Suddenly Renault look to have a fight on their hands
The pressure on Ferrari was massive going into the Imola weekend, and the team delivered in a style that suggests they will be competitive for the remainder of the season.
Running Bridgestones medium compound tyres, Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa were fast in qualifying, and during the first stint of the race. It was in the second stint that Schumacher reported that he lost pace because of a graining problem, and his average lap time fell to 1m 27s. After his final stop, however, this picked up to 1m 25s and he was able to control the race to the flag. Massa, too reported problems in his second stint, but pushed hard all the way to fourth place to give the Italian team their best result of the season.
It is now clear that Ferrari have made big steps in both performance and reliability, though interestingly Schumachers car had most of its fuel system replaced prior to the race because of a fuel pressure problem.
This was a good and a bad weekend for Renault. They lost Giancarlo Fisichella after the second qualifying session, due to the luck of the game, and he thus had to go with a high fuel load strategy from 11th on the grid. They took some front wing off his R26 in his first stop, and after that the car ran a lot better, but in the circumstances, eighth place was probably the best he could have hoped for.
Alonso could hardly be unhappy to garner another eight points, and he is smart enough to appreciate that he cannot win every race. There were many different factors behind Ferraris win and Renaults first defeat of the season, but though the red car was, according to the Spaniard, unbelievable on the straight, it was the Renault that took the fastest lap with 1m 24.569s to Schumachers 1m 24.624s.
Third and fifth places for McLaren were, on the face of it, positive results, particularly as Juan Pablo Montoya said he was cruising with the engine turned down in the latter stages while being chased by Massa. But their lap times were half a second off Alonsos and Schumachers, on a track where Raikkonen and the MP4-20 simply left their opposition for dead in the 2005 race until a driveshaft broke. Raikkonen got boxed in with his heavy fuel load at the start, and never really liked the way his car handled for the first part of the race. It got better after the first stop, but by then his chance of challenging Massa for fourth had gone and he had to chase him home. Montoya had a heavier fuel load still, and also lost out at the start, and lost further time in traffic. After that two good pit stops helped, and he actually led the 43rd and 44th laps before making his final pit stop. Like Ferrari, McLaren have done a great deal of work of late, but it has yet to bear the same fruit.
Mark Webber was in the fight for points all afternoon, having opted for a heavy fuel load just as he did in Melbourne. This time the strategy paid off for Williams as the Australian enjoyed a trouble-free run. That was the biggest boost, the fact that the reliability was good enough to get both cars home - Nico Rosberg bringing his in 11th. Interestingly, both drivers chose the soft compound Bridgestones, and neither reported any durability problems.
After qualifying second and third Honda went into the race full of hope, but it was soon clear (as early as lap 14 in Rubens Barrichellos case) that that performance had its roots in low fuel loads. A combination of coming in so soon, and a delay with a faulty refuelling hose nozzle, left the Brazilian struggling in the midfield with others who did not stop until much later. With his race already compromised, he also lost speed due to a continual locking of the rear brakes when he was running new tyres.
Jenson Buttons race was even more disappointing. If Barrichello lost the chance of a top six placing, Button should have been on the podium. First there was a delay at his first stop, on lap 15, due to a rear wheel not going on smoothly, and then came the incident with the sticking fuel nozzle and the lollipop signalling at his second, on lap 30.
Underlying all this, the team felt they had made genuine progress with their race pace, which made their pit lane problems all the more frustrating.
Toyota opted for the hard compound Bridgestones and a three-stop strategy for Ralf Schumacher. As a result he was able to run with the leaders early on, but was hurt by the safety car deployment at the start and then by traffic situations. Later a lack of grip affected his pace, possibly due to the choice of compound. Jarno Trullis race lasted only five laps before the unhappy Italian had to retire due to a problem with the steering column.
BMW Sauber left Imola with disappointment on their corporate face, following the promise shown in Melbourne. Everyone had expected a better level of performance, but Nick Heidfeld in particular complained of lack of grip in the first stint, though a change of front wing angle and tyre pressures alleviated the problem slightly thereafter. It was not enough to help him to anything better than his 13th place finish, behind team mate Jacques Villeneuve. The latter had problems twice with sticking wheelnuts during his pit stops, but that was just further aggravation to add to the lack of pace. It was only at the end that he could turn some decent laps. The team hope that a new engine specification will improve things at the Nurburgring next time out.
After the early season promise shown by the RB2, Red Bull had an extremely disappointing race. David Coulthard ran around 11th place most of the afternoon, without ever looking threatening, and dropped out after 47 laps with a broken driveshaft. Christian Klien struggled to stay with his Toro Rosso partners, and was sidelined after 41 laps with a hydraulic problem.
If Red Bull were disappointed, at least Toro Rosso got both of their cars home. But though the balance of the STR1 was fine, Vitantonio Liuzzi had a brake problem that led to his spin on the fifth lap. However, the lap times were good; Liuzzis fastest time of 1m 25.679s put him in McLaren, Toyota, Honda, Williams and BMW Sauber territory, with Massas Ferrari and Fisichellas Renault.
There was good and bad news for Midland. The bad came early with Christijan Albers nasty-looking barrel roll courtesy of Yuji Ide on the opening lap. The Dutchman was unhurt and emerged with a thumb raised to the crowd, but the M16 was a mess. Altogether, a weekend which had started on a bright note for the team turned bad from qualifying onwards when a software problem affected the engines power in Albers car. Tiago Monteiro brought his car home 16th.
Super Aguri have one of the best reliability records for the first part of the season, but that took a knock at Imola. The team expected to struggle there, and they did. Ide did himself no favours with his move on Albers, and was arguably lucky to escape with an official reprimand from the stewards. After pitting at the end of the first lap for repairs to the front suspension, he rejoined the race several laps in arrears before spinning off at the Variante Alta chicane due to a rear suspension breakage on his 24th lap. Takuma Sato did not finish either; he spun in Turn 15 on the 45th lap and could not continue.
In the tyre war, the stakes were pretty even. The general consensus is that both Bridgestone and Michelin had strong, durable rubber, and that there was nothing to choose between them.
The fact that Ferrari won brings the 2006 championship alive, and we can look forward to top-level racing between Renault and Ferrari, not to mention McLaren and Honda when they get their cars fully honed.