Now F1 has returned to Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix, the state of the championship is similar to the same time last season. Renault has won all three of the early flyaway races, Fernando Alonso taking two victories and Giancarlo Fisichella...
Now F1 has returned to Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix, the state of the championship is similar to the same time last season. Renault has won all three of the early flyaway races, Fernando Alonso taking two victories and Giancarlo Fisichella one, as they did in 2005. Alonso won at Imola last year after a fight with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher; will we see the battle rejoined this coming weekend?
Renault is setting the benchmark in 2006 but the competition looks quite close to the French squad. "Ferrari and McLaren will be our main opponents," is Alonso's opinion of how things will be at Imola. "Ferrari dropped down in the last two races, but I think they will be back. Their tyres work well at this circuit, and it is their home Grand Prix, so I expect them to be extremely competitive."
It could be a bumpy ride for the drivers as far as their chances of victory are concerned and Imola's kerbs will also give them a jolt or two. The circuit is rather stop-and-go in nature due to the corners and chicanes and the downforce requirements are quite high. Brakes and braking stability are also a major consideration and riding the kerbs puts pressure on the chassis and suspension.
"To get quick lap times at Imola, you have to really attack the kerbs and because they are so high, probably more so than at most tracks, we have to keep the car quite soft so it rides the kerbs well," said McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen. "The best place to overtake at Imola would be the Tosa hairpin, both under braking and also exiting, and you also tend to see a lot of cars running wide providing more opportunities."
There are a lot of rumours going around about Raikkonen and Ferrari in the run up to San Marino but Michael Schumacher is keeping focused on the job. Ferrari surprised many people with its competitiveness at Imola last year and while it's been another unsettled start to the season for the reds, Schumacher believes victory is not out of the question for the team at its home event.
"We want to do well at Imola and we want to be among the title challengers," said the German, who will take part in his usual charity football match ahead of the race. "We have fine tuned our package during the tests and I think that we have a car with which we can compete for victory. I do not believe that the gap to the leaders is too big to close. Imola should be the first step towards this."
Toyota had a bit of a turbulent time in the break since Australia, with chassis technical director Mike Gascoyne abruptly departing due to differences of opinion with the team. Toyota has been rather disappointing so far and it remains to be seen what effect Gascoyne's absence may have. Ralf Schumacher, who took his first F1 victory at Imola in 2001, improved the situation with third in Melbourne.
"We could face cold conditions in Imola but you never know what the weather will bring there," he said. "We struggled at the start of the year in cool conditions but we made the podium in Australia so that shows how far we've come. Of course the season has started off harder than we expected but Australia was much better and the team is strong enough to keep bouncing back."
Honda is another team that people perhaps expected more from than the early results have produced so far. Rubens Barrichello has struggled with the car and while Jenson Button has been on pole position and the podium, Honda hasn't yet shown the race pace to contend for victory. Still, that could easily change and the team is optimistic for a good result after the dismal time in Melbourne.
"Obviously we were extremely disappointed with our performance in Australia," said Button, who lost a points finish when his car came to a halt just yards from the finish line at Albert Park with his engine spouting smoke and flames. "However we have made good progress in testing and I am confident we will be competitive in Imola. Hopefully it should be a good weekend for us."
BMW Sauber enjoyed its first double-points result in Australia and is currently just three points behind Honda in the constructors' standings. Despite its early protestations that this season was going to be really tough, the cars actually look quite competitive in race trim and appear to be steadily improving. But it seems there is some concern about the engines this weekend.
Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve will use the same engines at Imola that they had in Australia. "Both engines are still at the stage of development we had reached prior to the race in Melbourne," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. "And, with its high downforce requirement and uphill sections, Imola is a track which generally puts a lot of strain on the engines."
Former BMW partner Williams has also looked fairly competitive in the early season -- when the cars manage to stay in the race that is. Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg were both in the points in Bahrain but neither has reached the chequered flag since, mostly due to a variety of car failures. They will at least have fresh Cosworth engines this weekend which should, in theory, help.
"I'm looking forward to my first Formula One race in Imola," said Rosberg. "Bridgestone have made some good progress on their compounds for cooler temperatures, as we saw in Melbourne. The team's test went well in Barcelona last week and I believe we made good progress, especially with the aero package. I know the Imola track from GP2 so that will be a help to me, definitely, so we will see how it goes."
Alonso has singled out Ferrari and McLaren as the major threats for San Marino but really one would have to think that Renault still has the upper hand. Of course, there's no such thing as a dead cert -- the thrills and spills of Melbourne proved how easily the unexpected can happen and, to be honest, it's usually much more entertaining when it does.