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Last Updated:  Sunday, 9 March, 2003, 12:35 GMT
New rules eclipsed by the weather

Jonathan Legard
BBC motor racing correspondent

David Coulthard won the race, Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest lap and Ferrari failed to finish on the podium for the first time in nearly four years.

The bare facts from Melbourne suggest that the opening race in 2003 has seen a significant swing in the balance of power within Formula One and that it was brought about by the Max factor.

Turn back the clock, however, to qualifying and the picture was very different.

Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello thrashed the field by almost a second and both McLaren drivers were not even in the top 10.

David Coulthard is flanked by Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen on the podium
Ferrari are not used to finishing outside the top three

The only realistic challenger looked to be Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams - and he had written off his chances, claiming his new car was not a contender.

But there was one other major factor. The sun shone on Saturday and the rain fell on Sunday.

The FIA rule changes, enforced by president Max Mosley since January, gave an added charge to qualifying with the ban on refuelling and non-essential car maintenance before the race.

But the key to the spectacular success of the Australian Grand Prix was the change in the conditions, not the rules.

When the weather turned nasty, so did the best laid plans - just like any race where rain has fallen but the wind is drying the track.

But where the new regulations did help was the way they cranked up the pressure.

Teams were unable to rethink tyre choice, fuel loads and set-ups until the lights had gone out.

And that is where McLaren outmanoeuvred Ferrari.

Raikkonen started from the pitlane, swapping wet tyres for dry and taking on fuel. Coulthard followed suit on lap two.

From the back of the grid, Raikkonen came charging. Coulthard was more stealthy.

Ferrari miscalculated and Schumacher then compounded the problem by damaging his car in his thrilling duel with the young Finn.

The champion F2002 was the faster car but Raikkonen's response with the fastest lap - albeit by three hundredths of a second - emphasised the progress made by McLaren over the winter.

Schumacher's assessment that McLaren will be his most dangerous rivals was spot on.

But for his pit lane speed penalty Raikkonen, not Coulthard, would have been celebrating a maiden F1 victory.

Montoya knows full well he threw away his chance of victory in Melbourne

His pace on Friday and in qualifying, until his disastrous mistake, had proved his promise.

His finish only confirmed what might have been.

Coulthard's more conservative approach yet again paid dividends. And if the confidence gained from being the only driver so far to defeat the F2002 is translated into qualifying, Ferrari's supremacy could be threatened.

From 11th and 16th on the grid to first and third on the podium was some turnaround. And the new car, still under wraps in Woking, could be even better.

Williams, meanwhile, concede that the FW25 is not championship material.

But Montoya knows full well he threw away his chance of victory in Melbourne with just the sort of error that his team bosses have ordered him to cut out.

His performance in qualifying also raised questions about the new rules of engagement.

He was conservative not aggressive. F1's entertainer had been muzzled. The burden of a race fuel strategy weighed heavily in a session which used to be a thrilling exhibition of speed and courage.

It remains to be seen if McLaren are so vocal about the parc ferme restrictions.

How could any overnight work on the two cars - currently outlawed - have improved the end result?

Team bosses are due to review the changes after the third race in Brazil at the end of the month.

One race does not make a championship but there are signs that hard work and some fancy work by Mosley may have redressed the balance which had tipped overwhelmingly in Ferrari's favour.

But rest assured, the champions remain F1's driving force.

The battle to dethrone them has only just begun.

BBC Five Live's Jonathan Legard
"Formula One rediscovered the art of entertainment"






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