Ferrari still untouchable, despite growing Honda threat
Qualifying in San Marino clearly demonstrated that the BAR threat is growing. Jenson Button did, after all, put enough pressure on Ferrari for Michael Schumacher to make a driving error. But the race proved conclusively that the red cars are still in a different league. Ferrari know it, and Button himself was the first to admit it.
"I just think they are a long way in front of anyone at the moment. Michael was 27s in front of me before he started slowing down. It is a huge gap considering I was leading for the first nine laps of the race. If I knew the reasons why they were so fast we would work on it, but it is very difficult to understand why we are quite a long way off them."
But while Button was acknowledging Ferrari's superiority, Juan Pablo Montoya was busily doing the same about BAR. "I couldn't believe the first lap," he said of Button's pace. "He was like on rails. He was unbelievable. I knew what pace we could do and we did it. We were a bit surprised by their pace, really. There's nothing we can do, the car's just not quick enough."
Yet Button had admitted that, following the heavy rain overnight, the level of grip on the track had been very low on that opening lap.
"There's got to be some light at the end of the tunnel," Montoya continued, adding: "either this year or next year or whenever. At the moment we don't have anything. The car is not quick enough. In qualifying it manages to get a good lap but in the race we just we can be quick sometimes but it is just miles off."
Tellingly, while Schumacher and Button set the fastest two laps, the Renaults were next before Ralf Schumacher and Montoya took fifth and sixth respectively. Michael did 1m 20.411s on lap 10; Button 1m 21.201s on lap 28; Alonso 1m 21.650s on 59; Trulli 1m 21.666s on 11; Ralf 1m 21.689s on 30 and Montoya 1m 21.870s on 27. Rubens Barrichello was seventh fastest on 1m 21.873s on lap 31, and the final runner in the 21s was Takuma Sato with 1m 21.929s on lap 44. Some food for thought there.
Nor was Montoya finished. "It is a little bit of everything, to be honest. We are down on power and we are down on downforce as well. We are a bit like best of the rest apart from that BAR have now overtaken us. We need to find a way to come back a little bit."
BMW, down on power? Ever since the Munich manufacturer came back to Formula One in 2000, such talk would be heresy, but now with Ferrari pushing hard and Honda working the way it did when V10 designer Takeo Kiuchi was first on the team in the Eighties and Nineties, it might just be possible.
Further back, McLaren had cause for cautious optimism, though a team used to winning races and championships would probably not see it that way. Both cars finished the race, and a two-stop strategy and a fresh engine helped Kimi Raikkonen to claim the final point. Coulthard should have been there too, but for his first-lap kafuffle.
Sauber, too, made a big improvement that took its race pace beyond that of Toyota and Jaguar and right into McLaren territory. This was due to new aero parts from the new wind tunnel in Hinwil, plus the power-steering first used (without fanfare) in Bahrain. The team were very happy to be on McLaren's pace. Now what they have to do is get to a problem with lack of grip on the first lap or two on new tyres.
Of the rest, nobody had anything to crow about. Jaguar's challenge was thwarted by an unusual misfire that left Mark Webber uncertain whether he would 100 bhp more or 100 bhp less at any particular corner, and the revised Toyotas showed no improvement in race trim after qualifying ion light fuel loads. Cristiano da Matta was the first to refuel, on lap seven. Testing had helped Giorgio Pantano to get to grips with his Jordan, however, before a hydraulic steering problem sent him off the road after six laps when he was running an excellent 13th ahead of luminaries such as Fisichella, Raikkonen, Klien and Heidfeld.
Ferrari extended their score to 64 points, more than double next best Renault's 31. But eight points apiece from Imola leave BAR and Williams neck-and-neck on 27. Then there is a bit of a gap to McLaren, on five.