Not so many years ago, the first races of the season, outside Europe, usually in North and South America or South Africa, were considered nothing more than an 'hors d'oeuvre,' or given that Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro is an Italian team, an ...
Not so many years ago, the first races of the season, outside Europe, usually in North and South America or South Africa, were considered nothing more than an 'hors d'oeuvre,' or given that Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro is an Italian team, an 'anti-pasta' to the season proper. The championship only really got underway when the teams returned to Europe and the San Marino Grand Prix.
However, today, the pace of technical development is so frenetic that every race is an equally important opportunity to score points and no team can allow itself the luxury of cruising through the first few rounds of the series. Nevertheless, there will still be a sense of a new beginning, when the teams arrive at the Dino e Enzo Ferrari circuit for Round 4 of the championship.
For a start, it marks the start of the first run of four European races and that means a more conventional paddock, with team trucks and motorhomes making their seasonal debut, cooler conditions than we have seen so far and a much more crowded old-fashioned paddock, with many F1 people making their first appearance of the year.
Certainly Ferrari will be hoping that this weekend represents a new beginning, after a somewhat disappointing start to the season, with just one podium finish so far, courtesy of Rubens Barrichello's second place in the Australian Grand Prix. "Arriving in Imola not leading the world championship, as was the case two years is an extra reason to tackle this race in a positive frame of mind," said the Scuderia's sporting director, Stefano Domenicali.
"I think that after such a start to the season, for a team like ours, the motivation will be stronger than ever. It will be even more important to show all our fans that we are still fighting. Our approach to the San Marino Grand Prix is based on the principal that our objectives and our goals have not changed. This applies to all the races, but of course Imola is a big event for us."
As the nearest venue to the Ferrari factory in Maranello, one would expect massive support for the Reds, however that has not always been the case over the past couple of years. "Unfortunately two years ago the crowd was the lowest in terms of numbers and I should know, because I have been going to Imola for years since I was a child to watch Formula 1, motorbikes and all sorts of race meetings," lamented Domenicali. "It was probably because the race was over the Easter weekend. Last year was better and I hope this year the public will respond and come to support us with flags everywhere to give us a boost."
With the F2005 car still in its infancy, Domenicali reckons there will be other advantages apart from local support in racing near the factory. "For sure, having raced the new car for the first time in Bahrain and then tested with it over a couple of weeks before Imola, there will be movement between the track and our factory. This is an advantage we will have from being so close to the track and we will need to make the most of it."
That pre-Imola testing the sporting director refers to has certainly been intensive, with the two race drivers and both testers hard at work at three circuits; Barcelona, Mugello and Fiorano. "We could have tested at Imola itself, as there is no current testing agreement in place," revealed Domenicali.
"Although we have a different approach to the testing agreement, we opted not to run at Imola as we respect the principle of not testing at a grand prix venue just prior to the race. That is our decision. We want to respect the idea we set with the other teams."
Schumacher and Barrichello will be using the same engines they had in Bahrain and this new engine rule presents an interesting learning curve for Ferrari and the other teams. "In Bahrain, the climate and track conditions meant the engine was stressed a lot," said Domenicali.
"We had to save the engine as much as possible, because Imola is another circuit which is tough on engines, especially in terms of delivering the power in the right way to punch out of the corners, as the track layout is quite stop-start with all the chicanes and you need good traction after braking very heavily for these corners. With this new two race engine rule, we have all had to adopt a new approach."
"We plan to use an engine in terms of the laps we have to do. The more the season progresses, the more we learn and that means we will be able to apply this knowledge to our engine utilisation strategy. We don't divide engine useage equally between two races. It depends on the characteristics of the two tracks. Some races might put an equal stress, others put more stress on the first or second race of an engine's life, so it is a question of balance."
There will be a large Ferrari presence at Imola. "For our home grand prix, as usual we will have our own grandstand for all our staff at the exit to the Rivazza corner," revealed Domenicali. "We are bringing around 1300 people every day and this is a great motivation for them, as they live the spirit of the grand prix weekend. Secondly, we will have people in the pits and garage who do not usually come to races."
"Mechanics and engineers will be brought along to Imola to experience our approach to a race. It gives them a chance to see how the race team operates, but equally importantly, they might be able to bring some of their own work methods to bear on what we do. It is important not to take a narrow view on how we work at the track, but to be open to new suggestions. These people might have a different method which is worth considering and we have to record everything that goes on."
On a personal level, this weekend is a special occasion, as Imola is his home town. "It really is my home grand prix and so it is a very important weekend for me. I meet up with a lot of friends as it's my home. I even cycle into the track every morning from my home, which makes a nice change from staying in a hotel. Friends used to ask me for tickets, but they seem to have got the message and, as it is so hard to get passes, my answer unfortunately is always in the negative!"