Round one to Ferrari
For once, it seems, we can believe the hype. As Melbourne lived up to its reputation as the graveyard of many a pre-season dream, Ferrari justified its own build-up bluster by recording a potent one-two victory in yesterday's Australian Grand Prix.
While both McLarens bowed out in a repeat of the early season unreliability of their time here last year, and the Jordan's of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli pulled out within two laps of each other, Michael Schumacher and new team-mate Rubens Barrichello powered comfortably round the Albert Park circuit to record only the team's third victory in 15 Australian grands prix.
The win is Schumacher's first in Australia and, despite starting from third on the grid, behind Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, the German claimed he never doubted that the race would be his.
"I saw Mika standing on his car yesterday celebrating his pole position and I remember thinking, let him celebrate his pole position because tomorrow I'll celebrate my victory and luckily it's turned out to be like that," he said.
"I was quite sure we could do it. m I'm delighted we were able to prove how strong we are. Ferrari traditionally have not been so strong at the beginning of the season and now we are. Maybe it'll make some people think s it's us they have to fight and not somebody else."
Schumacher appeared to have it all to do at the start however. Getting away poorly, both Ferrari drivers had to dive towards the centre of the track to block the progress of the onrushing Jordans, leaving Hakkinen and Coulthard a clear and easy run at the first corner.
But while Barrichello's stonewalling failed, allowing Frentzen to steal through to fourth, Schumacher held his third. His targets though were already pulling away and, as Coulthard lagged behind Hakkinen, the Finn was able to open a two-second gap on the Ferrari number one. If McLaren's plan had been to use the Scot as a mobile dam it soon gave way.
First when the safety car was deployed midway through the seventh lap, when Pedro de la Rosa's Arrow's suffered suspension failure, throwing the Spaniard into the barriers. Caught in the fallout was Eddie Irvine, the Irishman dicing with the Arrows for 10th after a poor start had dropped him down the field from seventh on the grid.
The Jaguar driver braked hard to avoid de la s Rosa's pirouetting car, a reaction that caused the Jaguar number one to spin out and stall. With Johnny Herbert already out with engine failure, Jaguar's protracted pre-season labour pains are rapidly turning into a difficult F1 birth.
With the leaders bunched behind the safety car, Schumacher appeared poised to move on Coulthard but when the race resumed Hakkinen and his teammate bullishly held on to the top two places. But just as it looked like Ferrari would have to wait an eternity until the lone pitstop most teams had opted for before attacking, Coulthard dived into the pits with misfire problems. After a protracted stop, the Scot was sent out only to retire on the following lap.
That left Schumacher primed to chase Hakkinen, a duel he later admitted he would have relished, but no sooner had he begun to chase than Hakkinen too bowed out, cruising to a standstill halfway through lap 19, just two tours shy of his retirement position last year.
"Both cars had a problem with the pneumatic valve system, the same problems we had yesterday," said Mercedes' motorsport director Norbert Haug. "It is a shame, but that's Formula One. Last season started like this for us, but we went on to win the championship." With the way now clear, Schumacher drove a faultless race to claim victory in Australia at the 10th attempt.
Barrichello had a tougher race. Passed by Frentzen, the Brazilian was trapped behind the dogged Jordan driver in a frustrating first half. But Jordan themselves for once conspired to throw away a position. When a jammed fuel nozzle cost the Jordan number one 12 extra seconds in his pitstop, Barrichello was allowed to eke out a considerable gap and Ralf Schumacher was also allowed to power through in his unexpectedly reliable BMWpowered Williams.
Frentzen, however, was never able to position himself for a retaliatory tilt at Barrichello. Just minutes after exiting the pitlane, the German's pace began to fade due to a hydraulic leak and eventually he cruised into the Jordan garage to join his new team-mate, Jarno Trulli, who had retired shortly before with a broken exhaust.
With four of the predicted top runners out, the lower order points went a-begging and, as many expected, BAR were there to pick up the choicest piece - fourth place and three points for Jacques Villeneuve, the team's first since entering F1 and the s Canadian's first since moving from Williams at the end of 1998.
"It feels great," admitted Villeneuve. "I knew we would be able to score points today, and after the struggle of the last year, it's finally good to achieve this. I had hoped to get on the podium but Ralf passed me in the pit stops, although I really t didn't think the Williams would go the distance."
The joy was doubled for BAR when, after the race, s Sauber's Mika Salo, a former BAR driver in the absence of Ricardo Zonta through injury last year, was disqualified.
And bizarrely it was Zonta who profited. The Finn had passed the Brazilian's BAR to steal sixth place, but on later examination, the stewards found the Sauber's front wing was in contravention of FIA regulations and Zonta suddenly found himself back in the points.
But while Villeneuve and Zonta celebrated their windfalls, Williams new boy Jenson Button saw an almost perfect F1 start disintegrate in a puff of smoke.
The 20-year-old, under enormous pressure as the glare of the media spotlight shone on him all weekend, seemed to have blown it in qualifying, a problematic car and a difficult session leaving him stranded in 21st position on the grid.
But yesterday, after a sensational start in which he leaped to 15th by the end of the first lap, the rising star battled through the debris and dust to move into sixth and hope of a point on his F1 debut before engine failure stopped his charge just 11 laps from the chequered flag. The young Englishman refused to be put off by the failure though.
"It's been a very good day, even if it didn't finish," he said. "I'm ecstatic about the fact that I started 21st and got up to sixth position. I think it was neat and tidy and certainly a good start to my F1 career. Today I think I've shown I can do the job."
Ferrari now head towards the next race in Brazil with the perfect start to their 2000 campaign - a precious one-two, 16 championship points and the very real hope that the McLarens everyone had feared so much may be just be as fallible as they proved last year. The confidence may be dealt a blow though by the undulating, dusty Interlagos circuit in Sao Paolo. The Scuderia have failed to take victory in Brazil since Alain Prost lifted the trophy in 1990, while McLaren have taken victory at the last two attempts.
Schumacher, twice a victor in Sao Paolo with Benetton, will now hope the car he describes as the best he has ever driven will choose to augment his record rather than s Ferrari's in two weeks time.