As Formula One heads into the fifth race of the season, many people are wondering if the Spanish Grand Prix will see a different driver take to the top step of the podium. It's possible, although not necessarily probable. Michael Schumacher has...
As Formula One heads into the fifth race of the season, many people are wondering if the Spanish Grand Prix will see a different driver take to the top step of the podium. It's possible, although not necessarily probable. Michael Schumacher has four straight wins so far in 2004 and that's a performance that one does not bet against lightly. However, with Barcelona just a few days away, the spotlight is firmly on BAR and Jenson Button. Can they claim that first victory?
Button and the team are undoubtedly capable of it. Their progress in 2004 has been ever improving; two third places, then a second, not to mention the little matter of pole position on Ferrari's home turf at Imola. BAR can better Ferrari in qualifying, that much has been proven, but a race distance is a different matter. If Schumacher gets his car in front, it's pretty much game over. Ferrari's phenomenal reliability coupled with Michael's skill is bordering on invincible if he's leading a race.
It's that partnership that is the problem for the rest of the field. Ferrari alone is not as dominant as the results appear to show. Rubens Barrichello just couldn't escape the clutches of Renault and Williams at Imola. Without a clear track ahead, Ferrari's superiority dwindled to an average performance. Michael did have a clear track after the first pit stops and made the most of it. It would be interesting to see what he could do put in the same position as Barrichello was at San Marino.
BAR's Honda engine is now supposedly the most powerful of the lot but the gap Michael pulled out at Imola underlines that power alone is not going to win races. Still, while BAR's applause worthy efforts are generating the most interest at the moment, there's other teams hoping to break the Ferrari deadlock this weekend. Now F1 is back in Europe, hardly a race goes by without new aerodynamic or engine tweakings being introduced.
Williams has been putting in a fairly solid performance but its not fulfilling its potential. Both drivers have been grousing about the shortcomings of the car but it seems like it's only a matter of time before Williams figures out how to unleash the full strength of the FW26. The speed is there but it's erratic in its application. Renault is the other way round -- its reliability and consistency is so far the team's biggest asset but qualifying has been a stumbling block. Over a single lap, the drivers haven't been on the pace.
McLaren is hoping for a step forward in Barcelona with a revised package for the MP4-19. This appears to be part of the long, slow process of the team aiming to introduce the MP4-19B in Germany. The current car has bursts of competitive speed but is so unreliable there seems scant chance of developing that potential. While rivals might enjoy the spectacle of McLaren's dismal performance so far, it's painful to see a top team floundering.
There's little to chose between the rest of the field. Jaguar is still looking good in practices but can't find its feet in qualifying or the pace in the main event. Sauber does seem to be slightly improved, albeit not enough to make an appreciable difference yet. Toyota has been a disappointment and Jordan and Minardi are grimly struggling on with uncompetitive equipment.
The Cirucit de Catalunya is familiar territory with the amount of testing done there but the 4.6 km track is fairly demanding. "Barcelona is a challenging circuit for the drivers and engineers to find a well balanced set-up," says Williams chief operations engineer Sam Michael. "We obviously spend a lot of time here during winter testing but the changeable conditions mean that you are still experimenting with the set-up during the actual race weekend."
In 2003, Schumacher's victory was somewhat overshadowed by local hero Fernando Alonso finishing second. The Renault man is not predicting a repeat performance this time around. "I don't want to create expectations and then fail to deliver on our promises," Alonso commented. "We need to be careful talking about performance because, in their own way, each one of the first races has been a surprise for us, and we have had different levels of competitiveness at each track."
Spain will be Michael Schumacher's 200th Grand Prix, something the champion finds surprising. "I've been in F1 so long that it felt as though I have had many more races," he said. "I thought that the figure would have been much higher." Many will be fervently hoping that Michael doesn't hang around for another 200.
Button is upbeat about BAR's chances of closing the gap to Ferrari even further: "Following on from 2nd in Imola, I am confident that we should be very competitive in Spain and, hopefully, even closer to the red cars!" Said the Englishman. "We have had very positive tests in Barcelona and the car has shown to be very strong there."
At the start of the season the general expectations were that it would be a close fight at the front. It wasn't -- Ferrari stormed off into the distance leaving everyone else scratching their heads. Williams was deemed most likely to give the Scuderia a run for its money but instead BAR has provided the strongest challenge. So, what to expect from Spain? Given the current form, Michael Schumacher has to be the favourite but side from that, who knows?