Race weekend review - Spain 05 May 2003
So what did the Spanish Grand Prix really mean? First and foremost it confirmed the excellence of one car - and it wasn't the Ferrari F2003-GA. It was actually the Renault R23.
When you consider that the car created by Mike Gascoyne's design team is thought to have considerably less power than the Ferrari (anything up to 100bhp less, depending upon whom you believe) yet it finished less than six seconds behind the red car, the inferences are clear.
Here's what Michael Schumacher thought: "To be honest it wasn't a surprise. By looking at and studying the sort the sort of lap times they were doing all weekend, I was thinking that it was going to be a tough race, and they didn't do the times on Friday just by luck, Jarno, for example, and then Fernando yesterday in qualifying. So I was expecting a very tough fight, and so it was."
It was also confirmation that the stakes in the tyre war are very even at present. Schumacher reported that his Bridgestones were initially good early in each stint but lost efficiency towards the end, as one would expect, but then said that later in the race on his final set the situation got better the longer he stayed out. Alonso reported that his Michelins were consistent throughout.
The new Ferrari has become the new benchmark overnight, as expected, however. Though it still has some things that need to be ironed out in its set-up, it looks to be the best overall package. Interestingly, however, McLaren chief Ron Dennis said over the weekend that he does not agree with supposition that the McLaren Mercedes MP4-17D has lost its edge since the first three races (two of which it won). "I know you base that on grid positions," he said, "but our view is that the car is still very competitive in race trim and that it is better to look at results."
McLaren, of course, has its own new MP4-18A in the wings under development, and before the race Dennis said the team did not feel the need to rush it into races and has no intention of letting itself get panicked into any knee-jerk reaction. There is no reason why that view should change after the race, even though Schumacher is now only four points behind Raikkonen in the drivers' title chase and Ferrari is three points shy of McLaren in the constructors'. McLaren's downfall in Spain was a product of driver error and poor fortune, rather than a performance issue, and its worth noting that Coulthard's eighth place on the grid was achieved with sufficient fuel to use a two-stop race strategy, whereas the top five were all ready for three stops.
That point actually puts Toyota's qualifying performance into even better perspective, since Panis was sixth fastest, also on a two-stop plan. The Frenchman should have scored points but for a gearbox failure, but team-mate da Matta, on a three-stopper, drove superbly for sixth place and would probably have been fifth but for a long brake pedal preventing him getting close enough to Ralf Schumacher in the slow corners. Scoring points has got one monkey off the team's back, and on a circuit for which it had good set-ups Toyota showed the sort of tremendous potential that had BMW Williams worrying before the start of the season. In Spain the FW25 appeared still to have a way to go to match the levels of downforce of its major rivals, and that is where much of its handling problems stemmed from.
Jaguar didn't have much to shout about with Pizzonia's second disastrous launch control failure in two races, but its strategy in running Webber on two stops and harder Michelins paid off with its first points of the season and that was a much-need fillip.
Sauber Petronas had a tough time balancing its C22, which owes something to downforce levels and the way it uses its Bridgestones, but in the race Frentzen would have scored a point but for suspension failure. Life is now tough in Sauber's neck of the F1 woods, with BAR Honda, Toyota and Jaguar looking ever stronger, and Jordan Ford's victory in Brazil didn't do the Swiss team any favours either. After a gutsy drive from Ralph Firman, the latter scored another point, and BAR Honda should have too had Button not collided with Coulthard.
Minardi Ford may be down the back, almost in a category of its own, but the inter-team duel between Wilson and Verstappen is in its own right another fascinating aspect of the 2003 season.
So, Ferrari is right back on top of its game, and Renault is continuing to maintain an impressive challenge. BMW Williams has more aero work to do and McLaren Mercedes needs some stability again after its misfortune but does not believe that the F2003-GA is a quantum leap.
The prospects for Austria are tantalising.