MARCH 6, 2004
AUSTRALIAN GP - SATURDAY - QUALIFYING REPORT
Ferrari 1-2 in Albert Park
One could write of the exploits of the Formula 1 drivers in qualifying in Melbourne, of neat and tidy laps or sideways moments; of mishaps and time splits. But the fact of the matter is that with the new qualifying procedures in Formula 1, qualifying has become utterly irrelevant. How this happened is something that perhaps needs to be addressed for it was done in the name of making the sport more exciting...
When it became clear that no-one liked the new format, everyone involved in its design said that it was nothing to do with them and that someone else was to blame. The F1 team bosses were blamed by most but when questioned several of them said that it had been Bernie Ecclestone's idea. The details are actuallly of little import because it is very unlikely that the new system will survive long, such was the outcry at the end of it.
Gone are the days when a team pumped out the gas, fiddled with the weight distribution and threw tyres at the cars and told the drivers to go out there and go for it. And we were spellbound as Ayrton Senna set off, dodging through the traffic went for pole, in the knowledge that somewhere behind him there was another driver on his last run as well.
There is a slight worry about writing things like "Those were the days" because one must always try to look at the positive side of all things but after qualifying on Saturday in Melbourne the only thing one could say was "those were the days". If the concept of qualifying which the team bosses agreed on last winter is the best they can do, one wonders whether the decision making-structure in the sport is in the right hands. Single car qualifying can be good but not for two hours. It just wasn't a show... The TV commentators were ringing their hands (if they will still on the air because a lot of the satellite links had run of time by the end of the session). The crowd in Albert Park quite liked it but as the F1 marketeers will tell you that these people do not matter in the overall global scheme of things.
The drivers put on the best show that the rules allowed them to do but there was no motivation for them to go flat out in the first part of qualifying and in the second part they had to run the cars in race trim.
Perhaps the show in Australia was skewed by the fact that just as the excitement was supposed to be ramping up, we had two consecutive cars failed to get out and run and so the interest level waned at a point it should not have done. Whatever the case the overall feeling in the paddock was that the qualifying system has to change. End of story.
The new system created a grid of sorts but this did not in any way reflect the actual pace of the cars involved because at no point were the cars running flat out with no fuel loads and new tyres. This was highlighted by the fact that in the race the top three finishers all lapped quicker in the race than they had in "qualifying trim". Michael Schumacher's pole position at 1m24.408s may have looked impressive on Saturday but on Sunday he lapped Albert Park in 1m24.125s.
In the final minutes of the session (after two hours) it did get to be pretty exciting as Juan Pablo Montoya was out trying to grab pole position from Michael Schumacher. For half the lap Montoya was in the hunt but then he made a small mistake and the story was over. Michael was on the pole with Rubens Barrichello alongside him.
What was good was that Jenson Button had actually matched Montoya's time, bringing BAR into the spotlight. We had all expected to see Renault up the front but Jenson was faster than Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli was back in ninth position. The Australian were going bananas because Mark Webber was sixth (and deserved to be so). The Jaguar looked pretty good. Button's performance was underlined by the fact that Takuma Sato was seventh fastest, while Ralf Schumacher's Williams was a not very interesting eighth on the grid. Ralf had no real explanation for the situation.
"The most important thing for me is to collect as many points as possible here," he said.
For McLaren fans this was not a qualifying that will be well-remembered for the two silver-grey cars were not on the pace. One would like to think that the team had decided to go for a different strategy in the race but whispers on Saturday night said that this was not the case. The cars were just no good.
But ket us not waste time trying to analyse something which defies analysis. There were simply too many questions which went unanswered. There were lots of guesses but the problem with Formula 1 2004-style was that no-one can be 100% sure of what has happened because there is no point at which we can see the cars going absolutely flat-out with low fuel loads and drivers desperate for every hundredth.
"I guess," said one engineer, "that by about Tuesday we will have finished going through all the data that the race produces. We will have checked every pit stop with video to see how long the nozzles were attached to the cars. After about three or four races we will be able to draw some conclusions about the fuel consumption of each engine and then we can guess a little bit more about what is going on."
Trying to tell stories when there are no facts led to great frustration in the Formula 1 media. How can we explain things when no-one knows anything?
What was the point?
Michael Schumacher (1st, 1:24.408): "The team has done a fantastic job. This car has got great potential which it showed straight out of the box. I had a very good feeling with it today. I am not surprised to be on pole here, as historically we have always gone very well here in Melbourne. But I do not want to sound too optimistic as I am sure there will be harder times ahead at some of the other circuits. The new engine rule has not affected us too much and that is down to a good job of preparation in terms of extending reliability while improving power. This result proves what a fantastic job everyone back in the factory has done over the winter, but it's going to be a tough season."
