By Tom Keeble, U.S.A.
Autosport Atlas Writer
After a three-week break, Formula One arrives in Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix, Ferrari's first home race. The Italian squad will be looking to finally kick-start their season in front of the tifosi, but Renault and the rest will not make things easy. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success ahead of the fourth round of the 2005 season
The San Marino Grand Prix is hosted at the Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari in Imola - close to Ferrari's headquarters, and it is a circuit they have dominated recently. The weekend could see rain showers livening up Sunday's race, and track temperature should be cool. Overtaking is tough, and the layout emphasises a strong engine, balance under braking and excellent kerb handling.
The first race of the European season is at a circuit Ferrari have dominated, so it should come as little surprise that the outfit are expected to make a special effort to turn their season around here. Three weeks of testing have given every team the opportunity to evolve their cars, so there should be winners and losers in the speed stakes.
Track: Imola is a tight circuit, with the fast straight into Tamburello leading to a sequence of corners and chicanes. The counter-clockwise nature places unusual stresses on the drivers, whilst an ability to ride the high kerbs is vital to a quick lap, so suspension settings will be as soft as possible without compromising the car in corners. There is a premium on grip, so high downforce levels are required. A strong engine will come in to its own to power the car down the straight with high downforce, but also to make the most of gradient changes.
Tyres: A much improved showing in Bahrain from Bridgestone has the Michelin teams bracing for Ferrari to improve - particularly going to a circuit they have recently dominated. Dry weather performance should be moderately well matched. With relatively low wear rates, few expect to struggle over the race distance. However, if it rains on Sunday, then a whole new picture is painted, as these teams have not had the opportunity to go racing in the wet under these revised rules.
Weather: The weekend will be cool and partly cloudy, with a strong chance of showers on Sunday. The wind will be moderate, but should be consistent on Saturday and Sunday. Humidity will be around 70% for the race.
Strategy: It should come as no surprise that most teams can be expected to opt for two stops again; those who can carry more fuel on their final session will probably have the advantage for the race. The need to protect the car as it rides the high kerbs is not likely to push teams to three stops: it's faster to driver the longer route around the kerbing than to lose time in a stop. The optimal fuel load is not for a single stop, so should anyone make a real mess of the first qualifying session, they probably won't sit out the final session in order to start with a full tank, or they will be punished under acceleration and by the altitude changes.
Surprises: Despite their history of trouble with Imola, Toyota could be very strong. Ferrari, on their home track and with three weeks of testing the new car behind them could finally be back in contention. The surprise for qualifying may be BAR, who are looking at a more consistent car with the new aero package.
Conclusions: Renault have every reason to believe they are still the class of this field, but the gap is closing fast. McLaren look to have worked out their tyre problems, whilst Ferrari are clearly getting comfortable with the F2005. Williams continue to evolve and BAR have made a noticeably distinct step forward with their latest aero package. The fight for podium places should be tough, but with overtaking on this circuit so difficult, strategy is going to prove vital.
Team by Team
After the debut of the F2005 in Bahrain went awry with Rubens Barrichello's gearbox problems costing him lap and set-up time (leading to poor tyre use), and Michael Schumacher's retirement with a hydraulic failure, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that it was a poor weekend. Results were not good, this is true, but around the reliability issues that hit the team, it was plain that Ferrari were demonstrating a significant step forward with their new car.
Package: The last three weeks of unlimited testing has seen Ferrari put a lot more miles in the new chassis. Whilst it has not been an entirely plain sailing, it is clear to see that the team have been making progress on both setting up the car and improving their interaction with Bridgestone. Provided reliability concerns have been eliminated, this is a team that can challenge at the front.
Drivers: Rubens Barrichello's opening races showed that his pace is consistently excellent this season: from testing the F2005, it looks like this form will largely carry over. Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, seemed to start out slower than his Brazilian teammate, but looked good in Bahrain before retiring: quite how the Bridgestone tyres would have worn is difficult to say. Both drivers should go well at Imola, though the reigning champion will probably have the upper hand.
Objectives: podium finish
The season to date has been a disappointment to BAR, who are the only team not to finish a single race. Bahrain saw Sato retire with no brakes, whilst Button's clutch gave out in the second stop. Following their embarrassing double engine failure in Malaysia, this was a major blow.
Package: Another team who made the most of the break ahead of San Marino, BAR have been working on a revised aerodynamic package that appears to considerably improve the stability of the car. Whilst not necessarily inherently much quicker, the update improves driver confidence in the car, putting them in the position to get more out of package.
