Byline: MICHAEL LYNCH
THE red mist descended on Albert Park early yesterday afternoon. Michael Schumacher blitzed the field in a sizzling session to smash the qualifying lap record and snare pole position for today's Australian Grand Prix, setting up a Ferrari front row for the first time at the Melbourne race. The German triple world titleholder showed little ill effects from his spectacular smash and rollover in Friday's practice session as he obliterated last year's polewinning time of Mika Hakkinen's by nearly four seconds. In so doing, he scored the 33rd pole position of his career. Ferrari mechanics had worked through the night and early morning to rebuild his car, and they produced a rocket that allowed Schumacher to post a time of one minute 26.892 seconds. The session was red-flagged for a delay of several minutes after rookie driver Luciano Burti's Jaguar was destroyed in a heavy accident 12 minutes from the end. Wheels and body panels from his car were strewn over the track after it spun out of control following a failure in the car's rear and smashed into a concrete wall. The young Brazilian escaped injury and will take his place in today's race, starting 21st of the 22 contenders. Schumacher's run was more than 0.3 of a second quicker than his teammate Rubens Barrichello, who, although frustrated by having to abort a potentially quick run, took second spot in the incident-packed hour-long session with a best time of one minute 27.263. His preparation and setup had been compromised by an engine problem in the second practice session that restricted his track time. Schumacher's time was achieved thanks to massively improved Bridgestone tyres, which had been able to offset the newly introduced rule changes designed to slow the cars down. It was more than two seconds better than Jacques Villeneuve's previous best polesetting performance of 1.29.369, achieved in a Williams-Renault in 1997. Hakkinen, the Mercedes-McLaren star who has grabbed pole for the past three Australian GPs, suffered interference several times when he was attempting a flying lap in the closing minutes of the session. Hakkinen's 1:27.461 left him more than half a second down on Schumacher, who took his world championship last year. Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen gave his team a terrific boost after a disappointing season 2000 when he made full use of his newly acquired factory Honda engine to take fourth spot with a run of 1:27.658, narrowly ahead of Ralf Schumacher's BMW-Williams (1:27.719) and Hakkinen's teammate David Coulthard, a disappointing sixth in 1:28.010. In a sign that fans of the sport will hope could be a harbinger for a more competitive season than last year, when Ferrari and McLaren routinely swept the front two rows of the grid, four different teams had drivers in the top five qualifiers and the five quickest cars were powered by four different engines (Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda and BMW respectively). For the past two years it has been the McLarens who held the Albert Park front row to little effect as both times they failed to finish the race. The Ferraris were able to finish first and second here in 2000, and despite McLaren's seeming pole position jinx, Schumacher, who posted his maiden Australian victory last season, is confident that the red cars are just right for him and Barrichello to repeat last year's performance. "I am very happy. Last year's car was good and this one is even better and this is a great achievement for Ferrari. My mechanics did a great job to give me a fast car today," Schumacher said. "I am surprised that we are around four seconds faster than last year. I expected it to be two or three seconds." Barrichello, who had been quickest in practice sessions and had topped the qualifying timesheet just one thousandth of a second faster than Schumacher, rued his lack of track time after being called into the car weigh-in area. Hakkinen and Coulthard are hoping this time the omens are with them given that they won't be on the Melbourne front row for the first time in years. "I didn't manage to get the best out of the car today but starting behind pole position provides us with a great opportunity to do well in the race. Unfortunately what I believed would have been a fast run was ruined when the red flags came out," said Hakkinen. THE GRID 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1 minute 26.892 seconds (pictured) 2 R Barrichello (Braz) Ferrari 1:27.263 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:27.461 4 H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:27.658 5 R Schumacher (Ger) BMW Williams 1:27.719 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:28.010 7 J Trulli (It) Jordan 1:28.377 8 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:28.435 9 O Panis (Fr) BAR 1:28.518 10 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber 1:28.615 11 J Montoya (Col) BMW Williams 1:28.738 12 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:28.965 13 K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber 1:28.993 14 J Alesi (Fra) Prost 1:29.893 15 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows 1:29.934 16 J Button (GB) Benetton 1:30.035 17 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:30.209 18 E Bernoldi (Braz) Arrows 1:30.520 19 F Alonso (Sp) Minardi 1:30.657 20 G Mazzacane (Arg) Prost 1:30.798 21 L Burti (Braz) Jaguar 1:30.978 22 T Marques (Braz) Minardi (Allowed to start race despite being outside 107 per cent qualifying time) GRAND PRIX SPECIAL INSIDE PAGE 13: Greg Baum. PAGE 14: Complete grid guide. Driver statistics. PAGE 15: Michael Schumacher - champion. The V8s. Schedule, transport guide. PAGE S 16/17: The Villeneuve view. PAGE 18: Ferrari - rebuilding the legend. PAGE 19: Crunch time for Eddie Jordan. The cash-guzzlers.
CAPTION(S):Two photos: Off-road racing: Tarso Marques gets off course at Albert Park yesterday during qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix. Picture: JOHN FRENCH