Rubens Barrichello (2nd, 1:24.482): "For the first part of the session, I was first on track and it was very dusty, so I was being very careful and then on my second run, I pushed as hard as I could. It was a very good lap, even if Michael went a little bit quicker. I am a happy guy and while I am second today, I would like to go one better tomorrow. We found the right set-up and the car felt good. I was aware of the new engine rule and I got the impression that maybe only 10% of the drivers were trying for a time in the first part, while the majority were only looking after their car for the second half."
Jean Todt, Team Principal: "First qualifying of the season and immediately we have two Ferraris on the front row. It is an encouraging result, but we are well aware - we only have to think back to last year - that it is only the first step in what will be a very long season. The F2004 worked well, showing that it has good potential. The work carried out over the winter by the team, by Bridgestone, Shell and our other technical partners is beginning to bear fruit. Now we have to tackle the most important part of the weekend. We know that because the current qualifying system involves running on Saturday afternoon with enough fuel to get to the first stop in the race, today's lap times are not an accurate reflection of the strengths of the teams. Overall reliability and strategy will be the key factors tomorrow."
Ross Brawn, Technical Director: "I am very happy with this result, even though I realise that the qualifying format does not paint a clear picture of the situation. We therefore have to be a bit cautious. Having said that, I think we have made a good choice in terms of race strategy. I must congratulate the team for doing a great job and Bridgestone, who have proved how inaccurate was the criticism levelled at them by the media in the last few months."
Juan Pablo Montoya (3rd, 1:24.998): "The car was a lot better today than in yesterday's free practice. It took us a while to get the set up of my car working properly. Yesterday we also struggled a bit with the tyres but they have got better and better. I was amazed by the time I set in the first qualifying, but then I tried too hard in the second qualifying and made a mistake in the third sector and lost my advantage. However, I am confident for the race, because our package seems to improve throughout the weekend, which will lead us to have a very good car tomorrow."
Ralf Schumacher (8th, 1:25.925): "I don't really know why everything went fine in the first qualifying but not in the second one. Being eighth on the grid is obviously not what I have dreamed of but we should wait and see what the race will bring. The most important thing for me is to collect as many points as possible here."
Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer: "Juan did a good job in qualifying but we have to wait and see where both drivers are tomorrow in the race. We did not have any problems in the morning sessions or in qualifying, which means so far for the first race weekend of the season everything has gone according to plan. Now we are looking forward to tomorrow's strategy for the race. We are confident for a strong showing."
Dr. Mario Theissen, BMW Motorsport Director: "The first double qualifying of the new season has been interesting. The result shows that in 2004 Ferrari is again the team to beat. Compared to Friday's free practice sessions, we have been much more competitive today. To really rate the lap times, we have to wait until tomorrow's race will be over. The two BMW P84 engines have so far recorded 63 and 59 laps respectively without any technical problems."
Kimi Raikkonen (10th, 1:26.297): "Obviously today's qualifying is disappointing particular since the car doesn't feel too bad, but we were just slow. I didn't do a perfect lap but it was OK and we were still not quick enough. We obviously can't make any changes overnight so we will see what happens in the race tomorrow and hope we gain places by being on a different strategy."
David Coulthard (12th, 1:27.294): "Today's two qualifying sessions made it difficult to see where everybody will be in the race pace wise as some of the variations in times between the two runs were surprising. Obviously from our point of view we were struggling to get the anticipated performance out of the car. In my last run at the last corner I went wide and whilst it might have looked spectacular on the TV, I don't think I damaged the car too much as I went on the grass."
Ron Dennis, Team Principal: "Whilst David's small off didn't help the situation neither driver had the pace needed to be competitive. However our race strategy should give us better finishing places than we are currently occupying on the grid."
Norbert Haug, Mercedes Motorsport Director: "Today's new qualifying format presented some surprises and it remains to be seen who was on which fuel load and strategy. David's short off at the last corner prevented him from achieving a better result. We need to improve our package and the whole team will."
Fernando Alonso (5th, 1:25.699): "I'm pleased with my lap: the car was well balanced, and I think we got the maximum out of our package in qualifying spec. I didn't make any mistakes, and I think that fifth on the grid is a good result after a productive day's work. I'm feeling confident for tomorrow."
Jarno Trulli (9th, 1:26.290): "It was a difficult session, even though I didn't make any mistakes on my lap. I have to admit that some of our competitors are quicker than we had expected, but we also know that, relative to the other teams, we are quicker in race conditions than in qualifying. It's a long race tomorrow, and while our first aim must be to finish without any problems, we will also be looking to score a good number of points."
Pat Symonds, Executive Director of Engineering: "We have all waited a long time during the winter to find out exactly how quick each team is, and although things seem a little clearer this evening, we still won't know exactly how competitive everybody is until mid-way through tomorrow's race. There is no doubt we had hoped to be slightly higher up the grid, but we have always acknowledged that the fight would be very close this year. We may indeed have been a little too conservative with our strategy."