Drivers: Although Takuma Sato did not initially think too much of the revised aero package, he still managed to show a significant pace improvement. The Japanese driver is somewhat overshadowed by his teammate, but he continues to demonstrate considerable speed; his pace could be better than Button over a single lap, but consistency is still not perfect and he tends to overdrive the car. Jenson Button, meanwhile, is a smooth driver who looks after his equipment a little better, even if the races to date have not let him demonstrate this effectively. Imola last year saw Button put the car on pole - a first for both BAR and himself - so there is little doubt he now has the measure of this circuit. If the revisions work out as planned, BAR's points scoring drought should be over.
Objectives: both cars in the points, aiming for a podium finish. Race win not impossible.
Bahrain was a bit of a mixed blessing for Renault, as Giancarlo Fisichella's brand new engine gave up early in the race, whilst Alonso went on to win comfortably. This team always looked like they had the measure of the weekend, so Fisichella must be ruing points lost to the engine expiry and the collision in Malaysia. Despite their form, the outfit are clearly not resting on their laurels as effort has gone on solidifying their lead.
Package: The break has seen component failures (including a rear wing coming off for Alonso) that illustrate how close to the edge of tolerance the team are running in pursuit of maximum performance; it raises the question of whether the might end up compromising their race day results, particularly after Fisichella's retirement. The team are clearly seeing a Ferrari revival in the offing, so the drive to improve cannot be lost - the balance for maintaining reliability will be stretched. A new engine could be available for Fisichella, though, if it clears dynamometer testing.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso has looked comfortable for both the last races, making the most of the performance of the car to win easily. Whether he can maintain the same composure as the competition close up and offer some genuine pressure remains to be seen - and Ferrari's home track could be the place where that happens. Pressure notwithstanding, the Spaniard remains favourite to win the race. Giancarlo Fisichella, meanwhile, needs to improve his game to match his teammate. Having finally been given the chance to show what he can do in a front running car, he has to get back on the pace of his teammate. On the positive side, however, if the revised - 'B' spec engine is available, he'll have a great opportunity to move up a step.
Objectives: winning - with both cars on the podium.
Williams had a tough race in Bahrain, where high temperatures stopped them making the most of their engines. Nick Heidfeld retired with an overheating engine, whilst Webber spun out and ruined his tyres, finally finishing in sixth place. This was not what the team were looking for, after making some progress on the aerodynamics. Heading to cooler climes will suit the team far better.
Package: Two weeks of testing has allowed the outfit to bring forward some important developments on the car, and work on understanding the Michelin tyres to take to forthcoming races. Provided it does not rain, this should be an opportunity to show that more progress has been made, reducing the gap to Renault. That the circuit emphasises the need for stability whilst riding kerbs at high speed along with a solid engine should play to the car's strength.
Drivers: Mark Webber apparently likes this circuit, with an F3000 win there to his name, but his form this season has not been quite perfect: this will have to change if he is to start winning races; however, his aggressive style should work well at Imola. Nick Heidfeld, meanwhile should also look good here. Although his qualifying form may not match Webber, race pace is another story again, and he should run well.
Objectives: finish with both cars in the points. Podium finishes are certainly possible, even winning if Renault miss a trick.
In Bahrain, McLaren again demonstrated that their car has great pace over the race distance, with Pedro de la Rosa fighting up to fifth and Kimi Raikkonen a strong third, but they are simply not getting together the pace to qualify high enough to be in with a chance of competing at the front. The problem has been put down to under-using the tyres, so they are just not getting up to temperature fast enough to get the most from the package in qualifying.
Package: The three-week break saw McLaren working hard at revising their suspension, presumably looking to address the issue of qualifying effectively, and test results imply they had some success. With low wear rates from the San Marino Grand Prix, being more aggressive should not automatically mean that the team give up their strong race finishes, though that has to be of some concern.
Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya is still out with an injured shoulder, so the team are giving Alexander Wurz a chance to show what he can do over the coming weekend; in his fifth year of running as the reserve driver for the team, this is an opportunity that has been long in the making, but one prefaced by an excellent showing in the third man spot at Bahrain: Wurz' quickest time on Friday was impressive. Kimi Raikkonen has been showing good form all season: after a good podium in the last race, he has to be looking for another in Imola.
Objectives: improved qualifying, podium finish - with both cars in the points. Winning if Renault have missed a trick.
