Australian GP 2004 - One too easy for Ferrari
7 March 2004
Doubted by some sceptics during a winter of private testing, Ferrari showed that it had little to hide by trouncing the opposition as the Australian Grand Prix opened Formula One 2004.
Six-time world champion Michael Schumacher and team-mate Rubens Barrichello cruised to an unchallenged one-two finish at Melbourne's Albert Park, with only Renault's Fernando Alonso looking likely to threaten the dominance. The Spaniard's challenge was ebbing away by mid-race, however, allowing the red machine to disappear into the distance.
Such was Schumacher's imperious pace, even Barrichello had little to offer in terms of resistance, eventually coming home almost 14 seconds adrift of the champion, despite Schumacher cutting his pace by around six seconds a lap in the final three tours. The Brazilian later revealed that he had been suffering brake problems in the latter part of the race, but that was the only concern in the Ferrari camp as it - and Schumacher - demonstrated that the hunger for another title still burns.
Having annexed the front row in the new-look qualifying session on Saturday, Schumacher and Barrichello simply had to make a good start to ensure that the race was headed by red. After that, relevant strategies and the ongoing tyre war between Bridgestone and the numerically-dominant Michelin would determine exactly how the race would pan out.
Even there, however, the gods were on Ferrari's side, as the Michelin-friendly hot weather that had ruled on the opening days was replaced by cooler, more cloudy, conditions that favoured Bridgestone. And, with expected rivals Alonso, Juan Montoya and Jenson Button all pitting for fuel at the same time as the leaders, things always looked good for the Scuderia.
Schumacher made the perfect start as the lights went out, with Barrichello slotting in behind his team leader to provide protection from those behind. It was not the second row pairing of Montoya and Button who posed the biggest threat, however, as Alonso ignored the fact that launch control had been outlawed during the off-season and made a demon getaway from fifth.
Despite having to take to the grass as Montoya found grip, Spaniard was ahead of Colombian as they neared the first corner. In hindsight, Montoya will probably wish that he had allowed his rival ahead and dropped in behind the Renault, but his Latin temperament got the better of him. Later on the brakes than Alonso, the Williams driver suddenly found himself with less road than he had thought and ran through underneath the R24 and onto the grass, instantly losing more places before scrabbling back onto the track in seventh.
Alonso's avoiding action, which involved him jumping on the brakes as Montoya shot across his bows, had a knock-on effect down the order - although not with anything like the severity as the Ralf Schumacher-Rubens Barrichello incident of a few years ago. In this case, it was the Spaniard's team-mate, Jarno Trulli, who came off worst, and then only with minor contact that would affect his race pace thereafter. The Italian was up to fifth by the end of the lap.
Like Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber made poor starts, losing places off the line, while David Coulthard gained two spots with a decent getaway. The Finn's race was to be short, too, as, having been repassed by a determined Felipe Massa on lap ten, the rear of his McLaren-Mercedes locked up and gently spun many people's pre-season favourite onto the grass and out of the running for points.
Up front, Schumacher and Barrichello were already eking out a gap over Alonso, the German quickly running at sub-pole times while his young Spanish rival found himself having to contend with Button and Trulli. The pace was hot, but was revealed to be the result of a relatively light fuel load, as Barrichello stopped for the first time on lap eleven and Schumacher one tour later. The strategy was the right one, however, for, with the exception of Coulthard, the two Jaguars and Olivier Panis' Toyota, the rest of the field was poised to follow suit.
Montoya's day got even worse when a tardy stop undid all the hard work he had put in in wresting sixth place from his Williams team-mate early on. Emerging behind the hobbled Trulli, the Colombian began losing time to even the best of the non-Ferrari runners, hampering his chances of keeping the Scuderia duo in sight points-wise, if not necessarily on the road.
Montoya eventually forced his way past the Italian, before another poor pit-stop threatened to drop him in behind the Renault once again. Fortunately, the increase in pace that the Williams was able to show once it was in clear air opened out enough of a cushion to allow Montoya to slot back into eight place, becoming sixth once those ahead of him made their stops.
