JUST IMAGINE, if you will, what might have happened if the dramatic accident triggered by Jacques Villeneuve in last week's Australian GP in Melbourne had involved the Finnish rookie Kimi Raikkonen, instead of the highly experienced French-Canadian.
In the aftermath of the death of the 51-year-old Queensland marshal, Graham Beveridge, Raikkonen would surely have lost the superlicence that the FIA president, Max Mosley, had not wanted him to have in the first place. But Raikkonen, in contrast not just to Villeneuve but also to other stars such as Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen - to name but a few - did not put a wheel wrong all weekend.
Prior to making his grand prix debut, the 21-year-old from Espoo had driven in 23 car races since graduating from karting, none of them in anything more potent than 180bhp Formula Renault single-seaters. But last weekend he drove with the star quality of a future world champion.
Peter Sauber, owner of the Swiss Red Bull Sauber Petronas team, could be forgiven for feeling vindicated in his choice of driver. More than likely, though, it will eventually cost him his long-time sponsor Red Bull (whose founder, Deitrich Materschitz, owns a significant shareholding in the team). Materschitz wanted Sauber to partner his protege, the Brazilian driver Enrique Bernoldi, with the young German Nick Heidfeld, a coming man. But Sauber, habitually a conservative man, took the bold decision to go for Raikkonen after his speed and calmness in tests last September marked him out as something special. Based on what each of them achieved last weekend, Raikkonen in his Sauber Petronas, Bernoldi in his Arrows Asiatech, Sauber won hands down.
It is fashionable in F1 circles to describe Sauber as a midfield team that will never go anywhere, and in past seasons they have started well only to fade as others hit a superior development stride. Sauber came into F1 in 1993, but despite drivers of the calibre of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Johnny Herbert and Jean Alesi, have never won a race. Their best finishes have been third places.
This year has followed that pattern, with Heidfeld fourth in Australia to score his first-ever world championship points after a disastrous debut season in 2000 with Prost, and Raikkonen sixth on his debut. At times both underlined the potential of the Sauber Petronas C20 by keeping Frentzen's Jordan-Honda at bay.
Peter Sauber concedes that the tendency for his cars' performance to drop off as the season unfolds is something he must address if his team are to progress. The situation has not been made easier by the departure of the designer Sergio Rinland, after some members of Sauber's management (not Sauber himself) lost faith in the Argentinian's ability.
Australia showed that thinking to be flawed, but now the team must find a way to exploit Rinland's car without him. Given the highly sophisticated and individual nature of each F1 car, let alone the creative thinking process that went into it, that will not be an easy task.
"Last year our record of development was better," Sauber says, "but it was still not good enough. We were and still are a very small team in terms of staff and budget, in comparison with our rivals, so we weren't able to keep up the pace with some of the others."
Heidfeld's relief at having a machine with which he can demonstrate his true potential, after last year's dreadful Prost, was evident in Melbourne. "You can feel if a car is good, and definitely the C20 feels strong," the 23 year-old from Monchengladbach said. "In testing in Jerez we immediately went quicker than we had gone in the old car, without a lot of work on the set-up and with less downforce. So going to Australia I was quite confident, but trying not to be overconfident." He was fast all weekend.
In his bold decision to opt for young drivers who will push each other hard, Sauber has created the ideal situation. "I think," Heidfeld said, "that Williams have shown in the past that it's not always bad to fight your team-mate, as long as you drive the team forward."
Part of Sauber's mystique is that they are not a typical British F1 team; some 20 different nationalities comprise the workforce that is based in Hinwil, not far from Zurich. And, as Murray Walker found to his discomfort in Melbourne, Sauber's pride is stung when people write off his chances.
The upswing in his team's fortunes was perfectly timed, as the circus heads for Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, home of Sauber's major sponsor, Petronas, the Malaysian national oil company that also back the race. Small wonder that the quiet Swiss left Australia wearing a smile as big as his trademark cigar.