MELBOURNE: Rubens Barrichello was fastest yesterday as Formula One's new qualifying format turned world champion Michael Schumacher's red Ferrari into a roadsweeper at the Australian Grand Prix.
The Brazilian, on pole in Melbourne last year, lapped Albert Park in 1:26.372 seconds to ensure that he will run last and after his team mate and five times world champion Schumacher in today's decisive shoot-out.
Schumacher, winner for the past three years in Australia, was first out of the pits as champion and managed only the fourth fastest time.
“I felt a bit like a road-sweeping machine for all the other cars, cleaning the track, as I picked up all the dirt,” the German complained.
“It is obviously a disadvantage to be first on the road.
“In the end Rubens did a very good lap and I did not. But tomorrow's session is the important one.”
Yesterday's qualifying, with the 20 drivers each getting the track to themselves for one flying lap, determined only the starting order for today's similar session.
Finland's Kimi Raikkonen was second quickest for McLaren, 0.179 slower than Barrichello, while Canada's 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve was third in a BAR after suffering an engine failure in the morning practice.
“It's been a long time since I was this far up the grid and although today wasn't final qualifying, it was easy to see who was quick and who wasn't,” Villeneuve said.
Briton Jenson Button, in a BAR, was fifth quickest ahead of compatriot David Coulthard in a McLaren.
The new format, designed to revive flagging television audience figures and cut costs after a year of Ferrari domination, received mixed reviews.
Some drivers bemoaned a lack of excitement while team bosses welcoming the increased exposure for sponsors.
“The new qualifying mode gave us all a very positive experience today,” said one of the more enthusiastic, Swiss team boss Peter Sauber.
The Williams duo of Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher looked surprisingly slow, although tactics now play a far greater role under the revamped rules.
Montoya, on pole seven times last year, managed the 10th fastest time while Ralf was only 16th.
“We took a conservative approach to today's qualifying but nonetheless we're a bit surprised to end up where we are,” Montoya said.
Ralf said he had lost far too much time in the first sector and his car was understeering badly into slow corners.
“If I look at the qualifying in general, I can see a lot of hard work for us,” the German said.
Raikkonen, the 'Ice Man' who secured his first front row start last season, said the new format had not changed his approach to qualifying while Coulthard expressed personal reservations about the changes.
The new drivers had a tough baptism, Briton Ralph Firman running into the dirt on his flying lap for Jordan and Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia doing the same for Jaguar.
“It would have been significantly easier today had I known the track,” the Brazilian said.
“I suppose it's far better to make mistakes at this stage of my F1 career than later.”
The latter's error allowed Minardi's Jos Verstappen to clock a faster lap than Pizzonia.
Britain's Justin Wilson, who will making his Minardi debut tomorrow, was slowest and will start first today. – Reuters
Times from yesterday's first qualifying session
1. Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:26.372, 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren 1:26.551, 3. Jacques Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:26.832, 4. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:27.103, 5. Jenson Button (Gbr) BAR 1:27.159,
6. David Coulthard (Gbr) McLaren 1:27.242, 7. Fernando Alonso (Spa) Renault 1:27.255, 8. Olivier Panis (Fra) Toyota 1:27.352, 9. Jarno Trulli (Ita) Renault 1:27.411, 10. Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) Williams 1:27.450,
11. Cristiano Da Matta (Bra) Toyota 1:27.478, 12. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber 1:27.510, 13. Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Sauber 1:27.563, 14. Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Jordan 1:27.633, 15. Mark Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:27.675,
16. Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:28.266, 17. Ralph Firman (Gbr) Jordan 1:29.977, 18. Jos Verstappen (Ned) Minardi 1:30.053, 19. Antonio Pizzonia (Bra) Jaguar 1:30.092, 20. Justin Wilson (Gbr) Minardi 1:30.479. – Reuters