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Undertaking in Barcelona

Did the new chicane make a difference to overtaking at the Spanish GP? You know it did not. But the modification to the track will sit there and grin at us from now on, having ruined a couple of fast corners without giving us anything in return. Track alterations stay, whether they achieve the desired result or not – after all, it is more important that the track designer save face than that the racing be improved at all.

Start

So Barcelona remains the track where you overtake in the first few hundred yards or not at all. Alonso made his bid for the lead, failed and that was the end of any real fight at the front. Technically, Fernando was a little ahead at the corner and by the unwritten rules was entitled to claim the line in theory. But Massa was already committed and had nowhere to go, even had he wanted to after being criticized in the early races for not being aggressive enough. The slight bump that sent Alonso into the gravel was the risk he took and both drivers were lucky not to have suffered worse – a racing incident, indeed.

Thereafter things settled into the usual pattern of waiting for the driver ahead to run into trouble. Kimi Raikkonen duly obliged, electrical problems putting him out early and allowing Alonso back into third. Perhaps only Chris Amon can truly understand the thoughts that must be going through Kimi’s head as he wonders whether his bad luck has followed him to the ultra-reliable Ferrari team.

If we were only interested in the lead, Barcelona would have been boring indeed. But there was plenty to interest, mostly in the form of progress by some and disaster for others. David Coulthard had a great race in the Red Bull RB3, showing that it is becoming a force at last, and Super Aguri scored a point, admittedly thanks to Renault having a problem with their (French-made) fueling rig.

BMW were a little less convincing this time out, Robert Kubica coming in fourth but Heidfeld being on the receiving end of some blundering pitwork that saw a wheelnut deserting to the Toyota team. A little more Germanic efficiency required, methinks (and a rap on the knuckles for the lollipop man, no doubt).

Talking of Toyota, they joined Toro Rosso in having a truly (Trulli) dismal weekend, both cars retiring before lap 44. Not even Ralf’s optimism and Jarno’s amazing effort in putting the car into sixth in qualifying could save them this time. I have more sympathy for Scott Speed, however, who looked set to prove all his critics wrong with a tenth fastest time in practice and then a leap from last to 14th in the race, only to have a tire explode. After being robbed of the chance for a decent grid spot by engine failure in qualifying, it was Raikkonen-like luck indeed.

The interest was all in what might be coming in the future of this season. Yes, we have a battle royal for the title that should continue for a while at least, but we also have a few teams that look to be getting it together at last. Red Bull are beginning to threaten BMW’s third fastest spot and Renault are improving faster than Fisichella had predicted. Williams are a bit unpredictable but quicker than Toyota at least, while Toro Rosso show signs of real improvement. Things are tight in the midfield and could become even tighter.

And now we look ahead to Monaco, traditionally the circuit where driving skill counts for more than aerodynamics. Hamilton is confident, having raced in the principality before, Fernando and Kimi know it only too well; can this be the circuit where Massa finally convinces me?

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Same Old Ferrari

It seems to me that the knives are out at Ferrari already. After the Bahrain GP, technical director Mario Almondo was critical of Raikkonen’s race, suggesting that he work on starts and restarts; now Kimi has voiced doubts over the preparation of his car for qualifying.

Ron Kimi

Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen

Back in October of last year, I wrote of the difficulties Kimi would experience in fitting into the Ferrari team; since then I have seen nothing to change my mind. Even before he joined, Ferrari were talking about getting their new driver to smile more often and to moderate his private life. As I pointed out at the time, this amounted to implied criticism of a guy who has nothing to prove in F1 – we all know he is one the three fastest drivers around.

And now Almondo finds reason to pick at Raikkonen’s performance in Bahrain and Kimi, stung at last to put his side of the story (very tactfully – he said “we” most of the time), hints that he may not be getting the same treatment as Massa in qualifying. It hardly speaks of a team that is together in their determination for the Finn to succeed this year.