Bahrain was not a good weekend for Sauber, despite the points that Felipe Massa scored when he finally finished seventh; Jacques Villeneuve had a tough qualifying, followed by a race that ended abruptly when David Coulthard hit him. Since then, the outfit have actually been testing, looking for progress in resolving a weakness in the aerodynamics that is having them struggle against their main rivals. Even that provoked controversy, as Massa was brought in early to replace Villeneuve, despite the Canadian's complaints about lack of running.
Package: Some improvements to the aerodynamics should see Sauber in a position to stay ahead of Jordan, but competing against their other midfield rivals is still going to be tough. On the positive side, they are gaining knowledge of how to leverage the best from their Michelin tyres, so a lack of in-season development is apparently being countered by gains there.
Drivers: Jacques Villeneuve continues to need time in the car, but on the positive side, he is slowly coming to grips with the package, and the team are successfully accommodating some of his requirements: whilst the Canadian is still not showing Massa's pace, his own form is improving. Felipe Massa can be expected to put the Sauber to effective use; if it is capable of scoring points, he has every opportunity to be there for them.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point.
After an interesting Bahrain weekend, including Coulthard finishing in the points again, whilst Christian Klien qualified seventh before his car stalled on the parade lap, ending his race, the Red Bull outfit have continued to surprise the critics who largely wrote them off before the season started.
Package: A number of small aerodynamic updates to the car could help Red Bull over the weekend, but their competition are making more changes and looking for bigger gains; staying on the pace is going to get harder as the season progresses. However, this is another chance for the team to show how much this car has improved over last season's donkey, so they are still hoping to see a top ten qualifying session and points from the race.
Drivers: Despite a relatively strong showing by Christian Klien in the opening races, the team are sticking to their commitment to share the car, and have rotated Vitantonio Liuzzi in to the race seat; thanks to a quick rule change, Klien is still present for the weekend if only as third driver. Liuzzi has raced F3000 at Imola and is expected to have little trouble getting to grips with the place. He is already accustomed to working alongside David Coulthard, who has shown great teamwork in assisting his younger rivals so far this season. Coulthard, meanwhile, has a good track record here, and must be looking forward to being able to make his experience count: precision over the kerbs and the right level of aggression gives the driver a chance to add to the package. With the media spotlight firmly on his Italian rookie teammate, if he gets a solid qualifying session, then the Scot will be looking for more points.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten, score points. Beat Sauber.
Following another strong run - with a podium finish - in Bahrain, Toyota have confirmed themselves as the team most improved through the off-season. That they have visibly been evolving the aerodynamic package, despite the flyaway races, speaks of the team's commitment to improving further as the season progresses. Now, they have made the most of the three-week interval to put considerable miles on the car and a whole new aero set-up, as well as consider solutions to the chassis' traditional weakness - handling vicious kerbs.
Package: During testing, Toyota didn't complete the tests on their new aerodynamic package, so they are taking the remainder to Imola with them; nonetheless, the testing miles they did manage demonstrated that the revised package should offer a small step forward. More importantly, this year's car is running with suspension inspired by Mike Gascoyne's experienced hand, so the team are expecting their bump handling nemesis to be largely resolved: whether that puts them on a par with the other front runners remains to be seen.
Drivers: Last season notwithstanding, Ralf Schumacher usually goes well at Imola, so this weekend could see the German on the pace that Jarno Trulli has been exhibiting in the car so far. However, there is little doubt that the car has suited Trulli well so far: his consecutive podiums are testament to the form he has found in it. Provided the revised, Gascoyne inspired suspension does its job, both drivers must be looking for a podium finish.
Objectives: podium, with two points finishes. Race win is ambitious.
The season has not offered Jordan much joy, as they have mostly struggled to get any significant speed from their cars. Bridgestone's early focus on Ferrari did little to help, so they came out of the off-season behind their mid-field rivals. That the season is basically a learning experience for the new management, who are looking ahead a year, is not helping much either. However, even Jordan managed to go testing during the three-week break since Bahrain.
Package: After a three-day test at Paul Ricard, the team have been working hard with Bridgestone to find a construction that works well with their car. They had some new components showed some promise for improving performance, but the bottom line is that without Bridgestone offering the team something considerably better suited, they cannot make any real progress. The test has offered some immediate improvements from the revised components, but the outcome of the tyre testing is uncertain. There is little chance of the team making progress compared to the front runners this weekend, but they are hoping to have done enough to stay ahead of the new Minardi.
