Friday preview - what threat BAR? 23 Apr 2004
Michael Schumacher says he is not sure what to make of BAR Honda's prodigious speed in recent testing at both Barcelona and Paul Ricard. But it is clear that the world champion and his Ferrari team have been keeping an eye on their Anglo-Japanese rival.
While Ferrari have been doing everything to maintain their advantage on their home ground, after their runaway successes in the opening three races, BAR's performances have given them food for thought. Technical director Ross Brawn believes that BAR are the team most likely to challenge the red cars.
"There are two views," Schumacher admitted. "One is that we were strong when we tested here in the winter. The other is that Takuma Sato and Jenson Button were very fast in Barcelona and Paul Ricard recently. What does it mean? I don't know myself. But I'm keen to find out!"
The mood in the BAR camp is very high after Button's third place and Sato's fifth in Bahrain, and Sato believes that an upgraded Honda engine can help the team further close the gap this weekend.
The car is working very good," the Japanese driver said, and his enthusiasm could not be concealed. "We are feeling very confident and the whole thing is working good. Jenson complete 300 laps in two days in our recent tests. The biggest grey area after the winter was whether our testing speed then would be good enough, but after the first three races we have scored lots of points and we are feeling much more comfortable as a result."
This is already shaping up into an emotional weekend for everyone and the drivers, since it is of course the 10th anniversary of the tragic 1994 race. Schumacher, who won that for Benetton Ford, admits it will not be easy.
"You know, I don't like talk of only one driver," he said when Senna's name came up. "I like to remember Roland Ratzenberger too, who also die here that weekend. Everyone was very shocked by his accident, and it was my first experience of death in the sport. The only positive thing that we have seen is the progress in safety since then. Max Mosley (President of the governing body, the FIA) was very much the person to drive the safety campaign very strongly forward as much as possible to make the sport safer.
"Ayrton and I had some tough fights on the track and some tough personal times, but we also had some good personal times. It was a privilege to be able to race against him.
"After what happened here everybody pulled in the same line. That doesn't justify what happened here 10 years ago, but at the end of the day we can see something positive come from it."
Practice today will show who have made the most progress since Bahrain. Almost every team has some modifications that have been in the pipeline since the season kicked off in Melbourne early in March, and the greatest focus has been on aerodynamic improvement for a circuit that requires relatively high downforce. However, both Honda and Renault have also introduced uprated engines, which will help them on the climb up to the Variante Alta chicane at the top of the circuit. Renault's Jarno Trulli estimates that their particular improvement could be worth more than a quarter of a second per lap.