Kids Steal Show Down Under
March 6, 2001 | 12:00 P.M. EST
The first race of the season saw two Sauber drivers earn points, Juan Pablo Montoya run as high as third before retiring and three rookies finish the race. Although the significance of these events may seem inconsequential, they may actually spark talks of steep competition in Formula One this season.
Perennial favorites Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button, Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve went out of the race for various reasons, andthey were non-factors throughout. In Melbourne, it was the kids that proved they could play well with their new toys.
All eyes have been on Williams rookie Juan Pablo Montoya ever since the former CART champion crossed the pond, but Sunday was D-Day. Put up or shut up. Would he come over and succeed like Villeneuve? Or fail like Alex Zanardi? While the jury is still out, he helped his case by running well before a blown engine on lap 40 ended his day.
Montoya came out of the blocks rough, sliding off the first corner, dropping back from 10th to 13th and later colliding with Jaguar driver Eddie Irvine, but he found his footing and worked his way up the field.
"It's disappointing that I couldn't see the checkered flag because I had a good race," Montoya said. "The engine blew up without giving me any warning. I can say now that running in Formula One can be fun. I first thought overtaking was going to be impossible but now I realize that you can if you plan it, unlike in Champ Car races, and it's also very exciting."
Perhaps none of the fresh crop of drivers did better in their debut than Sauber’s Kimi Raikkonen, who started 13th and finished sixth. Raikkonen’s one point, combined with teammate Nick Heidfeld’s three-point fourth-place finish, gives the team four points. Sauber had six points all last season.
"The result was better than we had dared hope for, and our lap times were very competitive all the way through," said Peter Sauber, team owner. "To have been so close on speed to Heinz-Harald (Frentzen) was a real boost. I am delighted that Nick's great drive was rewarded with his first points, while Kimi Raikkonen was a miracle, lapping at the same speed as Nick and Heinz-Harald for the last 15 laps and scoring a point on his debut."
Some veteran drivers, who considered the 20-year-old’s presence and inexperience too dangerous, fought Raikkonen’s Formula One super license throughout the offseason. In fact, Raikkonen’s license is only good through the first four races of the season, at which point the FIA will review his performance and decide whether to grant an extension. Based on Sunday, that shouldn’t be a problem.
"It's nice to finish my first Grand Prix, and even nicer to score my first World Championship point," Raikkonen said. "I made a pretty bad start, which didn't help, but then I got into my rhythm. My only problem was some understeer initially on my second set of tires, which prevented me from going after Frentzen, but gradually the balance came back and I could keep pushing hard to the end. It's been a good day, and a great start to my F1 career."
When Australian businessman Paul Stoddart bought the Minardi F1 team, it had no sponsor, no drivers and even fewer chances of doing well – let alone finish a race. Now, Minardi has Tarso Marques and Fernando Alonso to drive, a 12th-place finish for Alonso, but still no sponsor. For Stoddart, two out of three ain’t bad at all.
"When we came to Melbourne, just arriving felt like winning a Grand Prix," Stoddart said. "When we went out on Friday and Saturday, they were our first test sessions. When we qualified, I felt it couldn't get any better, but to take 12th place on our maiden outing, there are just not the words to describe the feeling."
After the race Alonso was happy to deliver even the smallest bundle of joy to the team.
"The objective was to finish the race, and that is what happened, so it couldn't have turned out better," he said. "The team worked flat-out over the weekend and the race result is a clear demonstration of that."
The season is young and the rookies can’t expect continued success all year. Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher, Villeneuve and Button may have been non-factors in Melbourne, but they will be back in the hunt soon. Regardless, somewhere in the middle of the fray the young drivers will take their licks and they definitely won’t roll over for anybody. That much they proved in Australia.