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.
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.