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The Best Car of 2006

It seems to be the general opinion that the best car in 2006 was the Ferrari 248 F1, at least in the second half of the season. Yet we should not forget the huge influence on performance of the tires; when Bridgestone was on top and the track dry, the Ferraris were good but so were the Toyotas and Williams. And they all suffered in the wet. Take out the influence of the tires and it is much more difficult to say which was the best car.

Autosport magazine has a brief interview with Bob Bell, Renault’s technical director, in which he mentions the effect of the tuned damper ban on the R26. It is clear that the ban had some effect on the performance of the Renault, even if only marginally (and F1 is a sport of small margins), but Bob says that the whole affair just made the team that much more determined to win the championship.

R26

Renault R26

Until the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the Renault and Michelin had an advantage over the Ferrari, as demonstrated by their results. But Bridgestone made a big leap forward with their tires at that time, an improvement that was masked to some extent by expectations that the Ferraris would be particularly good in the USA; no-one was surprised when the Renaults were unable to win there. The Bridgestone advantage was confirmed at the French GP, however, and from then on they retained a lead in the dry.

So Renault were already battling against a car on superior tires when the damper ban occurred. That extra little degradation in performance was enough to make the R26 look less effective a design than the Ferrari and it was only the occasional wet race, where the Michelins were better than Bridgestone’s equivalent, that enabled Renault to remain ahead on points.

But this is all about tires – is it possible to say which car was better if all other factors had been equal? It’s a matter of opinion in the end and we can never know for sure. But the fact remains that the R26 was competitive even when the Michelins were not the best tires. It was always in with a chance, regardless of the type of circuit, and looked well-balanced and quick at all times.

And that was the strength of the Renault, that it was so adaptable to circumstances. The Ferrari was very good when it was good but there were a couple of tracks where it performed below par. And, for my money, that makes the R26 the better design.

Another Spanish double champion, Carlos Sainz of rallying fame, has been trying out last year’s Renault, the R25. You can read what he has to say on its merits as opposed to a rally car in this F1 Racing-live report.

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A Michelin Rumor

F1 Racing Live has a news item that suggests all was not quite as well in the Michelin camp over the Indy weekend as we thought. According to the story, Michelin found damage to their hard tire compound after practice and instructed the teams to choose the soft compound only.

Michelin tire

If this is true, Michelin were indeed going conservative on tires, although that seems a strange way to describe opting for the softer (and therefore faster-wearing) tire. And some are seeing this as an explanation for the sudden drop in Michelin’s performance relative to Bridgestone’s. But again, this seems a bit odd since one would expect the softer compound to have more grip than the hard tire. There were no noticeable problems with tire wear during the race, which might have been expected if only soft Michelins were being used.

I am no expert on F1 tires and I know that the soft option is not always the quicker way around a track, but it still seems a dubious story to me.

Whatever the truth, the Michelin men must be glad to have Indianapolis behind them. From now on they can return to their development of a tire that has proved consistently better than Bridgestone’s in the first half of the season. With a bit of luck (and help from Renault and Alonso), they should win enough races for the disaster of Indy 2005 to recede into history.

By 2008 Michelin will be out of F1 again, perhaps breathing a sigh of relief. And Bridgestone will be the sole tire supplier, as announced by the FIA today. That may be limiting the advance of tire technology in F1 but it also means the end of tire advantages winning races. And that has to be good. When it comes down to it, we care much less about tires, no matter how cleverly constructed, than we do about cars and drivers.

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The United States Grand Prix

So at last Michael has managed to break Alonso’s winning streak by netting his fifth Indianapolis victory. I’ll say nothing about the convenience of his passing his team mate, Felipe Massa, in the first pit stop. After all, I have never had anything against team orders, knowing that they have been a part of F1 since its inception.