This left him chasing Button, who had lost out to Ralf Schumacher on the second round of stops and was dropping back into the clutches of the second Williams. Having sized his Williams predecessor up for a couple of tours, Montoya eventually pounced with a forceful move that saw the BAR take to the grass, but the gap forward to team-mate Schumacher was already looking a tougher obstacle to surmount.
Button's capitulation was due in part to his tyres, and the problem was not necessarily confined to the BAR either. Almost all of the Michelin runners - and particularly the two Williams-BMWs - were showing signs of graining, adding to their woes as the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris pulled ever further away.
With definite gaps having appeared between most of the leading protagonists, there was little in the way of competition in the point-paying positions, although eighth-placed Coulthard was closing on Trulli, while the second BAR-Honda of the Takuma Sato attempted to hunt the Scotsman down.
Missing from the mix by this point was home favourite Webber, who had been halted by a gearbox problem at mid-distance when challenging for points. The Australian, who had cheered the crowd with sixth in qualifying, joined Raikkonen and Minardi's Zsolt Baumgartner on the sidelines when he dropped out, and the trio would later be added to as Gianmaria Bruni, Nick Heidfeld and Felipe Massa all called it a day ahead of schedule.
Heidfeld had been involved in one of the more spirited dices of the race, with added spice thrown in by the fact that the man he was sparring with was the one with which he swapped seats over the winter. Sauber's Giancarlo Fisichella was the first man to make a competitive pit-stop in 2004, and spent the rest of the race attempting to claw back positions. He found a feisty opponent in Heidfeld, however, and it took a spot of wheel-banging to see off the Jordan before it retired with an unrelated problem.
Massa, too, had provide the 121,000 crowd with some excitement, propelling his Sauber ahead of Raikkonen at the start, then regaining a place from the Finn as the McLaren entered its death throes. After that, the Brazilian's ragged press-on style presented the audience with several grass-track moments and the odd spin before a complete electrical failure stranded him on track.
Running with the same Ferrari engine and gearbox as the two leaders, Massa's demise caused the Scuderia to take stock of its advantage. With Barrichello reporting a long brake pedal and Alonso no longer a threat, the team told Schumacher to cool his pace. The German responded by dropping into the 1min 30secs bracket for the last few laps, but still held a massive 14-second advantage as he crossed the line.
Such had been his metronomic pace through the first three-quarters of the event, only five cars remained on the lead lap at that point, although Button managed to make it six as he repassed the slowing Ferrari. Montoya, after a third troubled stop, had been in danger of suffering the ignominy of being lapped, but survived to come home over a minute adrift of the winner.
Trulli and Coulthard, positions unchanged despite the Scot's best efforts, claimed the final points, while Sato's assault on eighth was slowed by damage to the rear wing of his BAR. Fisichella headed rookie Christian Klien, the disappointingly slow Toyotas and another newcomer, Giorgio Pantano as the final finishers.
1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 58 laps 1hr 24min 15.757secs
2. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +13.600secs
3. Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault +34.600secs
4. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +1min 00.400secs
5. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +1min 08.500secs
6. Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda +1min 10.500secs
7. Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault +1 lap
8. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
9. Takuma Sato Japan BAR-Honda +1 lap
10. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
11. Christian Klien Austria Jaguar-Cosworth +2 laps
12. Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota +2 laps
13. Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota +2 laps
14. Giorgio Pantano Italy Jordan-Ford +3 laps
Rtd Felipe Massa Brazil Sauber-Petronas 44 laps completed
Rtd Nick Heidfeld Italy Jordan-Ford 43 laps completed
NC Gianmaria Bruni Italy Minardi-Cosworth 43 laps (running)
Rtd Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth 29 laps completed
Rtd Zsolt Baumgartner Hungary Minardi-Cosworth 13 laps completed
Rtd Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 9 laps completed
Michael Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 24.125secs lap 29