The Australian Grand Prix: Round 1 of 17 in the 2001 Formula One World Championship. Heading into the race, Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher was the world champion and was hoping to defend his title that season. But the 2001 Australian Grand Prix was 66th running of the event and the first race of the 2001 season too.
In Qualifying, Michael Schumacher took Pole Position for the Australian Grand Prix even though he may have been concerned about the recent spate of reliability problems that the Ferrari cars have experienced in Melbourne over the last two days, especially after his crash during a Practice session.
Rubens Barrichello will start next to his team mate in the other Ferrari and Mika Hakkinen will be in third place on the second row of the grid with the Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen next to him in fourth place. Ralf Schumacher qualified in fifth place ahead of David Coulthard in sixth place, Jarno Trulli in seventh place, Olivier Panis in eighth place, Jacques Villeneuve in ninth and Nick Heidfeld who rounded off the top ten of the session.
We should also point out that on his first ever qualifying session in the sport, Minardi driver Fernando Alonso qualified an impressive nineteenth place ahead of the Prost of Gaston Mazzacane and the Jaguar of Luciano Burti. He was over 2 seconds faster than his team-mate Tarso Marques and impressed a lot of people in the paddock with that result.
The carnival atmosphere born of an incessantly diverting line-up of support races and genuine excitement for the start of a new season reached a peak as the field lined up. Jaguar’s Eddie Irvine had elected to swap to the spare car after a power steering failure and more controversially Jenson Button’s mechanics attracted the interest of the stewards as they worked on the spare Benetton until a couple of moments after the order to clear the grid, sparking an investigation. He would later be given a 10-second stop-go penalty.
Also Tarso Marques was on the grid, against all expectation as he had not managed to set a time within 107% of pole in qualifying. An FIA bulletin, however, stated that he was allowed to take the start due to ‘exceptional circumstances’, giving rise to much muttered speculation as to what such phenomena might be.
In truth – or at least Pursuant to Article 131 of the Sporting Regulations – it seemed that because Michael Schumacher’s pole time was so exceptionally fast it didn’t count (or something). While there was almost universal approval that Paul Stoddart would be able to wheel his new team out in front of his home crowd, the words ‘dangerous’ and ‘precedent’ also seemed apposite.
On race day on Sunday, Michael Schumacher led the race into the first corner. Barrichello got off to a poor start, dropping from second to fifth by the first corner. Whilst attempting to regain position Barrichello tried to pass Frentzen’s Jordan, knocking Frentzen into a spin. At this was going on Hakkinen was in second place behind Schumacher.
Arrows rookie Enrique Bernoldi retired on Lap three after colliding with the wall out of the first corner. Tarso Marques’s unequal struggle with the Australian Grand Prix finally ground to a halt on the fourth lap with his old Ford/new European V10 letting go once again. Still his place on the grid was reward enough for the team after a difficult weekend.
A lap later, Villeneuve’s BAR ran into the back of Ralf Schumacher’s Williams Williams at high speed whilst Schumacher was braking into turn three. The collision launched Villeneuve’s car into the air toward the track-side concrete barriers, shedding wheels and bodywork as it cart-wheeled along the wall to a halt deep in the gravel trap.
Ralf Schumacher spun into the same gravel trap after bottoming across the track and kerbs, with a missing rear wing and apparently compromised rear-left suspension, incapable of rejoining the race.
It was initially reported by eyewitnesses that a wheel had entered the marshal’s enclosure through a gap in the debris fence provided for photographers, hitting the marshal in the chest, while eleven spectators suffered cuts and bruises from debris.
It was then announced that track marshal Graham Beveridge was fatally injured when he was struck by a fast-moving wheel from Villeneuve’s car that had passed through a gap in the safety fence. The race was not halted, but the safety car was rapidly deployed and was out for 10 laps whilst medics attended to Beveridge.
Meanwhile as soon after the ambulance rolled gently into the pit lane and out of sight as the field came round to finish its 14th lap, Jos Verstappen’s Arrows dived into the pits to take advantage of the Safety Car situation.
At the end of the 15th lap the Safety Car pulled off, the green flags waved and Michael Schumacher set about building himself a lead, immediately reinstating the single second between himself and Mika Hakkinen.
Far behind them Heinz-Harald Frentzen made a forceful move up the inside of Jean Alesi to trail Kimi Raikkonen who was putting in a deeply impressive debut with Sauber. Raikkonen in turn slid purposefully inside Benetton driver Jenson Button whose underpowered Benetton had no answer to the challenge for his tenth place.
The next lap Button was called in for a stop-go penalty for the team’s infringement on the grid. In an ignominious debut for the Benetton B201 and the 111-degree Renault V10 it was purely mathematical and soon his pace began to fall away still further.
Häkkinen’s race was to end on Lap 25 when his front-right suspension broke under braking and he spun off into a tyre barrier. At the front, Michael Schumacher continued to pull away at the front, whilst David Coulthard rapidly passed Barrichello (who would later mention that he suffered from handling problems during the race).
Schumacher led until the finish, crossing the line ahead of Coulthard and Barrichello. Schumacher was delighted at first, unaware of the death of the marshal. The top three drivers were informed of this before stepping out onto the podium, and all three stood in sombre mood. No champagne was sprayed as a sign of respect to Beveridge and his family.
Nick Heidfeld finished fourth for Sauber and scored his first points in Formula One ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen in fifth place and ahead of his new team mate Kimi Raikkonen who finished in sixth place in his debut race and only his 24th race in a motor car.
Olivier Panis and Jos Verstappen were penalised 25 seconds for overtaking under yellow flags. Panis finished in seventh place ahead of Luciano Burti in eighth place, Jean Alesi and Verstappen who rounded off the top ten finishers.
The 2001 Australian Grand Prix saw Michael Schumacher start his championship defence in the best way possible by showing throughout the race how great of a driver he really was and why he was a great racing driver.
I should also point out that the 2001 Australian Grand Prix was notable for the fact that two future World Champions, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso both made their Formula 1 debuts.
This was also the first race for the Michelin tyre company’s return to the sport. The Jaguar of Luciano Burti was the highest placed Michelin runner in eighth place, two places out of the points.
Even though Schumacher won the race, this race will be remembered by the death of track marshal Graham Beveridge during the race. I remember being really upset when I heard the news of his passing and it goes to show just how much marshals risk in order to allow Grand Prix racing to happen and he is very much remembered by the Formula One Community. This was the last trackside death in Formula One until the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix.
And as the 2001 World Championship leaded towards the next round in Malaysia at the Sepang Circuit, Schumacher was leading the Driver’s Championship by 10 points ahead of Coulthard with six points, Barrichello with four points, Heidfeld with three points and Frentzen with two points.