M Schumacher

Michael Schumacher

The race was interesting from several aspects. It was clear, for instance, that Bridgestone had an advantage over Michelin at this track. And this was obviously the result of Michelin going conservative in its determination not to have a repeat of last year’s fiasco, in spite of all their denials. Both the extent of Ferrari’s superiority in practice and the race and Toyota’s sudden equality with Renault were adequate demonstration of this. I have no doubt that things will return to normal once the teams re-assemble in Magny Cours for the French Grand Prix.

Trulli’s drive from last to fourth place was magnificent, even taking the tire advantage into account. And it is a shame that Ralf had to retire his Toyota before reaping the rewards of an impressive drive. It seems that Indy loves one Schumacher but hates the other.

For me, however, the high point in the race came at the moment Liuzzi managed to slip by Rosberg. He was driving what only a short time ago was called a Minardi; this must surely be the only time in history that a Minardi has passed a Williams, albeit in Toro Rosso form. How the mighty are fallen.

Speaking of Toro Rosso, we are reminded of Scott Speed and how sad we were to see him eliminated in the multi-car pile up at Turn 2 on the first lap. Liuzzi showed that the Toro Rosso was better than expected on this circuit and Scott might well have been able to score a point or two if he had avoided the accident. I can only hope that America will continue to follow his fortunes for the rest of the season, now that he has had some media coverage.

That pile up also gave us the rare sight of the McLarens taking each other out. Shades of the Prost/Senna days. Montoya gets the blame, although an accident always looked inevitable in that frantic scramble for position. It’s been a while, too, since we saw an F1 car somersaulting through the air as did Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber.

Heidfeld

Nick Heidfeld

Finally, there is the excellent performance of Fisichella, for once in the better Renault. For the first stint he was the only one to stand a remote chance of staying with the Ferraris and, when even that chance disappeared, he kept to his task and grabbed third place. It was a timely reminder that he is no slouch when his luck holds out.

So it was an interesting race in spite of all the retirements. And Michael has clawed back some of Alonso’s advantage in points. Nineteen seems a huge gap until one realizes that it’s only two race wins against two retirements. Keep finishing those races, Fernando!

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Scott Speed and the Indianapolis GP

With free practice for the United States Grand Prix starting today, I thought it was about time I learned a bit more about F1′s sole American driver, Scott Speed. Having dug around a bit, I have discovered that the man is more than just a racing driver; he’s something of a hero too.

His resumé is impressive, with many national and championship karting titles between 1995 and 2001, the Russell Racing Championship in 2001, and being selected for the Red Bull American Driver Search, which he won in 2002. That same year he won the Barber Dodge and Formula Mazda Championships and then had a few races in British Formula 3 in 2003.

Scott Speed

Scott Speed

And it’s at this stage that Scott’s career was interrupted by a serious disease, Ulcerative Colitis. For most of the year, he was forced to forego racing as he battled the disease and it was not until he consulted an Austrian specialist that a cure was found. Determination and a program of rehabilitation ensured that he was able to test for the Red Bull Cheever IRL team in 2004, as well as gain the Formula Renault German and Eurocup Championships.

In 2005, Scott won several GP2 races, finishing 3rd in the Championship and then graduated to the Toro Rosso F1 team for 2006. In F1 terms, even disregarding his struggle with Colitis, that’s a career in the shooting star class.

Scott’s public pronouncements since entering the F1 stage have been low key and modest, but the extra coverage he is getting in the media now that the circus is in the States is thoroughly deserved. His performance in the Toro Rosso car has been solid and professional, with best finishes of 9th in Australia and 10th in Canada. America should be proud of him.

Will he prove the surprise of his home GP? It’s unlikely, as the Toro Rosso is reputed to be down on power and not suited to fast circuits therefore. But it must be added that it was one of the two fastest cars through the speed trap in Canada, a circuit that is similar in characteristics to Indianapolis.

To learn more of Scott’s battle with Colitis, go to his website (very Flash and super cool), Scottspeed.com.

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