All-Ferrari front row in Melbourne 06 Mar 2004
Italian machines unbeatable around Albert Park
Any notions that Ferrari and Bridgestone would be playing catch-up this season were quickly disposed of on Saturday as the world champions qualified first and second for the Australian Grand Prix.
Under the new rules format, Saturdays first qualifying session was started in the finishing order of last year's Japanese Grand Prix, which meant that Ferraris Rubens Barrichello led the cars out. The track temperature then was 39 degrees C, and during the hour it would rise to 41 before falling to 36. This helped some and not others.
Barrichello did a 1m 25.992s, but that was soon bettered by Raikkonen's 1m 25.592s in the McLaren, with team mate David Coulthard right behind the Finn on 1m 25.652s. But ultimately it was Montoya who went quickest - 1m 25.226s - to pip Michael Schumacher's 1m 25.301s. Ralf Schumacher's 1m 25.445s was sufficient for third.
The reversed starting order for qualifying proper was thus: Baumgartner, Bruni, Pantano, da Matta, Heidfeld, Trulli, Klien, Panis, Massa, Sato, Fisichella, Webber, Barrichello, Alonso, Button, Coulthard, Raikkonen, Schumacher R, Schumacher M, Montoya.
Zsolt Baumgartner did a lot better the second time around, cutting down to a respectable 1m 30.681s in the Minardi, but team mate Gianmaria Bruni was out of luck as he abandoned his PS04B even before venturing out. The car would not select a gear. This was a shame, as he'd looked strong and confident all weekend. In the Jordan Giorgio Pantano looked a lot smoother but was slower than he'd been earlier, on 1m 30.141s, and Cristiano da Matta's 1m 27.823s in the Toyota would only be good enough for 13th. Nick Heidfeld did a respectable job to wheel his Jordan round in 1m 28.178s which left him 15th, and Renaults Jarno Trulli struggled with a reasonable fuel load to post 1m 26.290s which would leave him ninth. After that the fun began.
First Christian Klien appeared to have made a new boy's error in notorious Turn 12 on his out lap, oversteering wildly on the grass before coming straight into the pits. But it transpired that his Jaguar had suffered power-steering failure at an inopportune moment.
Then Olivier Panis's Toyota failed to leave the pits because of a throttle problem, so it wasn't until Felipe Massa took his Sauber out that the spectators had something to watch. The Brazilian lapped in 1m 27.065s for 11th, but team mate Giancarlo Fisichella's chances were dashed when he ran over the grass in Turn 1 shortly afterwards. He recovered to set a momentary fastest second sector time, but then made a couple more errors before his lap finally stopped the clocks in 1m 27.845s, leaving him 14th.
In between the Saubers, Takuma Sato had done a strong 1m 25.851s for BAR, which temporarily left him fastest, but he in turn was supplanted by Mark Webber who wound his Jaguar round in 1m 25.805s to the delight of the huge army of fellow countrymen who had turned out to watch.
It was left to Barrichello to redefine things with 1m 24.482s, which set Ferrari's principal rivals worrying all over again. That time resisted the best efforts of Alonso, whose clean lap resulted in 1m 25.699s for an eventual fifth, but Jenson Button came close with an excellent 1m 24.998s for BAR which left team chief David Richards with a huge smile on his face.
Neither McLaren driver could beat that. Coulthard went well until the final corner, where he slid over the kerb and banged his MP4-19 about as its front end was thrown into the air. He did well to hang on to control to post 1m 27.294s, which was good enough for 12th. Raikkonen was cleaner, posting 1m 26.297s, so both silver cars appeared to be running more fuel than most.
The final shoot-out was thus between the Williams drivers and Michael Schumacher. Ralf Schumacher was the first to run but was too tentative in sector one, taking only eighth slot with 1m 25.925s. Michael put in another of his plu-perfect laps, pipping Barrichello by 0.074s with 1m 24.408s. So much for those who had expected Bridgestone to struggle in qualifying!
Finally, out came Montoya, and he all but matched Schumacher's first sector time but couldn't quite pull it off as his 1m 24.998s equalled Button's time. That edged the Englishman across the second row because Article 141 of the Sporting Regulations says that in the event of a tie priority is given to the driver setting the faster time in the first qualifying session.
As far as the time-less Panis, Klien and Bruni were concerned, priority went in reverse order of the second session under Article 119; in other words, it reverted to the actual order of lap times from the first session.
At times it was a confusing session, and of course much depends on what fuel load each drivers was running. But there's no denying it's an interesting grid for the first Grand Prix of the season.
For the full results from Qualifying, including full sector time and speed trap listings, click here.