What can anyone do to stop Ferrari in Malaysia?
If you had to sum up the mood in the Sepang paddock yesterday, it was one of determination laced with resigned resilience.
Since Ferrari's runaway triumph in Melbourne a fortnight ago several teams tested in Valencia, where Pedro de la Rosa salvaged some pride for McLaren with fastest lap ahead of BMW Williams's Marc Gene and Ferrari's Luca Badoer and Rubens Barrichello. The latter was the only leading race driver (as opposed to team test driver) to make the trip, and he was candid about it. "I deserve to win!" he beamed, but then added: "To be honest, on the first day I was useless. Luca was far more help than me. I had a good night's sleep, but I just couldn't react. I was lucky it was raining. Two 12-hour flights from Australia was just too tough."
He echoes the sentiments of his revered fellow countryman Ayrton Senna, back in 1990 after a trip back from the Mexican Grand Prix, but today the stakes are even higher as everyone tries to beat Ferrari and they try to stay on top.
BMW Williams have no new parts here. "We have no significant changes on the cars because of the shortage of time between the first two races," the German confirmed, though a different set-up may help. "We certainly didn't expect to be behind Ferrari in Melbourne and the race there was a different world for us. We woke up pretty quickly, but how well we go here this weekend will be critical for our title attack."
It's the same for McLaren. They do have new components. "We actually could have had them in Melbourne," David Coulthard revealed. "They will certainly be a step forward." Sources still suggest that the silver arrows need more power, but it is also a difficult car to set up and Sepang is notorious for demanding different things at different places via its blend of fast and slow corners and long, long straights.
Renault are looking quietly confident, especially after the way their car went here in 2003 when Fernando Alonso set a little bit of history by becoming the first Spaniard to start from pole position, and he finished third in the race to claim his first podium. In Melbourne his R24, though unable to keep up with the Ferraris, had the legs of the fancied BMW Williams. BAR Honda and Jaguar, too, are looking forward to stronger performances. What it will all come down to, of course, is tyre performance on the smooth yet abrasive circuit. The Malaysian Grand Prix could well be the race that will determine the true pecking order of the season. The tyre wear factor will influences not just grip but also pit stop strategy, and is itself determined by how well the tyres stand up to track temperatures that could reach well into the 40s.
The conventional thinking is that Bridgestones go well in cooler temperatures, such as we had in Melbourne, while the Michelins are stronger the higher operating temperature. But yesterday Bridgestone engineer Kees van der Grint said: "We have already moved our operating temperature upwards a little last year, and we were second on the grid here, remember. But what happened was that we had blistering so we had to run a harder compound. We think we are in quite good shape on that score this season."
That might be bad news for Michelin's runners and some of them, who have extrapolated the test times from Valencia, privately believe that the red cars will still be around seven-tenths of a second a lap quicker here regardless!
According to some of them, this is because Ferrari simply spends what it takes each year to be competitive, and after so long this has enabled them to build in such an advantage that they are beginning to pull away even from traditional rivals such as McLaren, which still has a good budget, and Williams. In February Sir Frank Williams insisted: "We are a private team, and it is important to remember that we do not have an unlimited budget of some of our opposition." Certainly Toyota, for example, are spending significantly more. Back in 1988 when McLaren trounced Ferrari and Williams it was because they were doing a much, much better job. Now it is not so much a matter of Williams doing a bad job but rather one of Ferrari having the right budget to take every technical advantage while also doing a superb job. Formula One always moves in cycles, and so far there is no sign of Ferrari's being interrupted.
That doesn't stop Alonso fervently hoping to win. The 22 year-old from Oviedo in Spain would like nothing better than to win for his countrymen who suffered in the recent bombings in Madrid. Speaking yesterday with quiet dignity he revealed that he will race with Spanish flags on his helmet and on the sleeve of his racing overalls as a sign of respect for the victims of the atrocities. "I was in the Maldives when the bombings happened and without the Internet it was hard to find information," he said, "but this was ordinary people, like me, like you, workers, children going to school. I would like to express my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones. I would love to dedicate a victory to them. We know that victories are always hard to come by in Formula One, but this would be one of the best moments of the year to win."