In the first of a new feature for this season, Torque F1 looks at Grand Prix fans’ favourite race in each country that Formula One will visit this year.
Starting with this weekend’s season opener in Australia, Formula One fans were asked via Twitter for their favourite ever Grand Prix ‘Down Under’, with the most popular choice getting an article written about it.
The voting was very close, with 1989, 1995 and 1996 all proving popular with fans of the sport, but in the end the 2002 race came out on top, and therefore won the first of what will be 19 classic race articles throughout the season.
The Australian Grand Prix started the 2002 Formula One world championship in spectacular fashion. It had everything, from great racing to dramatic collisions to amazing underdog performances. As far as classic races go, this one is right up there.
In a rain-affected qualifying session, Rubens Barrichello took pole, his first in almost two years. He was joined on the front row by Ferrari teammate Michael Schumacher, with Ralf Schumacher, the McLaren duo of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya rounding out the top six.
Further back, Felipe Massa produced a good lap on his Formula One debut to start ninth and ahead of his more experienced Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld. Toyota marked their first race in Formula One with 14th and 16th for Mika Salo and Allan McNish, whilst Mark Webber, also making his Grand Prix bow, qualified an impressive 18th in his Minardi and ahead of both Jaguars.
The start to this race quickly entered Formula One folklore. Ralf Schumacher got the best getaway from the second row and immediately passed brother Michael for second. He was well placed to take the lead from Barrichello into the first corner, but instead of braking like everyone else, simply forgot to slow down.
The result was inevitable. Ralf flew over the top of the Ferrari and hurtled into the gravel trap, ending both their races. That was just the beginning of it though, as into turn one Giancarlo Fisichella collided with the two Saubers, who then collected Jenson Button, Olivier Panis and McNish. Michael Schumacher and Raikkonen were both forced across the grass and lost time.
With less than 30 seconds of the 2002 Formula One season gone, eight cars were out of the race, although fortunately without any injury. In addition, both Arrows cars were then disqualified, Heinz-Harald Frentzen for jumping a red light in the pitline and Enrique Bernoldi for joining the circuit in the spare car.
Once the predictable lengthy safety car period was out of the way, it was Coulthard who led from Jarno Trulli, Montoya and the one remaining, elder Schumacher. Montoya attempted to pass Trulli’s Renault on the restart but the Colombian got it all wrong, sliding wide at turn one and losing the place to Schumacher.
Coulthard began to pull away from Trulli, who was now having to deal with considerable pressure from Schumacher. The Italian managed to keep the world champion at bay for a few laps, before losing his head (and the car) and spinning into the wall after turn two.
Enter Mercedes AMG safety car. Take two.
The second restart was just as dramatic as the first. Coulthard was all set to lead the pack around, but inexplicably slid off at the second to last corner and onto the grass. As a result the Scot went backwards, and Schumacher now had the lead from Montoya.
That’s if you can call a 20-second stint out front assuming the lead. For Montoya found something special on the restart, and the Williams driver drove clean around the outside of the Ferrari to give himself the advantage.
It was an advantage that wasn’t to last long. Angry at losing the lead, and determined to start his season on a high, Schumacher climbed all over the back of Montoya’s gearbox. He was made to wait by a defensive Colombian, but on lap 17 Schumacher pressured his rival into a mistake at the first corner, and the lead was his before he could say ‘Danke’.
Schumacher then disappeared into the distance, leaving Montoya to fight off the advances of Raikkonen, who had recovered from his off at the first corner and was producing a sterling drive on this, his McLaren debut, fully justifying the faith the Woking squad had shown by promoting him from Sauber (sound familiar?).
It was a battle for second that raged until the final round of pit stops, when Raikkonen got the jump on the Williams to move himself into second place. But in the one mistake the young Finn made all day, he slid wide in his excitement and Montoya took the opportunity to regain the position with both hands. It was a mistake that lost him the place for good.
Despite the thrilling nature of the race up-front, there was an even bigger story developing a bit further back, in the form of a local hero. Mark Webber, driving his first race for minnows Minardi, had driven brilliantly. He’d stayed clear of trouble in the carnage of lap one and with all the chaos going on around him, the Australian had found himself running in the points.
When Coulthard’s McLaren began to give up the ghost, Webber passed the Scot and moved himself into an incredible fifth place and Minardi’s best position for the best part of a decade.
It was the stuff Hollywood is built on. A local hero, driving his first race in a vastly disadvantaged car and running in a position even Webber himself would not have dreamt possible. However, the Minardi was about to be put under severe pressure in the form of Toyota’s Mika Salo.
Salo, in a much quicker car began to bear down on Webber, taking chunks of time out of him and ramping up the pressure. Fifth place was there for the taking for the experienced Finn.
But then the unbelievable happened. Despite the pressure coming exclusively from the direction of Salo, it was the Toyota that cracked. Webber, producing a masterclass in defensive driving, refused to bow to the quicker car and Salo spun while attempting the overtake. Fifth place was Webber’s, to the sheer jubilation of a capacity Australian crowd, who could never have dreamed that such a result would be given to them by their compatriot.
Out front, Schumacher won from Montoya and Raikkonen, who scored the first podium of his still young career. Fourth place went to Eddie Irvine, who drove an almost anonymous race in a Jaguar that wildly underperformed expectations for a manufacturer team.
But the biggest celebrations were reserved for Webber, who crossed the line fifth to score Minardi’s first points since 1999 and cap a fairytale debut in Formula One.
Classification (after 58 laps)
1) Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari
2) Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW
3) Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes
4) Eddie Irvine (GB) Jaguar-Cosworth
5) Mark Webber (Aus) Minardi-Asiatech
6) Mika Salo (Fin) Toyota
7) Alex Yoong (May) Minardi-Asiatech
8) Pedro de la Rosa (Esp) Jaguar-Cosworth
David Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes
Jacques Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda
Takuma Sato (Jpn) Jordan-Honda
Jarno Trulli (Ita) Renault
Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari
Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW
Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Jordan-Honda
Felipe Massa (Bra) Sauber-Petronas
Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas
Jenson Button (GB) Renault
Olivier Panis (Fra) BAR-Honda
Allan McNish (GB) Toyota
Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Arrows-Cosworth
Enrique Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows-Cosworth