AUSTRALIAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT

Fizzy and the raindrops

Giancarlo Fisichella, Australian GP 2005

Giancarlo Fisichella, Australian GP 2005 

 © The Cahier Archive

They say that Formula 1 teams will invest in anything that will give them an advantage in a race. In 2005 the unfair advantage will come from the weather. Thus the best possible weapon in the F1 battle at the moment is a rain-making device employed on a Saturday just after a team's car has run in qualifying. Do not be surprised to see teams sending up helicopters and dropping mercury particles into the atmosphere (or whatever). Building a good racing car is still important of course, but even good racing cars cannot overcome the weather with the current rule format. Minardi is attacking the way the rules are made so the only option for the other teams is to investigate rain-making devices.

Many races in the modern era have been settled at the first corner but it is probably fair to say that the 2005 Australian Grand Prix was settled by the first qualifying session. And the result of this session was dictated by two things: the weather and the new qualifying rules. When qualifying began the track was wet but drying and so that meant that the men at the end of the session would inevitably be going faster than those at the beginning - at least in theory. And then the whole thing was skewed by the fact that it rained suddenly in the middle of the session, just after Giancarlo Fisichella had set the fastest time. Felipe Massa was the man who took the brunt of the pain. He was out on grooved slicks when the torrential downpour began and could barely keep the car on the road. Those who followed him were at least able to use wet or even extreme weather tyres and so had a slightly better chance but had no hope of challenging those who had run at the right moment in the session. The man for whom things worked out best happened to be in the best car and that meant that Giancarlo Fisichella was on pole with a bunch of slow cars protecting him from the other fast men. In previous qualifying systems used in F1 the intervention of the weather used to be off-set by the fact that drivers usually had the opportunity to salvage the situation but with aggregated timing there is no chance of doing anything. You cannot make up a gap of five or six seconds if everyone is running in similar conditions. And as the grid sets the pattern of the race these days and overtaking is so hard, it is fair to say that the race was decided when the rain began to fall on Saturday afternoon. The qualifying on Sunday morning was so confusing that even those to whom the system had been explained were lost. Perhaps they will learn to understand the system better but even then explaining it all to the public will not be easy. Or let us put it another way: this is crap.

David Coulthard, a man who is currently delighting in being allowed to speak his mind after nearly 10 years being told what to say as a McLaren driver voiced it well.

"Poor Massa had to go out on slick tyres and it rained," he said. "For him not to have an opportunity to have another go is, to my mind, ludicrous. I was lucky with the weather. There is no skill involved in when your slot comes up. This is supposed to be a technical challenge, a driver challenge. Doing it this way, you may as well have pulled grid positions from a hat. That's not competition. I think it's shit. It's not what the sport stands for."

Many people might say that the political battle in qualifying between Minardi and the FIA has nothing to do with the racing but the reality is that it does. The making of decisions is what is at stake in that dispute and bad decisions are being made. You can argue that it is not the FIA and that the teams are also responsible but, frankly, it really does not matter who is screwing it all up. It is the system that is at fault and the system must change if the sport is to save itself before the TV viewers across the world turn off and go and play golf. The one saving grace at the moment is that the sport is inherently spectacular and is keeping itself alive with noise and colour.

One might argue that the ridiculous qualifying would not have been as ridiculous if the weather had been different and the Sunday morning qualifying session had had more relevance but even then no-one, not even the drivers involved, knew what was going on. There were just numbers coming up on screens. Giancarlo Fisichella went before the international press corps believing that he had been fastest in the session and seemed surprised when told that this was not the case.

Perhaps it is wise to wait a race or two just to see the situation in more normal circumstances but the way things are now, qualifying will be dictating far too much about the races. Michael Schumacher has spent the last decade and more winning championships and showing himself to be capable of great feats, often in cars which were inferior to others. But in Melbourne he and the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber were obviously held back by inferior cars. The only man who had the car with a big enough advantage to overtake was Fernando Alonso. Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari was fast enough to gain places by good strategy but with Fisichella on pole there was never a hope that anyone else would win. He drove cautiously to avoid a mistake and he won. It was nice to see and popular in the paddock - but was it great sport?