Denis Chevrier, Engine Operations Manager: "The first positive observation is that we experienced no problems with the engines throughout the day, and remain confident that we will finish the race without problems. Admittedly, we are slightly disappointed to see a gap of several tenths of a second between the two drivers, but I nevertheless think we are on track relative to our objectives. Yesterday and today, we have worked with the objective of good race performance in mind and, if we can continue our ability to get away from the startline extremely well tomorrow, I think we can genuinely hope for a competitive Grand Prix."
Jenson Button (4th, 1:24.998): "I really enjoyed that. It's always difficult to achieve the perfect lap but I'm very happy. It's a little bit disappointing to miss out on third after I matched Montoya's time. I had switched to the T car for qualifying after a problem with my race car in practice this morning. Under the new rules we also had to switch the engine from my race car so it was a race against time for us to be ready in time to start qualifying. The team did a very good job though. If we have the reliability in the race tomorrow then we're definitely looking strong for points."
Takuma Sato (7th, 1:25.851): "I'm very pleased with my lap - the best I've had this weekend. It was a little bit difficult this morning because we had a mechanical problem with the gearbox, so I lost quite a bit of track time. We made a set up change prior to the first qualifying run and the car didn't feel too good, but we switched back to the practice set-up and I just felt very comfortable for the second session. I'm really looking forward to the race tomorrow now."
David Richards, Team Principal: "Jenson told me several weeks ago that he thought he would be P3 in Melbourne, but he obviously didn't predict a dead heat! We have had our fair share of glitches over the last couple of days, and having to switch Jenson to the T-Car with just an hour to go, was not exactly as planned. This year that means changing the engine as well, but the faultless way the team dealt with it shows how far we have come, and is further proof that we have the ability to challenge the established order. I thought Taku's time was superb when you take into consideration that he has done the least number of laps of all the drivers this weekend. The fact that we have both cars in the first four rows puts us in great shape for the race tomorrow."
Geoffrey Willis, Technical Director: "Both drivers did very well in the first qualifying session of the year. Takuma lost his last run of the morning on new tyres when we discovered a problem with fourth gear. In his first run in qualifying he was not happy with the set-up and we made a number of changes, which helped considerably. Jenson had a productive morning but then during the break before qualifying we discovered that his chassis had been damaged when he ran wide over the kerb. The mechanics did a great job to swap his engine over to the T-car and get him out in under an hour. This is a good start to the weekend and we feel that we are in a good position for the race, but the real challenge will be tomorrow."
Shuhei Nakamoto, Honda Engineering Director: "We're happy. B.A.R and ourselves have worked well as a team to overcome a few problems earlier today and make this result possible. Clearly tomorrow is when it counts and we will be refocusing all our efforts on that tonight. It feels good to be starting the season from the second and fourth rows."
Felipe Massa (11th, 1:27.065): "I could have done a bit better in the second qualifying session, because I expected to set the same time as I had in the first, 1m 26.833s. But I was expecting to qualify in the top 12 and I'm 11th, so I'm quite happy. The balance was good today and for sure it is better still over a long distance, so I know I will have a very good car for the race."
Giancarlo Fisichella (14th, 1:27.845): "I was happy with my performance in the first qualifying session, but unfortunately in the second I made a big mistake in Turn One. I recovered and set what was at that time the fastest time in the second sector, but I lost a bit of concentration and made another couple of small mistakes in the third. It's disappointing, because the car was good and the balance was better than it was yesterday."
Peter Sauber, Team Principal: "After the first qualifying session we expected a top 10 result, and without the couple of off-track moments that Giancarlo had we would have achieved that. Apart from this, our race weekend has gone well so far, and I think we have a good car for the race."
Mark Webber (6th, 1:25.805): "It's been a great weekend for me so far and to be starting my home race tomorrow from 6th of the grid is fantastic. I had a good practice session this morning when we worked on balance and set-up. The boys have done a great job in preparing the car for me and both Cosworth Racing and Michelin have more than delivered. I was hoping to be in the top ten and after I saw Takuma Sato's time I knew I had to do a good clean lap if I had a chance of topping him. The first corner can be tricky as you really have to control your aggression and so I was glad to see the back of it. There was definitely more grip out there this afternoon which made my job easier and that allowed me to extract a couple extra tenths. I can't wait for tomorrow, it's going to be a long afternoon but very exciting."
Christian Klien (19th, No Time): "The weekend had been going so well for me so it is very disappointing to have not completed my first Formula One qualifying lap. The balance on the car had been excellent this morning and I had really enjoyed my first qualifying session. It appears that as I approached corner one I suffered a hydraulic failure and as it pushed me off track I just focused on controlling the car. I immediately abandoned my lap and came in and as a result I will be starting in 19th position, slightly lower than I had hoped! However I know that these things can happen and I am already focusing on the race tomorrow and concentrating on doing the best that I can in my first Formula One race."
