luck he could have won the race, something that applied to roughly half the field. Montoya should have won, but spun; Raikkonen should have won, but sped in the pits; Michael Schumacher should have won, but for a spot of bother with his 'bargeboard'. With his what?

Bargeboards are not, as you might think, attached to Schumacher's car to assist him in barging his rivals out of the way. They are there to direct some air into the car's radiators. Aerodynamicists swear by them, although the Ferrari seemed every bit as quick after they fell off. Schumacher could not blame his mechanics for the failure, since he had loosened them (and no doubt one or two of his fillings) with a wild ride over the kerb at turn 12. No doubt he had been rattled earlier in the race when Raikkonen failed to move out of his way and instead dumped the Ferrari on to the grass while disputing the lead. This was, by some way, the most popular move of the afternoon.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003