The most telling point is that these guarded exchanges are being conducted in public. Ferrari have been quite open in their criticism of Raikkonen from the very start, while their enthusiasm for Massa has been evident, Todt springing to the Brazilian’s defense after his ham-fisted attempts to pass Hamilton in Malaysia. Kimi has held his tongue until this latest statement but the tension on his face has been plain to see – he knows he’s getting a raw deal.

I have no doubt that Kimi will struggle on through the season, working with what he is given and trying to show the team who they should be putting their major effort into. My point is really that he shouldn’t have to – Ferrari only handicap themselves by favoring one driver over another, particularly when the favorite is the slower of the two.

But that is Ferrari; they have their likes and dislikes and woe betide you if you turn up on the dislike side of the equation.

The photograph up there illustrates the difference between Ferrari and McLaren. Ron Dennis has his detractors but he is the best man manager of the lot (now that Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrrell are no longer around). He believed in Kimi from the start and never stopped doing so, even if he wished that the Finn wouldn’t party so heartily.

Ferrari assured us that we would see Kimi smile this year – pardon me for pointing this out but it ain’t happened yet. And that looks like a huge grin on the Finn’s face in that photo above.

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Taking Stock After Bahrain

A motor race does not a season make, to mangle a phrase. Three races in and Lewis Hamilton is superhuman, Massa has gone from hero to zero and back again, and poor Alonso and Raikkonen are bidding to become the forgotten men.

Bahrain

The reality, of course, is a bit less dramatic than that – three of the drivers mentioned have had varying fortunes, one has not put a foot wrong as yet. As a result, we have a three-way tie for the lead of the championship with the fourth very close behind; which is great for the sport but nothing to get too excited about just yet.

It is true that Lewis Hamilton looks to be even better than we expected. He is quick, consistent and unflappable in the car, realistic and respectful out of it. It is hard to see how he could have made a better start to his career in F1 and all that we have seen so far points to his being a champion in the future.

But let us not get carried away – in two out of three races, Alonso has been the quicker McLaren driver and he is not going to despair because Lewis beat him in Bahrain. He will just work the harder to be fastest in future.

What is really impressive about the Alonso/Hamilton pairing is that I detect absolutely no needle between them at all. After the finish in Bahrain, Alonso went up to Hamilton to congratulate him and you could see he meant it. And Lewis continues to acknowledge that he is still learning and makes his respect for Alonso quite clear. For this year at least, they make a formidable team.

Things are a bit more complicated in the Ferrari team. Were there any justice in the world, this ought to be the year that Kimi Raikkonen walks away with the championship; he has served a hard apprenticeship, suffered more than his share of bad luck and demonstrated his speed again and again. Yet he finds himself with a teammate who wants to be number one and his old team suddenly come good with a car that performs as well as the Ferrari. Nothing comes easy for the Finn, it seems.

There is a new determination about Kimi this season, however, and it is no accident that he shares the championship lead with the McLaren drivers. In those races where Ferrari give him a car that can win, he will do so; in others he will take as many points as he can. Kimi wants the championship and no longer treats each race as a separate entity.

The roller coaster of Felipe Massa’s fortunes so far is indicative of his strengths and weaknesses. When things go well, Felipe can look unassailable; when they go badly, he tries too hard and makes mistakes. It has been said that Massa needs the support of his team to do well and it seems that he is getting it. Whether this means that Raikkonen receives that much less remains to be seen but I begin to suspect it.

So it is debatable that Ferrari are as well-knit a team this year as is McLaren and that could make all the difference at the end of the season if the championship remains close. Already McLaren have a lead in the constructors’ competition with a car that is not consistently as quick as the Ferrari – the difference is in the quality of the driving team.

If the champion this year is to be one of these four drivers, I think it has to be either Raikkonen or Alonso. Massa is too easily pressured into error and Hamilton has the patience to wait his turn. And, of the acknowledged “stars”, Alonso is the more likely winner since he is in the better team.

There is always the possibility that a wild card, perhaps in the shape of Nick Heidfeld, might be added to the mix, however. Now that would be really interesting…

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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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