Mark Gillan, Head of Vehicle Performance: "Free Practice was good for us this morning and both drivers were very happy with the set-ups that we had achieved. Going in to qualifying we were confident that we had a good package however, unfortunately Christian suffered a hydraulic failure which forced him to abandon his lap and we are disappointed with this. He has done a great job all weekend and it would have been good to have seen him rewarded with a good qualifying lap.We will be working on the car today to ensure that Christian has a good package going into tomorrow. Mark's had a good weekend too and to see him qualifying 6th is fantastic. He drove a good clean lap and really extracted the best from the R5. The track conditions were good and I am pleased with our performance so far. Our unspectacular and methodical approach during winter testing is clearly paying dividends and we are well placed to make a charge for points tomorrow. We believe in our approach and so far it has demonstrated very clear progress versus last year's car."
Cristiano Da Matta (13th, 1:27.823): "I am not pleased with my lap. This afternoon, for some reason, the car has been more disconnected than it was in morning practice; the balance was not as good and we had less grip. Compared to what we achieved this morning, I was expecting a much better result. I made a small mistake in turn 14, which lost me a few tenths, but generally the grip levels were not as good this afternoon. We need to work very hard for the race tomorrow."
Olivier Panis (20th, No Time): "The morning practice sessions were quite positive. From Friday, we improved the car a lot and I felt much more confident to drive to the maximum. I think we did a reasonable job in the first qualifying run, but we could not start the engine for my second run due to an electronics malfunction and I was unable to get going in time."
Mike Gascoyne, Technical Director: "Before Olivier's second run there was some electrical damage to the car, which meant that we were unable to fire it up properly. We then tried to start the car but the electrical damage prevented his throttle from working, so we couldn't get out in time. With Cristiano, we have been suffering from a general lack of grip and all in all it was a very disappointing qualifying after what was a highly productive morning for the team. We now have to concentrate on ensuring that we put in the strongest race performance we can."
Nick Heidfeld (15th, 1:28.178): "My second qualifying lap was better than the first. I was hoping to beat Cristiano da Matta but it did not happen even though I did the maximum possible. The car has a good set-up for the race judging by this morning because we did a relatively long run, given that we have to be careful with engine mileage, and the car was quite consistent. After this morning it looked like we would be stronger over a distance than on a single lap so I'm hopeful."
Giorgio Pantano (16th, 1:30.140): "We tried to do our best for our first qualifying. I don't think we did our complete maximum and we can be better so we still need to work a lot."
James Robinson, Director of Race and Test Engineering: "It was interesting to see how this new qualifying sequence runs and I'm sure there will be an awful lot of analysis going on over the next few days. At the end of the day we have to take some positives from being P15 and P16 and we are not looking in a bad position for the race tomorrow, given the good homework we have been doing. It's good to see the team performed well under pressure, as did the drivers, all contributing to a solid weekend and hopefully points tomorrow."
Zsolt Baumgartner (17th, 1:30.681): "I was struggling a bit during the first run, as I was trying to find the limit of the new tyres and also to feel the grip levels on the track. In the couple of minutes we had between sessions, we made a small adjustment to the car to reduce some oversteer we had in places. In the end, I think the result wasn't bad - we picked up two seconds from the first run and ended up only half-a-second behind the Jordan, which is good. Overall, I'm happy, and even more importantly, my engineer is happy. I'm sorry for Gimmi that he didn't get a time this afternoon, but I hope we can both have a good race tomorrow, and if we're lucky, score some points."
Gianmaria Bruni (18th, No Time): "It's obviously a bit disappointing for my first F1 qualifying to end this way. The first run was good, and I didn't push that hard, as I wanted to get the feel of the track for the second run. The second run would have been better, for sure, as everybody went faster, but when I tried to select first gear to leave the garage, there was nothing. It's a shame, because we had developed a pretty good chassis balance for the car today. Anyway, that's what happened, and now we'll just have to see what we can do tomorrow."
Paul Stoddart, Team Principal: "We have mixed feelings about back-to-back qualifying sessions, simply because the two minutes between them allows no room for error, driver debriefing, or for that matter, even for checking the car over. I wasn't a supporter of this new qualifying format, so it's ironic that Minardi was the first team caught out by it, when Gimmi's car, having just completed its first run this afternoon, was unable to leave the garage for the final run. He deserved better than that today. He has put in a fantastic effort thus far on his F1 debut and has really got to grips with the fantastic tyres being provided by our partner, Bridgestone. By comparison, Zsolt put a really good lap together when it mattered most. I think both drivers will have a lot to offer in the coming races. It's onwards and upwards now for tomorrow's home race and the debut of our 2004 driver line-up."