This weekend’s European Grand Prix around the Valencia harbour marks the start of a very important run of four races leading up to the summer break. Let’s make no bones about it, if these four races do not produce good results for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, then without any thought of throwing in the towel for the remaining races which are all worth trying to win, it will signal the end of the Maranello team’s championship title aspirations for 2011.
The current leaders of the championships have built up too big a points difference to be allowed free rein much longer. The European and Hungarian GPs open and close this quartet of races, but it is the two in between, in England and Germany that hold the key, because Silverstone and Nurburgring see a return to tracks where aerodynamics play a key role. How successful the Ferrari engineers have been in improving this aspect of the 150° Italia will shape the second half of the season with the many fast aero-dependent tracks still to come: an appropriate time therefore to speak to the Scuderia’s Chief Designer, Nikolas Tombazis. “We have made quite a lot of progress over the past few months and I believe that was visible in recent races and we hope that trend will continue,” began the Greek born engineer.
“How well these next few race go will decide whether or not we feel we are still in with a chance of fighting for the championships this year, even if we are quite a long way behind in the points.” From a technical perspective, there are reasons for Ferrari to be optimistic about the Valencia weekend. “We were able finally in Monaco and Canada to be serious contenders for the win, even though, in the end, the expected result did not come our way. We were competitive because of two factors; the first is the characteristics of those two circuits which suited our car, while the second factor is the previously mentioned development brought to the cars.
Both contributed to an improved performance in the last couple of races. I believe we can continue that trend in Valencia because the track there does have quite a few similarities with those at the two preceding rounds, particularly with Canada, as it has a long straight and some hard braking points and some medium speed corners, which we feel should suit our car reasonably well.”
Tombazis also revealed that the 150º Italia cars will sport again a redesigned rear suspension system in Valencia. “We tested it on Friday in Canada on Alonso’s car,” he said. “It was a positive test. The tyres, for us and for most of the teams, are still fairly new and we are still learning about them and that suspension package was an attempt to better suit our car to the Pirelli tyres. The test in Canada went quite well and it was just an experimental trial run to verify if our simulation results were correct or not. We now plan to introduce that more extensively in the next few races.”
On the subject of tyres, all the teams will be facing an additional unknown factor this weekend, in that Pirelli is bringing it’s updated Medium compound tyre, only tested on Friday in Montreal, for the first time this season. Even though teams had a chance to assess it during winter testing, even running it not far away in Cheste, the increase in temperature from the cold of February to what is expected to be one of the warmest weekends of the season so far, means the tyres will behave very differently. The new tyre will be run as the Prime, while the Soft, used at every race so far this year, will be the Option.
The venue for the European Grand Prix is effectively the third consecutive street circuit on the calendar, after the classic Monaco and the faster Montreal. As the cars drive round the harbour side they find themselves on a circuit that is faster than the one in the Principality and slower than the Canadian one, while still sharing many elements in common. Therefore, everything should be in place for a competitive weekend for the Prancing Horse.
Past form is also encouraging as Felipe Massa won here from pole position the first time the F1 circus pitched its tent in Valencia in 2008. This year, the European Grand Prix reaches maturity with its twenty first running, although it has taken longer than twenty one years to reach that distinction as it has been an erratic fixture on the calendar since 1983, when Nelson Piquet won in a Brabham at Brands Hatch. Apart from Felipe’s victory, the Scuderia has won the European event five times, while Fernando Alonso won twice, in 2005 with Renault and 2007 with McLaren, both victories coming at the Nurburgring, the circuit that has hosted the most European races.
If Valencia looks good for the team, the bigger question is can Ferrari return to being competitive on tracks where once again, aerodynamic efficiency is much more important, starting with the British Grand Prix at Silverstone? “This type of track is one where we have been weak in the past, as could be seen particularly in Barcelona this year, where we were not at all competitive,” admits Tombazis. “Therefore, in Silverstone we will introduce quite an extensive new package, with many changes and this should improve the car quite considerably, making us more competitive. I hope this will be comprehensive enough to see us fighting for the win, but this is something we must wait to see once we get there.”
All the work currently being carried out behind the gates at Maranello is taking place under the new regime since the structure of the Gestione Sportiva technical department was changed. Tombazis senses a spirit of determination within its walls. “It’s true that a lot of people in this sport feel it is the centre of the world and everything revolves around Formula 1.
However, one should not live in a bubble and, for example, my home country Greece is going through an extremely hard and critical period right now and has to get out of an immense crisis. And, in spite the obvious differences, I can see an analogy with that situation and motor racing, because in both cases, the way forward is to remain united. Within Ferrari, I feel everyone is very motivated at the moment and is working very hard.
All over the world there are a lot of Ferrari fans who are disappointed at not seeing us leading the championship or winning races. We are extremely determined to make up for that, while inside the team, every single person is also unhappy that we are not winning. The spirit of the last few weeks is one of extreme determination.”