Drivers: Narain Karthikeyan has never raced at Imola before, but the Indian has been showing pretty good form in picking up new circuits; provided that continues, he should have a positive weekend. On the positive side, both Tiago Monteiro and Robert Doornbos have raced on this circuit... if not in a Formula One car.
Objectives: make a showing, beat Minardi.
Whilst Bahrain offered Minardi the usual complete lack of opportunity, they are heading to the San Marino event with some optimism - after introducing their first all new chassis in three years.
The PS05 has been shaken down in preparation to its debut at Imola. The team are not expecting a miracle out of the box - they are going to have to work at setting the car up, for a start - but being able to run with the current Cosworth engine and an up to date aerodynamic package is a huge boost.
On the downside, the car is completely new, so reliability is likely to be a problem, whilst understanding how to get the best from the car could take the full weekend. Teething issues aside, this is going to be big learning experience, but it could move the team forward.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat a Jordan.
As the Formula One circus arrived at Imola last year, Ferrari had demonstrated a dominant control of the sport in the first three races, and there were few hopes from the remainder for catching them off form at one of their home races.
Confirming BAR's improved form, Jenson Button gave the team their first pole with a blinding lap. Schumacher's efforts were good enough for second place, as Ferrari failed to start with the dominance of their earlier events.
Montoya had another good qualifying session, claiming third on the grid: this was not previously a circuit that had rewarded his style. Barrichello, meanwhile, struggled to set up the F2004, resulting in fourth spot from an imperfect lap.
Ralf Schumacher didn't get the best out of his car in the second qualifying session, so had to settle for fifth, but Alonso was looking strong in sixth, making the best of a revised aero packing in the Renault. Sato was disappointed with seventh after pushing too hard, as was Trulli with eighth, after never quite getting the balance right on his car.
Da Matta showed that Toyota were starting to get the idea of riding kerbs sorted out with tenth place, whilst Coulthard had another disappointing flying lap to finish eleventh. Other noteworthies included Fisichella's nineteenth after a gearbox problem kept him in the pits, and Raikkonen closed out the grid in the final spot after struggling with brake problems and losing an engine.
The race started well for Button, who made the most of pole for a clean start. Schumacher followed easily, whilst Ralf attempted to slide inside Montoya at the first corner. It looked like a clean start to the race until Coulthard was too optimistic going in to Tamburello, running in to the back of Alonso's Renault. Fortunately for the Spaniard, all the damage was to the McLaren's front wing.
Running in to Tosa, Montoya attempted to pass the outside of Schumacher, who had taken a defensive entry to the corner, only to be forced on to the grass at the exit. Then Montoya played the same game with Ralf, keeping the German behind... and letting Sato get past him in to the bargain.
Button had great pace on the opening lap, but it soon failed him, allowing Schumacher to close back up in four laps. The World Champion proceeded to wait patiently for the pitstops, which saw Montoya stopping on lap eight, and Button on nine. Schumacher stayed out two more laps, easily passing for the lead in the interim - five seconds clear of the BAR. Trulli, last to stop on this strategy, passed Ralf Schumacher, Barrichello, Alonso and Sato for fourth. Fisichella and Raikkonen looked good, but had not stopped as they were using a different strategy, after their unfortunate qualifying.
The second round of stops was unremarkable, bar Ralf Schumacher taking a place back from Trulli for fourth; a further actionless period ensued, before Montoya again led the stops, coming in for the third and final time - sealing the final podium spot in the process. However, this round was not quite so staid, as Trulli stayed out longer than Barrichello, returning just in front of the Brazilian, but behind Alonso. The Spaniard made the most of Trulli slowing the Ferrari driver putting in a stunning couple of laps before a perfect stop saw him return ahead of both Trulli and Barrichello.
Alonso promptly set his sights on Ralf Schumacher's Williams, reeling him in within two laps before diving down the inside at Tosa. The German shut the door far too late, bounced off the Renault spun, eventually rejoining in seventh place.
Sato's engine gave up shortly later, and Alonso closed up with Montoya - but passing in the final three laps proved impossible, so the order remained unchanged to the flag.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team-Engine Time 1. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 1h26:19.670 2. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 9.702 3. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) + 21.617 4. Alonso Renault (M) + 23.654 5. Trulli Renault (M) + 36.216 6. Barrichello Ferrari (B) + 36.683 7. R.Schumacher Williams-BMW (M) + 55.730 8. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 1 lap Fastest Lap: M.Schumacher, 1:20.411, lap 10 Classified: 16 from 20 starters