The curtain goes up on the 2004 Formula 1 World Championship this weekend in Melbourne and it's always an exciting moment as all ten teams come together for the first time since the Japanese GP last October. For one member of Scuderia Ferrari ...
The curtain goes up on the 2004 Formula 1 World Championship this weekend in Melbourne and it's always an exciting moment as all ten teams come together for the first time since the Japanese GP last October. For one member of Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, the Australian Grand Prix has an extra special significance. Michael Schumacher's race engineer, Chris Dyer is Australian and he and his wife's families live in the Melbourne area. "It's a mixed blessing, because the first race is quite hectic, especially this year as we are taking the new car," says Dyer. "So I don't get much time to meet up with family and friends."
The Albert Park Circuit is a temporary track, using roads that run through the park. It is a popular venue with the F1 fraternity and presents some interesting technical challenges, as Dyer explains. "To sum it up, it is a maximum downforce circuit, although new rules introduced this year to restrict aerodynamics means that the majority of circuits could be described as maximum downforce from now on. Brakes can pose a few questions here, as Melbourne can throw up some surprises in terms of brake cooling and wear. We have done plenty of winter testing at Fiorano and Imola, two circuits which are fairly hard on brakes, so we can be reasonably confident of not encountering any problems in this area at the first race. Contrary to popular belief, the ambient temperature has a very small effect on the brakes as they normally operate at between 600 and 1000 degrees."
It's not just the drivers and teams who will be resuming battle in Melbourne, as the tyre war between Ferrari partner Bridgestone and its rival will be a key feature of this year's championship. Dyer goes on to explain the particular demands of Albert Park when it comes to those all-important contact patches between car and tarmac. "On the tyre front, Melbourne requires what we consider a 'medium' compound range as there is a potential for high track temperatures in Australia," he reveals. "Most of the corners are relatively slow speed, but there are a couple of quick corners and combined with the braking, which also puts a strain on tyres, it is definitely not a 'soft tyre' circuit."
Like all temporary circuits, the track tends to be a bit 'green' on Friday, but it soon picks up grip as the cars put rubber down over the course of the weekend. One unusual feature peculiar to this circuit occurs because the grand prix takes place at the end of the Australian summer and there are trees lining the track. "There are plenty of leaves blowing around and we have to ensure these do not get sucked into the radiator ducts and cause cooling problems for the engine," says the Australian engineer.
From the Scuderia's point of view the start of the 2004 season presents another interesting challenge: this will be the first time in three years that Ferrari has used the current model year car for the opening race and, although this was a carefully planned decision, it can lead to a higher work load over the race weekend.
"A new car generally means more work, as we have less experience with it, so some jobs can take longer as we learn the best way of working with it," concedes Dyer. "That can lead to a few late nights in the garage. This generates extra pressure on the mechanics. From a race engineer's point of view, we don't have a full year's experience of setting up the car and understanding how it reacts to different track conditions, tyre conditions and the weather. We might have to think about things more deeply, as we do not yet have the knowledge that making a certain change to the set-up produces a certain reaction in the way it handles."
"There are so many parameters on the car that can be tuned that we have to analyse which is the best course of action to take to fix a particular set of circumstances. For example, there are many different ways of dealing with oversteer or understeer and we are still learning which solution produces the best performance from the F2004."
Nothing has been left to chance and while Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello have worked hard on their fitness and getting to grips with the F2004 over the winter, the team has also been gearing up for the season. "I believe we are well prepared in terms of running the car and of coping with the new regulations," maintains Dyer. "The mechanics have been away from racing for about four months now, but they have all been fully briefed and of course they have practiced pit-stops with the new car, as there are very small differences that can arise, switching from one year's car to the next. They also have been involved in winter testing to learn how to carry out various procedures on the new car."
"But there is nothing like a race weekend with several practice and qualifying sessions to sharpen everyone's reactions. They have also been prepared for the change to the qualifying procedure which means that one session immediately follows another and we have studied the various scenarios involved in this. In fact, the time needed to get ready for the second session should be similar to the time we had last year in between the warm-up and qualifying."
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's winter testing has been extensive and produced positive results, but as Gestione Sportiva Managing Director Jean Todt has pointed out: "We will not know what the real pecking order is between the teams until we are all on track in Melbourne." It looks like being a fascinating weekend.