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What’s Wrong With Renault?

The world champions are in trouble so far this season, their car apparently not as good as they had hoped, their drivers unconvincing and team boss Briatore already talking about next year’s car. Things could be worse, as demonstrated by McLaren and Williams last year, but not much; when you’ve been used to winning, it hurts to know that you are no longer in the running.

Fizzy

Giancarlo Fisichella

All this was fairly predictable (in fact, I did so in November last year), although we may not have expected the car to be as poor as it has turned out. Much of that drop in performance can be attributed to the change to Bridgestone tires, Renault having experienced more problems in this area than most teams, but there seem to be design weaknesses too. Otherwise Briatore would not be mumbling about next year’s car already.

The big question is how much Alonso’s departure has contributed to Renault’s fall from grace. That it has had some effect is undoubted – Alonso is so strong a driver that he would have hauled the car into higher positions than Fisichella has managed to; but it is doubtful that even he could have turned it into a race winner.

I think that little blame can be heaped on the shoulders of the Renault drivers. Fisichella is doing his best with the machinery he has been given and Kovalainen has made the usual rookie mistakes but should get better with experience. Unfortunately for Fisichella, the failings of the car will be blamed on him to some extent at least; this is his make-or-break year and it grows ever more likely that he will find himself out of a job at the end of the season. No doubt Briatore is already looking for a replacement.

And he will want a proven driver to lead the team although, with the sudden influx of new talent, there aren’t that many of the old guard left to choose from. I have seen Webber suggested but the Australian will have learned the lesson of patience from his time at Williams; Red Bull’s RB3 may not be as competitive as Webber had hoped but it does show that the team are heading in the right direction, perhaps to make a big breakthrough next year. Mark will stay with them, I think.

So who else is there? Raikkonen is pretty securely contracted to Ferrari and Alonso to McLaren – not much hope there. Heidfeld will stick with BMW if he has any sense at all, Ralf and Trulli are in their make-or-break years too and will probably break. Of the experienced drivers, there is just one possibility left and, although it may seem utterly ridiculous, it may be forced upon both parties.

Jenson Button could be the one that Briatore’s eye alights upon. He is contracted to Honda but, as we have seen in the past, neither Button nor Flavio take much notice of contracts. The Briton’s talent is doubted now but he has never had a decent opportunity to prove himself; he is quick and just might come good in the right car. It’s a chance that Briatore might be prepared to take.

As for Button himself, he must have realized by now that he made a bad mistake in going to Honda. The fact that they have had persistent problems with the front of their cars and been unable to solve them is worrying, to say the least. He could be open to an approach, despite recent assertions to the contrary.

All speculation, of course, and things may happen this season that make such an eventuality impossible. It is very early in the season still and one cannot discount the possibility of Renault solving their problems and returning to competitiveness in the coming races. It just doesn’t look likely, with Briatore becoming so desperate that his public pronouncements get wilder and wilder…

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The Excitement of Traction Control

Autosport dot com has a good article on the techies’ view of the ban on traction control from 2008 onwards. It means a lot of re-design work for them but generally they seem content with the decision.

They do not think that the racing will be more “exciting” as a result, however. That may be true but I don’t think that was the FIA’s intention anyway – the idea was surely to allow the drivers’ skills a bit more influence on the race results. Everyone is agreed that the ban will help with that, Williams technical director, Sam Michael, admitting that “those who can feel the rear tyres and the throttle will shine.”

Prost

Alain Prost

Well, yeah. Which means that those who can save their tires by more skillful driving will benefit. Years ago Alain Prost was legendary for being able to take care of his tires and then to challenge strongly at the end of the race when everyone else’s tires were shot. In fact, without that ability, it is doubtful that he could have been quite as strong a teammate to Senna when they were both at McLaren. And it is drivers with the smooth, economical style of a Prost who will gain most from the ban, while the more spectacular but abrasive drivers will have to be more careful.

