The pressure on Ferrari was massive going into the Imola weekend, and the
team delivered in a style that suggests they will be competitive for the
remainder of the season.、
Running Bridgestone’s medium compound tyres, Michael Schumacher and Felipe
Massa were fast in qualifying, and during the first stint of the race. It was in
the second stint that Schumacher reported that he lost pace because of a graining problem, and his average lap time fell to 1m
27s. After his final stop, however, this picked up to 1m 25s and he was able to
control the race to the flag. Massa, too reported problems in his second stint,
but pushed hard all the way to fourth place to give the Italian team their best
result of the season.
It is now clear that Ferrari have made big steps in both performance and
reliability, though interestingly Schumacher’s car had most of its fuel system
replaced prior to the race because of a fuel pressure problem.
This was a good and a bad weekend for Renault. They lost Giancarlo
Fisichella after the second qualifying session, due to the luck of the game, and
he thus had to go with a high fuel load strategy from 11th on the grid. They
took some front wing off his R26 in his first stop, and after that the car ran a
lot better, but in the circumstances, eighth place was probably the best he
could have hoped for.
Alonso could hardly be unhappy to garner another eight points, and he is
smart enough to appreciate that he cannot win every race. There were many
different factors behind Ferrari’s win and Renault’s first defeat of the season,
but though the red car was, according to the Spaniard, ‘unbelievable’ on the
straight, it was the Renault that took the fastest lap with 1m 24.569s to
Schumacher’s 1m 24.624s.
Third and fifth places for McLaren were, on the face of it, positive
results, particularly as Juan Pablo Montoya said he was cruising with the engine
turned down in the latter stages while being chased by Massa. But their lap
times were half a second off Alonso’s and Schumacher’s, on a track where
Raikkonen and the MP4-20 simply left their opposition for dead in the 2005 race
until a drive shaft broke. Raikkonen got boxed in with his heavy fuel load at
the start, and never really liked the way his car handled for the first part of
the race. It got better after the first stop, but by then his chance of
challenging Massa for fourth had gone and he had to chase him home. Montoya had
a heavier fuel load still, and also lost out at the start, and lost further time
in traffic. After that two good pit stops helped, and he actually led the 43rd
and 44th laps before making his final pit stop. Like Ferrari, McLaren have done
a great deal of work of late, but it has yet to bear the same fruit.
Mark Webber was in the fight for points all afternoon, having opted for a
heavy fuel load just as he did in Melbourne. This time the strategy paid off for
Williams as the Australian enjoyed a trouble-free run. That was the biggest
boost, the fact that the reliability was good enough to get both cars home -
Nico Rosberg bringing his in 11th. Interestingly, both drivers chose the soft
compound Bridgestones, and neither reported any durability problems.
After qualifying second and third Honda went into the race full of hope,
but it was soon clear (as early as lap 14 in Rubens Barrichello’s case) that that performance had its roots
in low fuel loads. A combination of coming in so soon, and a delay with a faulty
refuelling hose nozzle, left the Brazilian struggling in the midfield with
others who did not stop until much later. With his race already compromised, he
also lost speed due to a continual locking of the rear brakes when he was
running new tyres.
Jenson Button’s race was even more disappointing. If Barrichello lost the
chance of a top six placing, Button should have been on the podium. First there
was a delay at his first stop, on lap 15, due to a rear wheel not going on
smoothly, and then came the incident with the sticking fuel nozzle and the
lollipop signalling at his second, on lap 30.
Underlying all this, the team felt they had made genuine progress with
their race pace, which made their pit lane problems all the more
Toyota opted for the hard compound Bridgestones and a three-stop strategy
for Ralf Schumacher. As a result he was able to run with the leaders early on,
but was hurt by the safety car deployment at the start and then by traffic
situations. Later a lack of grip affected his pace, possibly due to the choice
of compound. Jarno Trulli’s race lasted only five laps before the unhappy
Italian had to retire due to a problem with the steering column.
BMW Sauber left Imola with disappointment on their corporate face,
following the promise shown in Melbourne. Everyone had expected a better level
of performance, but Nick Heidfeld in particular complained of lack of grip in
the first stint, though a change of front wing angle and tyre pressures
alleviated the problem slightly thereafter. It was not enough to help him to
anything better than his 13th place finish, behind team mate Jacques Villeneuve.
The latter had problems twice with sticking wheelnuts during his pit stops, but
that was just further aggravation to add to the lack of pace. It was only at the
end that he could turn some decent laps. The team hope that a new engine
specification will improve things at the Nurburgring next time out.
After the early season promise shown by the RB2, Red Bull had an extremely
disappointing race. David Coulthard ran around 11th place most of the afternoon,
without ever looking threatening, and dropped out after 47 laps with a broken
driveshaft. Christian Klien struggled to stay with his Toro Rosso partners, and
was sidelined after 41 laps with a hydraulic problem.
If Red Bull were disappointed, at least Toro Rosso got both of their cars
home. But though the balance of the STR1 was fine, Vitantonio Liuzzi had a brake
problem that led to his spin on the fifth lap. However, the lap times were good;
Liuzzi’s fastest time of 1m 25.679s put him in McLaren, Toyota, Honda, Williams
and BMW Sauber territory, with Massa’s Ferrari and Fisichella’s Renault.
There was good and bad news for Midland. The bad came early with Christijan
Albers’ nasty-looking barrel roll courtesy of Yuji Ide on the opening lap. The
Dutchman was unhurt and emerged with a thumb raised to the crowd, but the M16
was a mess. Altogether, a weekend which had started on a bright note for the
team turned bad from qualifying onwards when a software problem affected the
engine’s power in Albers’ car. Tiago Monteiro brought his car home 16th.
Super Aguri have one of the best reliability records for the first part of
the season, but that took a knock at Imola. The team expected to struggle there,
and they did. Ide did himself no favours with his move on Albers, and was
arguably lucky to escape with an official reprimand from the stewards. After
pitting at the end of the first lap for repairs to the front suspension, he
rejoined the race several laps in arrears before spinning off at the Variante
Alta chicane due to a rear suspension breakage on his 24th lap. Takuma Sato did
not finish either; he spun in Turn 15 on the 45th lap and could not
In the tyre war, the stakes were pretty even. The general consensus is that
both Bridgestone and Michelin had strong, durable rubber, and that there was
nothing to choose between them.
The fact that Ferrari won brings the 2006 championship alive, and we can
look forward to top-level racing between Renault and Ferrari, not to mention
McLaren and Honda when they get their cars fully honed.