New Ferrari set to challenge Renault supremacy
Renault face their sternest challenge of the new season as Ferrari bring forward the debut of their new F2005 in Bahrain this weekend.
The arrival of the new Ferrari is the biggest news of the third round of the FIA Formula One World Championship, and both Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello have been testing their new mount ever since their defeat in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Barrichello reported: It is an improvement in every area over the old car." Schumacher added: I can already say that it's a step forward and I am without a doubt satisfied. We are far enough along to be able to use the new car in Bahrain and I am looking forward to the premiere. The car is a big improvement.
However, a great deal will depend on the performance of their Bridgestone tyres, and whether the Japanese company can improve their rubber in comparison with that of their rivals Michelin following their disappointing showing in Malaysia.
Renault still start the race as favourites, after Fernando Alonsos dominant victory in Malaysia, but the understeer that afflicted Melbourne winner Giancarlo Fisichella there, and which ultimately led to the incident with Mark Webber for which he was given an official warning by the stewards, is a sign that Renault are not invincible.
The team are definitely on a high at the moment so we will go to Bahrain feeling very optimistic, but it is hard to be certain, cautioned Alonso. Michelin were very strong in high temperatures at Sepang, and even though the tyre energy is less in Bahrain, the heat will still make it very demanding, so I expect the tyres to be competitive. In terms of car performance, we have been the benchmark at the first two circuits, and I think this can continue - even though we were not very strong there last year.
The big question is over our competitors, because so far, different teams have been our rivals at each race. I still think McLaren are very strong, and Ferrari will have their new car by then, but to be honest, we will not be concentrating on the other teams: we know how we need to approach the weekend, and what areas we must focus on. If we do that well, then I am confident we will be running at the front again.
Malaysia also showed that Toyota are becoming a real threat, and the on-track performance of Mike Gascoynes TF105 drew favourable comment from those who watched it close-to and surprised rivals up and down the pit lane. On Malaysian form, the Japanese team could be a serious contender for victory.
McLaren, too, were in very strong form in the race in Sepang. Kimi Raikkonen was running a bigger first-stint fuel load than his rivals there, so his true pace did not show through in terms of track position following his rear tyre failure. But his speed in setting the fastest lap showed that the team are very strong. All they need is a trouble-free run throughout the weekend, and they should challenge Renault and Toyota strongly.
There is a cloud on the horizon, however, as Juan Pablo Montoya will not be racing following the shoulder injury he sustained in a tennis match with his personal trainer last Saturday morning. In his place the team have called up Pedro de la Rosa to take the race seat, and his Friday test role will be handled by the somewhat taller Alexander Wurz who can just fit into the tight MP4-20 chassis.
Williams will also be competitive in Bahrain. Both Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld drove excellent races in Malaysia, the German setting the races second fastest lap on his way to a podium finish. The FW27 has already benefited from aerodynamic revisions, and more are on the way. After Malaysia it transpired that Webber did the opening two races with a fractured rib, an injury sustained by a poor-fitting seat during winter testing. He will be fit again for this race, however.
At BAR the 007 is getting more competitive by the race, but following Jenson Buttons outburst after his three-lap Malaysian Grand Prix, the focus here will be on the longevity of the Honda V10 engine and its systems and installation. The team need a big result here to get back on track.
Takuma Sato expects to be fighting fit again after the viral infection that laid him low in Malaysia, and said: "After that unfortunate circumstance, I can't wait to get back into the car in Bahrain. Last year, at the same race, I had a strong weekend. I finished in the points in fifth position, and so I am really looking forward to going back there."
Elsewhere, Red Bull Racing and Sauber have further aerodynamic refinements on their cars, the former going for their third consecutive finish in the points, the latter still seeking their first score of the season. Jordan and Minardi will be largely unchanged.
Last year all of the teams went to Bahrain with only computer simulations to guide them in achieving an initial set-up for the Sakhir circuit. One year on they all have a pretty good idea what to expect so the lap times will almost certainly tumble.
As in Malaysia, the ambient and track temperatures are a major concern, and everyone will take precautions to prevent sand entering engine intakes, wheel bearings and suspension joints. This is particularly critical given the single-engine-for-two-race-weekends rule. Sakhir is a maximum downforce track under the current aerodynamic regulations, and while it does not impose any particularly high demands on engines there are some long sweepers where drivers have to brake during initial turn-in so consistent brakes and a good chassis set-up are important.
One of the better aspects of the track is that there is plenty of tarmac run-off area, so with a smaller potential penalty for errors drivers are encouraged to try overtaking manoeuvres.
The race promises to be a strong confrontation, then, but even if Ferrari do not turn the tables on their opposition, Schumacher remains upbeat. A lot is still going to happen in the remaining 16 races after Bahrain, he said. Things can change quickly, as we are seeing at the moment, and with some good work you can move up.