'We know where we stand, and we're confident'
Pat Symonds believes Michael Schumachers poor record in Shanghai could play to Renaults advantage at this weekends Chinese Grand Prix. The teams Director of Engineering also feels Fernando Alonso will cope better with the pressure than the Ferrari star, who, having announced his retirement, knows this is his last chance to win one more drivers title
Q: Pat, the question on everybody's lips ahead of this race is whether Shanghai will be a Renault track' or a Ferrari track'. What is your opinion?
Pat Symonds: As always, performance has to be looked at in relative terms. Shanghai is a good circuit for Renault, and we had a fabulous race there in 2005 when we dominated the Grand Prix and won the constructors' championship. But what may be more significant is that Michael Schumacher had two poor races there in 2004 and 2005. That trend could continue this year.
Q: Renault are now second in the constructors' championship to Ferrari. Would you say the team is on the back foot?
PS: I don't think so. The team has had a tough month: we threw away a win in Hungary, and events transpired against us in Monza. But had Fernando (Alonso) started from his correct grid position in Italy, we know he would have been fighting for the race win. Some people seem to think Renault is a spent force in this championship. That is far from the case.
Q: But surely the momentum is with Ferrari at the moment?
PS: In some senses, I think it is true. We learned last year that momentum and psychological advantage are important, when we struck a decisive blow with our run of wins at the start of the championship. But the other thing I remember is the team's response to losing the lead of the constructors' championship in Brazil. Losing the lead merely redoubled our resolve to get it back, and we did so in style. That was probably the most satisfying aspect of last season, and the attitude now is OK, let's do it again'. This team has the virtue of being very honest with itself. We know where we stand in terms of performance, and we are feeling confident.
Q: The team experienced a turbulent weekend in Monza. What impact will it have on this weekend's race?
PS: It is a completely closed chapter. I think you have to be fatalistic when evaluating these things. The fact is that Fernando's engine failed, and cost us the points. Had he been leading or in P22, that failure would have happened at the same point of the race. Our focus has been on fixing that problem, and getting on with the job. The events of the weekend were unfortunate, but made no difference to the final result. So we have to draw a line under it, and start again.
Q: That engine failure was the team's first in 2006. What has been done to ensure it doesn't recur?
PS: We have identified the weakness that caused the failure, and taken preventive measures. The engines we will run in China represent a performance gain over the units from Monza, both in terms of power and driveability.
Q: It has often been said that 2006 has been a tyre championship'. Michelin seemed to have made big gains in Monza. Has this been reflected in testing since then?
PS: They have continued to move forward, yes. We are very happy with our preparations for the final three races, and we have made progress on both the compounds and constructions. We found some very interesting improvements in Jerez and at Silverstone last week, and Michelin are pushing hard.
Q: With both championships so delicately poised, how much is the team under pressure?
PS: There is plenty of pressure, and there's no point denying it. We do not have any margin for error in these three races, but that also makes our job a lot simpler. The only option is to race aggressively. Second places are no good at this stage of the season. And the same is true for Ferrari.
Q: You have worked with both championship contenders. Can you separate Fernando and Michael on any level?
PS: It goes without saying that they are both fabulous drivers and formidable competitors, but I truly do believe that Fernando handles pressure better than Michael. Throughout his career, there have been many instances of Michael not performing to his potential when he has been under pressure. And I think the pressure for him is greater than ever in these last three races. Previously, he always had the safety net of trying again next year, if he didn't win. There is no next year' for him now!
Q: Both championships are in the balance with three races remaining; in many ways, it's a dream scenario for fans of the sport. How would you describe the mood in the team at the moment?
PS: I think it is determined, optimistic and excited. We have a very clear target that we are working towards, but we will be out there to enjoy these final races, and to go for it. It has been a classic Formula One season, and it is going down to the wire with a classic battle. It is great to be part of that.