And promises Renault will be racing aggressively to the end
Almost two-thirds of the way into the 2006 Formula One season and Renault lead the constructors championship by 21 points. However, closest rivals Ferrari have beaten them in the last two races and the imminent summer testing ban means limited development opportunities until the end of August. Nevertheless, Renaults Director of Engineering Pat Symonds insists there is no chance of his team going on the defensive
Q: If we compare 2006 to 2005, you were in a similar position at this stage of the year, leading both championships. What are the differences 12 months on?
Pat Symonds: The strategy we have to adopt this year is totally different. Last year, our rivals had a speed advantage and their Achilles heel was reliability. We were on the same tyres, which meant it would be hard to race them - so we went conservative to benefit from their reliability problems. This year, Ferrari are on different tyres to us, so their performance is not in synch with ours. What's more, they have had bloody good reliability. As a team, we have improved our performance in every area, scored more points and finished more races. But that isn't enough this year, we have to develop aggressively and race aggressively too - which is a much more fun way of going racing. In retrospect, 2005 seems almost boring in comparison!
Q: Tyres seem to be the talking point of the 2006 season. Why have they seemingly taken on such importance during this championship in particular?
PS: Tyres always were a dominant performance factor, and always will be. But in 2006, we have two teams, Renault and Ferrari, with their cars at a very similar level - and each of them is on a different tyre. Added to this is the fact that tyres play a bigger role in total performance than any other factor. For example, in France, a 5 percent increase in downforce would bring around 0.3s per lap; a 5 percent increase in tyre performance would bring more than a second a lap. When this characteristic is coupled with the apparently equality between the leading teams, then tyre performance becomes the keynote of the championship.
Q: You have said repeatedly that this season is unfolding race by race - not according to sweeping general trends. Why?
PS: It is because the balance of performance is so fine - and can swing either way on small details. In France, we raced aggressively and before the race, we hoped that Ferrari's tyre would not hang on - indeed, they themselves were worried that it would not. But it did, so we had to get the maximum possible from the weekend, which was second position. That might have been a form of damage limitation, but it shows how fine the balance is this year and how quickly it can swing. You have to think carefully for each event, prepare thoroughly - and then react as it unfolds. There are no certainties in this 2006 championship, and that's why we will be going to Hockenheim aiming to win.
Q: So in your opinion, the fact that Ferrari has won the last two races - and the last one in hot temperatures - in not a trend that will automatically continue through the summer?
PS: I don't think there is any evidence either way, that's the real point. Magny-Cours is a circuit with some strange characteristics, and what works there doesn't necessarily work elsewhere. That's not to say it is not the case either, but there's no evidence for it. And people sometimes have short memories - after all, Michelin dominated in Canada where track temperatures were at 48° Celsius.
Q: In terms of Renault's partnership with Michelin, is development still moving ahead quickly?
PS: Absolutely. As we began 2006, it was clear that Michelin had only one thing in mind: retaining their world championship. They are putting in that little bit extra in every area, and if anything, the fact they are leaving F1 at the end of the year has only made them more determined to leave as champions.
Q: Renault will introduce a significant performance update in Germany. Will that pay off not just at this race, but all the way through the summer with the testing ban in force?
PS: I think we have to take things race by race, testing ban or no testing ban. There is nothing to support the argument that because we are quick at the start of August, we will be at the end. The three circuits and the tyres we use there will be very different. And we can still put aero updates on the cars without track testing, make some engine improvements, and run the cars on static testing rigs. History doesn't suggest that relative performance remains stable in August, so while our update in Hockenheim is an important one, we won't be resting on our laurels in Hungary and Turkey.
Q: What can you tell us about the work being done by the team's three drivers?
PS: Fernando (Alonso) has done a fantastic job so far this year. He may be leaving the team at the end of the season, but his relationship is unchanged. He has done extra testing for us, he is working hard, and I think he attaches real importance to the idea of winning a second title in a row. Giancarlo (Fisichella) has a pivotal role to play in the outcome of the constructors' championship. That title is going to go down to the wire, and Fisi needs to be there at every race stealing points off Ferrari. His contribution will be fundamental in the next months. And of course, Heikki (Kovalainen) has played an important role in our success. He has done a super job in testing. As engineers, we know that he is taking the car to the limit, giving good feedback - and giving directions the race drivers agree with. We haven't got a bad word to say about him.
Q: How important would it be to this Renault team, to win a second consecutive championship?
PS: I have always said that winning a second title is a mark of real class in any racing organisation. Any championship win is relative, and some titles are easier than others. But to win two in a row almost inevitably means you have dealt with different levels of competitiveness, and adapted to them. That shows the integrity of any team. For me, that would be the real significance of a title win this year.
Q: Clearly, you believe Renault will prevail in the battle. Why?
PS: It's the depth of this team that makes me confident. The attention to detail, the ability to think ahead, to think laterally, to adapt. There are so many characters contributing so much to the effort, at the track, in the wind tunnel, on the dyno, in manufacturing, logistics, design and many more areas; what's more, each of these sectors has great depth. That is what will help us win in the end, and not just this year but in seasons to come as well
Q: Finally, taking things race by race, where will the competition be coming from in Hockenheim?
PS: I am expecting a four-way battle between Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Toyota. We saw in France that Toyota are right up there, and we know that McLaren are on the pace. No question, it's going to be a hard, hot weekend in Hockenheim. But we go there confident, determined to be aggressive. It's just the kind of challenge everybody at Renault enjoys.