Schumacher and Barrichello show the pack the way
2004 has started as 2003 finished, with another brilliant performance from the Ferrari team in general, and six-times world campion Michael Schumacher in particular.
In fact it was shades of 2002 for the Italian squad in Melbourne, as Schumacher and team mate Rubens Barrichello roared away from their opposition and indulged in a race of their own. At one stage the two F2004s were less than two seconds apart, after the first pit stops on the 11th (Barrichello) and 12th (Schumacher) laps, and by lap 18 the gap was 0.9s, but thereafter Schumacher was able to gradually pull away again, and brake problems for Barrichello settled the issue once and for all.
"It was a great race for me, for Ferrari and for Bridgestone," Schumacher said, "and the perfect way to start the new championship campaign."
But not if you were driving a different marque. A machismo outbraking duel between fast-starting Fernando Alonso in the Renault and Williams Juan Pablo Montoya saw the Spaniard snatch a third place he was not to lose (except during pit stops), while the Colombian driver eroded his credibility within the team by running wide on the grass on the outside of Turn One and dropping to seventh place as Schumacher and Barrichello led Alonso, BARs Jenson Button, equally fast-starting Jarno Trulli in the Renault and the second Williams of Ralf Schumacher round the first lap.
As the Ferraris pulled away, Alonso settled into lonely pursuit. Button fell further back, but successfully defended fourth place initially from Ralf Schumacher as Montoya fought his way on to Trulli's tail. Eventually the frustrated Colombian made it by on the 24th lap and set off after is team mate.
Button was able to hold on to fourth placed after his first pit stop on lap 11, but after his second on lap 26 he fell behind Ralf, and soon dropped away, Sure enough, Montoya came thirsting after him, and as they came up to lap rookie Giorgio Pantano in the Jordan on lap 38 Montoya was able to muscle past. Button momentarily tried to sit it out with him, but he was on the outside and was run slightly on to the grass, settling the issue once and for all.
Thus the Williams duo followed Alonso home for fourth and fifth places, with Button easily clear of Trulli for sixth.
The final point fell to a lapped David Coulthard, who adopted a two-stop strategy instead of the majority's three. He made a better start than McLaren team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who passed Felipe Massa's Sauber on the opening lap but could not shake off the Brazilian. The two enjoyed a close fight until Massa outfoxed Raikkonen under braking on lap 10. The Finn, however, was suffering from an engine problem associated with a defective water pump, and when the V10 seized that lap he spun into retirement.
McLaren were not the only team to face disappointment. Mark Webber was running with the Williams drivers early on in his Jaguar, but dropped out on lap 30 with loss of two gears. Nick Heidfeld drove strongly in the Jordan to hold off Giancarlo Fisichella's Sauber for many laps, and was headed for 12th place when his car stopped just beyond the pits after its final; stop on lap 43. BARs Takuma Sato survived a couple of off-track excursions to finish ninth just out of the points, while both Toyotas had poor races and finished only 12th and 13th. Christian Klien, in 11th slot, was the leading rookie, with Pantano 14th and the final finisher.
"We seemed to have an advantage today," Schumacher said with his usual understatement. "But you should not read too much into the situation at this early stage of the season. It could be a different situation in Malaysia in two weeks', as it was in 2002, so we should wait until then. If we are still as far ahead then, well, it would look good for us!"
For the full results including fastest lap listings for every driver and a pit stop summary, click here.