The San Marino Grand Prix Preview 20 Apr 2006
Michael Schumacher says that Ferraris campaign for the season will really get under way at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola this weekend, with the San Marino Grand Prix. The Scuderia have been testing assiduously, and have some significant upgrades on the 248 F1 and some new tyres from Bridgestone which Schumacher hopes will put the red cars back on par with Renault and McLaren.
It is always crucial, of course, for Ferrari to shine on home soil and to satisfy the demands of the tifosi for success, and there is mounting pressure on the Italian team to win a race, having not done so since Indianapolis in June 2005.
Schumacher elected to forego a break and to test for two days in Vallelunga last week, which was chosen because it is quite similar in character to Imola. The former champion made no bones about the challenge Ferrari face.
"We absolutely must win at Imola," he said. "The car is strong, but we have not been in a position to demonstrate that.
Interestingly, Fernando Alonso, who won so narrowly at Imola from Schumacher last year, believes that his main opposition will come from the Ferraris.
We have very strong opposition this year, the reigning champion says. Ferrari, McLaren and Honda are all good enough to win races, and we need to work hard if we want to beat them. Ferrari and McLaren will be our main opponents. Ferrari dropped down in the last two races, but I think they will be back. Their tyres work well at this circuit, and it is their home Grand Prix, so I expect them to be extremely competitive.
The key factor now that we are in Europe will be development of the cars. We are in a strong situation, and we know that the team that develops most, with a strong finish to the year, will probably be champions. The drivers have a role too, because we need to tell the engineers where the car has to improve, which is what we are doing at the moment.
Alonso has fond memories of his dramatic victory at Imola last year, which proved once and for all that he can take on Schumacher. It became maybe the most talked-about win of my career so far, I think. For me, it was a win like the others - a special achievement. But when you are fighting with Michael, then I think the media talk about it in a special way, and make it something bigger. I enjoyed the final laps, and it was an important race to win. But if I can do it again this year, on my own, a long way in front, then that's even better!
The three-week break since Melbourne has enabled the race teams to catch their breath while the test teams have been busy. McLaren went to Paul Ricard and Barcelona, Honda to Vallelunga and Paul Ricard. The former have aerodynamic developments on the MP4-21, the latter have similar modifications as well as a more powerful engine, and also worked on their problem generating sufficient heat in their Michelin tyres. As a result, they are optimistic that they can start to realise more of the RA106's qualifying speed in the race.
"I've always really enjoyed racing in Imola, says Jenson Button, who was on pole there in 2004. The track has a mixture of different types of corners and a few chicanes and is quite challenging for the drivers. There's always a fun atmosphere and it's a track where I have great memories. In 2004 I qualified in pole position here which was my first pole in F1 and finished the race in second place. It's good to be back in Europe following the first three races where we were able to achieve a podium position and some points. Obviously we were extremely disappointed with our performance in Australia, however we have made good progress in testing and I am confident we will be competitive in Imola. Hopefully it should be a good weekend for us."
BMW have aero and engine modifications and, like Bridgestone runners Williams and Toyota (who were quick in Barcelona), they exude quiet confidence. Red Bull have also done a lot of running, with their own team and Toro Rosso, and believe that they have further honed both the RB2 and the STR1. Midland confined themselves to a test at Silverstone, one day of which focused on start-line launches, while Super Aguri did more running in Barcelona but did not quite complete their tests due to hydraulic problems. These kept rookie Yuji Ide out of the car, and compromised his learning process. The team have admitted that the young Japanese racer is effectively on probation this weekend, when he will be expected to show pace closer to team mate Takuma Satos.
Besides being hard on engines and brakes, Imola is also hard on chassis as the secret to a fast lap time is to hammer the car over the high kerbs. As Alonso says, It is very difficult for the drivers, with the chicanes and the kerbs, and the car bumping over them. That makes it hard for us to take the same line twice in any corner, and every lap you have to feel things a little bit differently. It is tough physically, but also for the car because there is a lot of stress over the kerbs. This is a hard race to finish.
Another challenge Alonso will have to face is that of his team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, who thanks to his race retirement in Bahrain, will have the benefit of Renaults new B-spec RS26 V8 for his home race. Alonso will have to wait until the next round for the update.