Melbourne Flashback: Webber’s dream debut in 2002

The 2002 Australian Grand Prix will go down as one of the most memorable races in Formula 1 World Championship history.

While the race featured first-lap drama, scores of retirements and intense on-track battles, most fans will remember it for Mark Webber’s dream debut for the Australian-led Minardi team.

Regarded as a backmarker team, Minardi – owned by Australian aviation entrepreneur Paul Stoddart – entered the 2002 Formula 1 World Championship with two new drivers, Alex Yoong from Malaysia and a fresh-faced 26-year-old from Queanbeyan, New South Wales in Webber.

Even with a wet qualifying expected to help Webber, the Australian could only manage a lowly 18th, ahead of both Jaguars and teammate Yoong. At the front of the grid, it was an all-Ferrari front-row lockout, with Rubens Barrichello getting himself ahead of teammate Michael Schumacher.

Remarkably, Ferrari infamously elected to run with their 2001 car while continuing to develop their F2002 for the rest of the season ahead.

A standard start procedure led to a chaotic opening corner, most notably when Ralf Schumacher soared into the sky over the top of Barrichello.

The incident warranted chaos behind, putting to an end to Giancarlo Fisichella, Felipe Massa, Nick Heidfeld, Jenson Button, Olivier Panis and Allan McNish’s days – a total of eight drivers making up over one-third of the field.

Arrows drivers Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi were disqualified soon after for separate breaches of the sporting regulations.

More racing retirements would continue as Jarno Trulli and Michael Schumacher engaged in a battle for second place. The Italian made it difficult for Schumacher to pass, holding up the four-time champion for numerous laps, before his race came to a gut-wrenching end as he spun through the exit of Turn 2, sending his Renault into the wall. The unusual crash was thought to have been caused by oil left on the track from the first corner carnage.

The Safety Car was called out again, wiping out the lead that David Coulthard had created thanks to the fight for the second. However, Coulthard would also put himself in an awkward situation, coasting wide onto the grass at Turn 15 right before the race was due to restart.

The clumsy move gifted Schumacher the race lead as Juan Pablo Montoya lined himself up behind, overtaking the German into the first corner and taking the ascendency.

But Schumacher patiently fought back, setting himself up for an attack on the Columbian using the main straight to follow the mighty Williams machine. Schumacher sensationally ran around the outside of Montoya, taking back the lead through the accelerating left-hander of Turn 2.

While the battle at the front continued, Webber caught up to the back of Coulthard, who had conceded two more places and appeared to be running with a mechanical issue. Webber’s Minardi breezed past the wounded McLaren along the back straight for fifth, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

It was obvious Coulthard was running with a problem as his car inevitably came to a rest with gearbox troubles only a matter of laps later at Turn 4.

Webber then pitted for his only stop but was delayed when his fuel cap failed to open until mechanics with screwdrivers in hand resolved the issue. While Webber held on to fifth position, the issue left him vulnerable to Toyota’s Mika Salo, setting up an exciting battle in the dying laps of the Grand Prix.

The Finn rapidly closed in on Webber, who had lost top gear during the course of the day, leaving the Australian crowd nervous for their countryman.

A handful of laps out from the chequered flag, there was drama. The local fans were on their feet, and certainly put out a big cheer, when Salo lost control of his Toyota while trying to place an attack on Webber into the hard-braking zone of Turn 3.

Webber was left to comfortably bring the car over the line, scoring Minardi’s first points since the 1999 European Grand Prix. Webber later went up on the podium with team boss Stoddart to celebrate his fantastic achievement, fittingly closing another dramatic Australian Grand Prix.

Brawn: I think we’ve got a vintage F1 season coming up