Grand Prix's New Rules Fail First Road Test; FORMULA ONE Gearing Up for Sunday's First Race of the Season in Melbourne

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SO much for fears of confusion in the brave new world of Formula One.

After the strange sight of Friday qualifying at the Australian grand prix in Melbourne today, it became clear that experts in quantum physics and applied mathematics will have no trouble at all puzzling out what everything means.

It's just the rest of us who are in trouble.

Friday qualifying in itself was supposed to be perfectly simply to grasp.

The sole aim of the new session is theoretically to go as fast as possible in order to obtain the most advantageous place in the running order for real qualifying tomorrow.

The last driver out on Saturday will know the exact target his rivals have set him.

Cue the joker in the pack. At Melbourne's Albert Park circuit, showers are forecast for Saturday lunchtime. Hence, when hardy British petrolheads gazed blearily at their television sets at 3am this morning, it was to be greeted with the news that perhaps fastest on Friday isn't best after all.

In the old days, it didn't matter if it rained during Saturday qualifying because everyone had an equal opportunity to establish a time during the one hour available. But with drivers going turn by turn, with just one miserly lap at their disposal, all bets are off. It is insanely possible that British rookie Justin Wilson, whose Minardi was slowest of all today, will go out first tomorrow in the dry, after which a torrential downpour will ruin everyone else's lap and leave Wilson on pole.

So is it marvellous news for Rubens Barrichello that he was fastest in Melbourne today, and will go last tomorrow? Not the foggiest. But he smirked contentedly, unlike his team-mate, Michael Schumacher, who was almost half a second adrift of the Brazilian, in fourth.

"I'm disappointed, yes,'' the world champion owned up sourly. "I'm not usually so far off Rubens. We weren't using tactics. He was just quicker than me.'' It wasn't only Barrrichello who outgunned Schumacher. McLaren's highly-rated Kimi Raikkonen was second, which was not such a surprise, but the sight of Jacques Villeneuve's BAR in third certainly was after his engine burst into flames during morning practice.

Jenson Button's engine likewise expired in practice, yet his BAR also came unexpectedly good in fifth, ahead of David Coulthard's McLaren. Strange times.

Or horrible times, rather, for the Williams drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya barely made it into the top 10, while Ralf Schumacher was frankly dire for 16th. Sir Frank Williams will not be thrilled with such a display.

British rookies Ralph Firman and Wilson naturally found the going tough. …


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