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San Marino Grand Prix preview 21 Apr 2005

Jenson Button (GBR) BAR Honda 007.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Bahrain Grand Prix, First Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 2 April 2005 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Ferrari F2005. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 7-8 April 2005. World © McNeil/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R25. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 7-8 April 2005. World © McNeil/Sutton Christijan Albers (NDL) shakes down the new Minardi Cosworth PS05 at its first test. Minardi Cosworth PS05 First Test, Mugello, Italy, 15 April 2005. World © Minardi Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren Mercedes MP4/20.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Bahrain Grand Prix, First Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 2 April 2005

Renault face mounting challenges from BAR, Ferrari, Toyota, McLaren and Williams as the Formula One teams return to Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola this weekend.

It is sometimes tempting to suggest that the world championship only really gets underway as it comes back to Europe, but this is misleading. Renault’s three imperious victories in the opening races were certainly very serious and they remain the team to beat as Fernando Alonso looks to protect his points lead and Giancarlo Fisichella seeks a second victory, this time on home ground.

However, other teams have pushed into the limelight in recent tests. In both Barcelona and Paul Ricard BAR demonstrated considerable progress, with Jenson Button setting a new unofficial lap record in Spain and Takuma Sato doing likewise in France. Understandably the Anglo-Japanese team are very optimistic about their forthcoming weekend as they seek to get their championship challenge underway on the track where Button took pole position and second place last year.

"After very successful tests of our new aerodynamic package at Barcelona and Paul Ricard, we are looking forward to the first round of the European season,” says technical director Geoffrey Willis. “We had a very good race weekend here in 2004 and we expect the car to perform well again over the kerbs, which is important at this circuit.”

This will also be a major weekend for Ferrari and Bridgestone. They have been testing assiduously, in Spain and at Mugello, Fiorano and Monza, and the world champions are feeling a lot happier than they were in Bahrain. One of the potentially critical factors this weekend will be much lower ambient and track temperatures than we saw in Malaysia and Bahrain, and slightly lower than we saw in Melbourne. Michelin won all three races, but it remains to be seen what effect the temperature drop has on Bridgestone’s performance, in conjunction with the development work that they have been doing. Since Imola is not hard on tyres, both manufacturers can be expected to bring along even softer compounds than they had in the previous races.

Toyota have been hard at work, and in common with every other team will have a revised aerodynamic package to maximise downforce. The good things have already started for Jarno Trulli as he faces his first ‘home’ race of the season; besides his second place in the world championship standings, he and his wife Barbara are celebrating the birth of their first child. Named Enzo after Jarno’s grandfather, he had been expected to arrive after the race but was born while they were on holiday in Pescara, where Trulli himself was born.

With former Imola winner Ralf Schumacher in the second TF105, Toyota have high hopes of defending their second place in the constructors’ table. Technical director Mike Gascoyne says: "Kerb riding is an important factor at Imola. This has been a weak point for Toyota in the past but with the progress we have made this year and the improved handling of the TF105, I don't think it will be such a problem this weekend. Imola's cooler track temperatures will also make a massive change from the extreme heat we have faced at the last two rounds in Malaysia and Bahrain. In order to prepare we spent the last week testing at Paul Ricard to establish just how our Michelin tyres will behave in those temperatures and to make our final tyre choice for the race weekend. Overall, I see no reason why Toyota's newfound success cannot continue and we should aim for more points."

Over at McLaren Juan Pablo Montoya also recently became a father, but the Colombian won’t be racing again due to his shoulder injury. In his place this time will be Alexander Wurz, who has a special chassis to accommodate his lanky frame. Bahrain sensation Pedro de la Rosa will again take over Friday test duties.

“I am really happy to have the opportunity to race MP4/20,” says Wurz, who last raced, for Benetton, in 2000 before joining McLaren as test driver. “Since then I have completed over 70,000 testing kilometres and it will be great to have the chance to actually race a McLaren.”

Williams, Red Bull and Sauber all have revised aerodynamics. At Red Bull there will also be a change of driver as Vitantonio Liuzzi gets the first of his scheduled three races in place of Christian Klien. Thanks to Red Bull’s lobbying for a relaxation of the limitations on Friday test drivers, Austrian Klien gets that role for Imola, Spain and Monaco.

“This weekend will be awesome and I am very excited about driving my first grand prix in Italy,” Liuzzi says. “It will be unbelievable and it will be good to have the support of the crowd, as my home town is only a couple of hours drive away. I don't feel stressed or under pressure, because Red Bull Racing has always shown confidence and belief in me, and in Christian. I feel excited about my GP debut but I'm quite relaxed. The fact that I won here in F3000 last year is another reason to be in a positive frame of mind.”

Jordan have been testing since Bahrain, but their news is the acquisition by Midland Racing of the Jordan Grand Prix wind tunnel in Brackley, which sporting director Trevor Carlin describes as “a crucial addition to our technical department.”

The other big news of the weekend will be the arrival of Minardi’s first all-new car for several seasons, the long-awaited PS05. Both Patrick Friesacher and Christijan Albers will have one at their disposal.

Renault go into the race still favourites, and Alonso sounded words of warning. “I am enjoying the moment,” he says of being the first Spaniard ever to lead the world championship. “I have the best opportunity of my career to be in a winning car, and celebrate each victory. When we talk about the championship, we should not do it based on the first three races - it is the last three or four races of the season that will be the important ones I think.

“But having said that, I prefer to take the points now and build a strong position from the start. We know it will be a long year, so I just want to continue enjoying myself, and keep working as hard as I can. So far, the R25 has been competitive on all the types of circuit we have visited; I expect it will continue in San Marino.”

His rivals can only hope he is wrong.