The race was pretty uneventful after the hurly-burly of the first lap. Fisichella took the lead at the start from Jarno Trulli's Toyota, which was way further up the grid than it deserved to be. Coulthard dived down the inside line and snatched third from Mark Webber.

"At the first corner he was coming in whatever," said Webber. "I think he would have hit me. On a clear track we had seven or eight tenths on him. But it was impossible when I was behind him. I followed that thing the whole race. I was thinking 'That car is going to stop, it is going to stop', but it didn't. But actually I am happy for the guys down there at Red Bull (Webber's old team last year) because I know the shit they have been through."

Further back in the field Jacques Villeneuve got in the way of a whole group of faster men, including Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Takuma Sato, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, who was back in the doldrums because his car had stalled and he had start from pitlane.

For the next 16 laps the order was unchanged apart from a moment on lap seven when Alonso managed to get a jump on Villeneuve but was then immediately repassed by the French-Canadian. Were they all biding their time and saving their tyres, we asked, or is this real racing? The conclusion seemed inevitable as we watched Michael and Kimi trolling around unable to do anything. The first stops came and went and that shuffled the order just a little but the basic order at the front did not change until the second stops. Webber came in early, an odd thing to do. There was obviously a problem although the team made no mention of it later. The signs pointed to a rig problem of some kind because it made no sense for Mark to pit as early as he did. The result was that he stayed behind Coulthard all the way and thus could do nothing to hold off Barrichello and Alonso who were able to run, albeit briefly, without a car ahead of them. Both DC and Webber were overtaken during the pit stop sequence.

The most significant document after the race was not therefore the final result but rather the list of fastest laps. Alonso was quickest by three-tenths. Fisichella was second but could have gone faster if he had needed to. Then came Barrichello half a second off the pace of Alonso. Raikkonen, Button, Michael Schumacher, Montoya and Webber were all covered by two and a half-tenths. The Red Bulls were slower even than Ralf Schumacher's Toyota.

So when all is said and done finally we know the situation, although one must add that perhaps if Melbourne had not been as cold as it was, it might have been a different story. Renault is ahead by about half a second a lap. Ferrari, McLaren, BAR and Williams are mixing it ahead of Red Bull, Sauber and Toyota. Jordan is off the pace but next, and Minardi is at the back as ever.

The only major incident in the race was the collision between Michael Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld on lap 43 when Michael was under threat from his younger rival. Nick went for the inside line, Michael pushed him on to the grass and Heidfeld had nowhere to go and ran into Michael when the Ferrari turned into the corner. Both were out. Who was at fault? Heidfeld is not a dynamic personality and chuntered the right words, hinting that he felt hard done by. Michael smarmed out of it, suggesting that Heidfeld had been optimistic. Was it a racing incident? Possibly. The seasoned observers in the Media Centre were split on the matter, which is usually the sign of a racing incident but one has to ask why Michael felt it necessary to put Nick on to the grass.

It was said that with the new tyre rules the race would suddenly burst into life in the final laps and drivers who had been clever would get extra performance and those who had been dim would fade away but it really did not matter because although some drivers did catch the men ahead, they did not overtake.

Fisichella finished where he had started. Barrichello was second and Alonso third. Coulthard and Webber crossed the line nose-to-tail in fourth and fifth. Montoya was sixth, Klien seventh and Raikkonen eighth. The two BARs, being out of the points, went into pitlane at the end to make sure that they would get fresh engines in Malaysia. The rest trailed home. Narain Karthikeyan was the best of the rookies in 15th place after a good solid drive for Jordan. The only mechanical failure was Christijan Albers's Minardi after 16 laps.

Did the best man and car win? Probably.

Was it good result for F1? Yes. Anything was better than another Ferrari win.

Is F1 as good as it should be? Hell no.

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Stories: MARCH 7, 2005
RACE REPORT - FIZZY AND THE RAINDROPS