Thursday race preview 26 Jun 2003
Welcome to the start of the Grand Prix of Europe weekend, as the Nurburgring hosts the first of Formula One's 2003 visits to Germany.
Perhaps the most noteworthy development is that the race will not see the long-awaited debut of McLaren's new MP4-18 challenger, as had been hoped. The new machine has tested, but accidents in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen in Barcelona and Alexander Wurz in Jerez, together with other factors, have persuaded the company to delay the car's first race.
Managing director Martin Whitmarsh admits that there was an element of disappointment within McLaren as it left Canada having lost its lead in both the constructors' and drivers' world championships, but he added: "When you look at the bigger picture, we are in a strong position in the championships, and we believe we have a significant performance step coming on line with the race debut of the MP4-18. This will be when we are confident that it will enhance our championship programme. We are under no illusions, however, of the challenge that lies ahead."
The other high points concern two drivers, each of whom has reached the 150th Grand Prix of their career: David Coulthard and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The Scot says he is looking forward to a strong race to mark the occasion, especially as he will be racing in engine builder and team shareholder Mercedes-Benz's country. The German said: "Normally I don't care about statistics. Whether it's my 36th birthday, or 150 Grands Prix. However, what makes it special in this particular case is the fact that it will take place in front of my fans in Germany. I hope to give them a good race."
The Nurburging is a high downforce circuit, and most of the top teams have achieved reasonable set-ups in that configuration. Ferrari will be as strong as ever, and on his home ground Michael Schumacher will be very hard to beat as he seeks to open up the championship lead that he took over for the first time this season with his victory in Canada. Last year he and Rubens Barrichello were totally dominant for Ferrari, and the F2003-GA is an improved car.
However, McLaren believes that its MP4-17D will be strong, and when he wasn't running in traffic in Montreal, Coulthard said he felt the car was very competitive. While the Scot would love a decent result after recent disappointments, team mate Raikkonen desperately needs a good points haul to keep himself in title contention.
Coming up fast on the inside rail, however, is Williams, which will also be looking for another strong performance in BMW's homeland. The team has made a lot of progress in the last three races, and could well have won all of them with slightly better fortune. Juan Pablo Montoya was recently fastest during testing at Silverstone, testing aerodynamics and Michelin tyres in readiness for the 'Ring, and chief operations engineer Sam Michael says: "The development of the car is definitely progressing well from the aerodynamic and mechanical side so we're fairly confident of securing some more valuable points in the next few races."
Renault, too, has its tail up, especially after the unexpectedly strong performance Fernando Alonso staged in Montreal. "We already know that the car is very efficient in that kind of configuration," technical director Mike Gascoyne says of the circuit's high downforce requirement. "What's more, Michelin has been doing a fantastic job, particularly on its dry-weather performance, and we are confident that our recent testing will serve us well for the upcoming races."
Jaguar and BAR are both hoping to have overcome some recent reliability issues, Sauber is anxious for a good showing in one of its 'home' races, and Toyota would dearly like some more points in its adopted homeland. Jordan and Minardi also face the future feeling more confident. The latter has recently acquired some equipment from the defunct Arrows team, including some of the A23 chassis, and will shortly be conducting back-to-back tests to see if there are interchangeable components that can improve the team's performance.
The Grand Prix of Europe will be held over 60 laps of the 5.148 km circuit, and starts, as usual, at 1400 local time now that the season is back in Europe.