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Renault Show How It’s Done

When it comes to giving the fans what they want, some teams are better than others. Renault have long led the way in reaching F1 fanatics, with an active team club, excellent information on the website and an openness that puts other teams to shame.

Podcast

Now they have re-instated their podcast in a new format and it is well worth a listen. You can hear it by clicking on this link. This time round Pat Symonds, Steve Nielsen, the Sporting Manager, and Jeff Fullerton, Machine Shop Manager, are interviewed on such subjects as the car’s performance, the rise of young drivers in F1 and the quality of TV coverage. They pull no punches, giving their views frankly and without avoiding sensitive issues.

Full marks to Renault for such an excellent innovation.

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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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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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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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