After the early long haul flights and the novelty of Bahrain, Formula One is now back on familiar ground in Europe, where the action kicks off in San Marino. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari has been host to the F1 championship since 1981 but its...
After the early long haul flights and the novelty of Bahrain, Formula One is now back on familiar ground in Europe, where the action kicks off in San Marino. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari has been host to the F1 championship since 1981 but its future on the calendar is uncertain after this year. Bernie Ecclestone wants to see the circuit undergo a costly upgrade and Imola has appealed to the Italian government for funding.
The anti-clockwise track is just under 5km and has medium to high-speed corners. The kerbs are harsh on the cars and between flat-out straights are more than a few chicanes, so traction and brakes are important for the stop-and-go nature of the circuit. There are several uphill sections and the downforce requirement is quite high, so it's challenging for the engines.
Mechanical reliability is just as important -- Imola is something of a car-breaker. According to Renault's Pat Symonds, 62% of all the retirements in the last three years have been engine or transmission related. The track surface is fairly smooth so tyre compounds are likely to be in the mid to soft range. After the heat of Malaysia and Bahrain, San Marino will be a much cooler climate and weather conditions will play their part. With its short pit lane, Imola lends itself to a three-stop strategy.
Last year Michael Schumacher took a home win for Ferrari and remarkably it was his first victory of the season. There were six retirements, four of which were engine related. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen came home second, Rubens Barrichello third and Williams had both cars in the points. It was a fairly sedate event, although the pit stop strategies added some interest.
Ferrari's form in the first three races of 2004 has been ominous. However, the big picture often changes when racing comes to Europe. This is not to say that somebody will suddenly trounce the Scuderia, but in the next few events things should even out a bit. Imola is traditionally when teams start to introduce engine and aerodynamic developments so there will likely be some improvements.
There certainly needs to be some improvements. If Ferrari did not exist, the state of play would be very unpredictable. Williams, Renault and BAR are all on a comparable performance level, while McLaren is also capable of the pace when it's not exploding or breaking down. But Ferrari's achievements so far this year have set a very high benchmark that will take an awful lot of hard work to emulate. And of course, the Maranello squad will not be resting on its laurels.
"Even at Ferrari there is a lot that we can still improve," said Schumacher. "The European stages begin now and it is from here on that teams develop more consistency. We certainly can't relax in a period like this."
Renault may not have had the most spectacular of results so far but it's had consistency. The team is second to Ferrari in the constructors' standings, while drivers Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli are tied on points in the drivers'. Renault will introduce a new B-spec RS24 engine this weekend.
"Reliability obviously remains our main priority and in that respect, the recent tests at Barcelona and Le Castellet have been particularly useful for ironing out minor gremlins with the new engine," said engine technical director Rob White. "The performance of the unit has been very pleasing, and it is worth several tenths per lap relative to the previous specification, confirming our measurements on the dyno."
Ralf Schumacher took his first GP victory at Imola in 2001 but he is cautious about predicting too much for this weekend. "Miracles should not be expected from us in Imola, but the circuit has always suited our car," he commented. "During our most recent tests at Barcelona and Paul Ricard, we have made improvements, so I believe we will be able to close the gap to the front runners."
McLaren's fortunes went from bad to worse in Bahrain, with neither Kimi Raikkonen nor David Coulthard reaching the chequered flag. There have been rumours of the team perhaps introducing a heavily revised version of the MP4-19 in the summer -- maybe they should have stuck with last year's 17D.
BAR has emerged as one to challenge the front runners, Jenson Button claiming two podium finishes so far. Can the team keep the momentum going? "This year, we promised to take the fight to the top three teams and our current position in the drivers' and constructors' standings clearly shows that we can deliver against that target," said team principal David Richards.
Jaguar opened its account in Bahrain, Mark Webber claiming a fortuitous point after the demise of Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams. But it was rookie teammate Christian Klien who shone in the desert, outqualifying Webber for the first time. Still learning some circuits, Imola at least is one Klein is familiar with. "I know it quite well as I have done a lot of races there and it really makes a difference when you know the track," he said.
Sauber got both cars home in Bahrain, albeit without points, as did Jordan. If the never-ending Jordan/Jos Verstappen rumour mill is to be believed, Giorgio Pantano's days could be numbered with the Silverstone based team. Jordan is reportedly not happy with Pantano's performance, but the performance of the car is not exactly up to scratch either.
San Marino 2004 is the tenth anniversary of the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, and the pair will of course be remembered. Many will be sad if this is Imola's last appearance on the F1 calendar but perhaps paying tribute to those who lost their lives is a fitting farewell.