Bahrain Grand Prix

Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari; Bahrain GP, Saturday

April 03, 2005

Motor Racing: Ferrari turn up heat
After victories in Australia and Malaysia, Renault are flying high — but Michael Schumacher is sure to be back in the picture today

Fernando Alonso is flying at the moment. Not even a mistake on the final corner yesterday could prevent the Spanish driver from taking provisional pole position for Renault in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Without that error he would have been uncatchable in this morning’s second qualifying session, but he still has more than a tenth of a second in hand over Jarno Trulli’s Toyota in the battle to be first off the grid today.

Of more concern to the French team, however, may be the man who lurks in third place. Michael Schumacher is still getting to know Ferrari’s new F2005 car, but the world champion was ominously fast in yesterday’s qualifying run. Ferrari’s new cars have won on their debut in each of the past six seasons, and despite the team’s struggles in the first two races this year, a seventh successive triumph with a new vehicle cannot be out of the equation.

Lack of testing means question marks remain over the car’s reliability, but it is clearly a big improvement on the F2004 in terms of speed — and in Schumacher’s hands, anything is possible.

“There are definitely reasons to be optimistic. I think we can be competitive this weekend,” said Ferrari’s technical director, Ross Brawn, with typical understatement. He maintained that Schumacher’s lap — just 0.389 seconds behind Alonso’s — was a relatively conservative effort, which suggests that Bridgestone, the team’s tyre partner, is also beginning to sort itself out, over one lap at least.

A full race distance will ask different questions of the F2005 package, however, and tyre degradation and grip will be key factors on this high-wear circuit, where the track temperature is expected to exceed 50C.

Alonso and the Renault team are relaxed and confident. “I feel great. We have no problems, the car is really quick and nice to drive, and the (Michelin tyres are working well in the heat, so we are hopeful of a good race,” Alonso said. “The car is working perfectly and the team are doing all they can at the moment to ensure this continues.”

His teammate, Giancarlo Fisichella, was also relatively happy to finish fifth-fastest after having to go out early in the session, when the track was dusty and offering less grip.

Trulli, who was sacked by Renault last season, is also looking for a strong performance today, maintaining the momentum he gained from his second place in last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix. Teammate Ralf Schumacher made a bad mistake in turn eight, and although he should pick up places in today’s qualifying, he has already compromised his race.

Another team clearly improving is BMW Williams, for whom Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber were fourth- and sixth- fastest respectively. New aerodynamic parts on the back of the FW27 have made a big difference to its performance, and Heidfeld in particular is full of confidence after his unexpected third place in Malaysia.

Webber was the fastest man on the track during the morning’s second and final practice session, and he is desperately keen to erase the memory of the clash with Fisichella that robbed him of a podium place at Sepang.

McLaren’s problems in working out how to get the best out of their quick new car continue. Kimi Raikkonen, struggling with understeer, was seventh- quickest, only two-tenths of a second faster than teammate Pedro de la Rosa, the 34-year-old Spaniard standing in for Juan Pablo Montoya, who has fractured a shoulder, apparently in a fall while playing tennis.

Remarkably, the McLarens were split by Christian Klien in the Red Bull. The young Austrian was markedly faster than teammate David Coulthard, who finished in 14th position. The Scot’s lack of pace was surprising, and his continued failure to get to grips with single-lap qualifying remains hard to understand, although he has been having problems with his car’s traction control this weekend. Nor was it a good day for Coulthard’s fellow Briton, Jenson Button, who finished the session 12th-fastest, suffering for his early retirement in Malaysia two weeks ago by having to go out fourth. About the best that could be said was that he was slightly quicker than his BAR teammate, Takuma Sato, but Button at least hopes the engine failure that ended his race early in Sepang will not recur today.

“A lot’s changed since the last race, which I’m very happy about, but we’re still suffering with lack of grip,” said Button. Yet the chances of his repeating last year’s podium finish here are depressingly slim.

It could still be a fascinating race, though. Less than a second covered the fastest nine cars yesterday, which suggests that Bahrain could provide the stage for a real battle for Formula One supremacy. Above all, the indications are that this season no single team is likely to establish the scale of performance margin that will lead to the sort of domination exerted by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari last year. For that at least, much thanks.


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