Certainly, it won’t be more exciting – but we might find the usual order shuffled a bit. Just as an instance, Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to be quite hard on his car and that means tires too. If he has to curb his instincts somewhat, that could put him in range of a lot of pretenders to his crown as one of the three quickest drivers. And they do say that Jenson Button is one of the smoothest drivers around…

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Thoughts on the Australian GP

As expected, Raikkonen won with ease, the Ferrari clearly the quickest car on this track and the driver one of the three fastest men in F1. Although the entire world is now expecting a Ferrari walkover this year, I am not convinced. The McLarens were good too and will get better.

Kimi

Kimi Raikkonen getting it done

Of course, the red team will improve their car as well but it is hard to better something that already seems just about perfect; go the wrong way and you could ruin it. And there are those lingering doubts about Kimi’s ability in testing – can he give the kind of input to the engineers that they had from Michael Schumacher? Massa will help with that but again I am unsure of his technical prowess.

I am also not all that impressed with Felipe’s drive through the field. When you have a car as superior to the rest as the F2007, it does not look all that good to be held up for lap after lap by a car as evil-handling as Button’s Honda. I’m sure Michael would have made short work of it.

Enough has been said already about Lewis Hamilton’s excellent race without me adding the same accolades; the lad is a star and will ensure that McLaren win the constructor’s title this year. Alonso is brilliant and will assist in the development of the car until it can beat the Ferraris so Ron Dennis has plenty to smile about at the moment, in spite of not winning this first race of the season.

The BMWs were not quite on the pace of the front runners and Renault were well off it. Both will improve with time, however, and may be able to challenge for the lead in later races.

The Hondas were awful, with Barrichello having the better time of it and expressing himself reasonably happy. Button thinks that the problem lies in the front aerodynamics but, judging from what Flavio Briatore had to say about the Bridgestones being the root cause of Renault’s difficulties, I would suspect that tires also have a lot to do with the Honda malaise. Hopefully, they will find a solution and be more competitive in future races.

Otherwise things went more or less to plan. The Toyotas were a bit better than we’d guessed, the Williams a bit worse. But which would you rather be sitting in for the next GP?

Finally, another word about Scott Speed: until his front tires deflated, he was well ahead of Liuzzi. Gerhard Berger was content with the Italian’s performance in this race – perhaps he will admit that the American seemed pretty “committed” too…

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Red Bull and Honda

Well, there ya go – what did I tell ya? No sooner do I mention that the teams seem to be taking it in turns to go fastest in testing than Red Bull hit the front. Okay, it may have been a stunt for the visiting Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the team, but at least it proves that the RB3 can go quickly when it’s light on fuel and has new tires. And it must have been pleasant for David Coulthard to grab the best time – it’s been a while since he did that.

Joking aside, Red Bull have got to be a little worried about the pace of the RB3. They know what had to be done to give DC the chance for top spot and that it has no relevance for the actual races at all. Much more telling is the car’s consistency in being a low midfield runner in testing, just as the BMW has been consistently near the front. If there is a pointer to race performance in testing, it is consistency, not single lap times.

RA107

Honda RA107

What worries me, however, is Honda’s apparent lack of pace. So far their testing times have been nowhere near the front and my prediction of Button for champion begins to look very optimistic indeed. I console myself with the thought that in previous seasons they have looked good in testing, only to disappoint once the races started. Maybe this time they are getting things the right way around.

It is also true that the early races can give a false impression of what is to follow. Time and again we have seen a team do well at first and then fade away once the circus gets to Europe. My hope has to be that Honda are concentrating on quiet development and will come good once the season gets into its stride.

That might be the case for Red Bull as well, of course. But I have my doubts on that score. The team is hungry for success and has two drivers who are starved of good publicity – if they could put in a few good times, I feel sure that they would. Honda, however, have been there, done that, and know that it counts for nothing in the long run. If anyone is sandbagging, they are.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

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