Chance to take early lead on Ferrari

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A year ago this weekend Formula One experts who had predicted the end of Michael Schumacher’s winning streak were silenced.

The German was testing in Imola, Italy, and set a lap time two seconds faster than his nearest rival. The opposition were left slack-jawed with surprise and despair. All winter it had appeared that Ferrari was struggling to maintain its dominance, but in reality it was saving its best for the final test before the opening race in Melbourne. It was a crushing statement of intent and Schumacher went on to win 13 of last year’s 18 races.

Ferrari has once again been off the pace this winter, but this time there has been no Imola bombshell, no last minute statement of intent. So does it have something up its sleeve or is it going to get beaten for once?

Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello sounded a cautious note, “We no longer have the advantage that we could enjoy a year ago,” he said. “At the moment I think Renault and McLaren are slightly ahead. But we’re not going to panic. We always knew that we could have a hard time in the early races.”

Schumacher also offered a downbeat tone: “I want to win the World Championship, although I know it will be harder than in any previous year. We have managed to fend off defeats for five years. If we cannot achieve that any more, then so be it. I know that our run will end some time.”

Sir Frank Williams, of the Williams team, isn’t having any of it. “They are sandbagging,” he said emphatically. “If you look at their long runs in testing, the last few laps are a lot quicker than the rest.”

What makes the start of this season so intriguing is that it is so hard to read the tea leaves. While there is no doubt that McLaren and Renault have been faster in testing, Ferrari has adopted a totally different approach to new rules, which have slashed aerodynamic downforce by 30 per cent. Whereas the other teams have specifically designed cars to the new rules package, Ferrari is buying itself time, starting the season with a modified version of last year’s car.

Its 2005 car, launched yesterday at the team’s legendary headquarters in Maranello, will not be raced until the fifth round of the championship in May. In the meantime, Schumacher and Barrichello will quietly develop it behind closed doors. It is an important car for Ferrari, which this year is seeking its seventh consecutive constructors’ world championship. This is the first modern Ferrari not designed by South African Rory Byrne, who was behind all of Schumacher’s world championship winning cars at Ferrari and Benetton. Byrne is retiring later this year and has handed design responsibility to his long time understudy, Italian Aldo Costa, assisted by the British aerodynamicist John Iley.

To add to the intrigue, Ferrari cancelled its original 2005 design concept last November and started again with a blank sheet. Was this because it had found something that would restore the team’s massive advantage, or was it a panic measure because it realised it was on the wrong track?

We will get the answer when the car makes its debut at the Spanish Grand Prix on May 8 and it will hold the key to the championship. In the meantime it looks as though McLaren, Williams, BAR and Renault have a rare opportunity to steal a march on Ferrari in the early races. Rival teams’ aerodynamicists have been surprised by the solutions Ferrari has adopted on its interim car. For a team that set the benchmark in that field for the past five years, the modified 2004 car lacks imagination. But the car is bound to be reliable and that could count for a lot with a new rule stipulating an engine must last two Grand Prix weekends, more than 1,200km of driving.

Then there is the issue of tyres. Ferrari is now the only front-running team using Bridgestone tyres. All its principal rivals are on Michelin. Ferrari has an advantage in that its tyres are tailor-made, but the disadvantage is that Michelin has covered five times more test mileage than its rival. And with a new rule stipulating that one set of tyres must last both qualifying sessions and the race – more than 350km – information on how the tyres will behave after heavy mileage is vitally important.

The new engine and tyre rules will mean that Grand Prix races will change in character. The emphasis is now much more on the driver conserving the car, while pushing as hard as he dare.

“Being one of the smoothest drivers is very important now,” says Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella. “It’s going to be important to save the tyres. It’s going to be interesting to watch the races now because it’s easy to make mistakes and in the last 10-15 laps it’s going to be difficult.” So instead of races being decided at the start, as in recent years, they will be decided at the finish.

With any luck, the same will be true of the championship. Renault starts next Sunday’s Australian Grand Pix in Melbourne as favourites. The French team finished third in last year’s series behind BAR Honda, which is struggling to find reliability and speed. McLaren will also be strong from the outset and in Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen they have the strongest driver pairing. Williams and BAR will start behind, but both are expected to close the gap as the season goes on.

If popularity among ones’ peers was related to performance, Ferrari would finish last this season. Last month it alienated all of the other teams by signing a unilateral agreement with the FIA, the sport’s ruling body, and entrepreneur Bernie Ecclestone for five years, beginning in 2008. The teams and car manufacturers had previously presented a united front in a quest for fairer governance and a fairer distribution of the sport’s commercial revenues. But Ferrari broke ranks in return for a significantly greater income and apparently more influence over rule-making. Its defection will undoubtedly trigger some painful confrontations behind the scenes this season.

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