Rising to the Challenge in Europe
It's interesting how this season so far has been almost a repeat of the first four races of 2005, generally speaking. Renault won the first three events then Ferrari suddenly bounced back at Imola, the only difference being that this time around Michael Schumacher stayed ahead of Fernando Alonso rather than vice versa.
Ferrari's performance at San Marino was notable and, unsurprisingly, the Scuderia claims that its competitiveness will continue. Others are still sceptical that Ferrari can continue its front-running challenge with quite such gusto -- was it another Imola one-off for the reds or is Ferrari back in contention for the title?
Well, we'll have to wait and see, won't we? I'm not falling into the prediction trap! It's a definite maybe. This weekend's European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring is one of Schumacher's home races and he's eager to get going. "Coming to Nürburgring is always special but this time I am happier than usual," he said.
"After Imola and the positive outcome of the test sessions, I am confident that we can challenge for the win and this would be a marked improvement on last year. Our set up this year is notably better and this fills me with hope… I believe that we will be competitive and we would like to leave the circuit with a victory."
The Nürburgring is a challenging circuit with a mixture of fast and slow corners, the latter
requiring good traction, and medium speed chicanes. Understeer can be a problem but the fairly high downforce settings can help compensate. There are one or two overtaking opportunities, notably the chicane before the pit entry.
"Cars tend to suffer understeer on this track, and that will be the main consideration when it comes to the car's set-up," said BMW Sauber technical director Willy Rampf in regard to chassis requirements. "It can be offset by the right aero balance or through mechanical modifications."
The track surface is not very abrasive but the weather is unpredictable -- even more so with the slightly earlier date this year -- which makes tyre choice a little tricky. "With the uncertainty over the weather we shall need our tyres to perform in a relatively wide working range," said Bridgestone technical manager Hisao Suganuma.
Renault's Fernando Alonso previously said he expected Ferrari to be strong at Imola but the champion predicts a more open field this weekend. "I am expecting a big fight again," he remarked. "I think the level of competition is much closer than the championship standings suggest, and there will be some big challengers."
Last year's European GP was the scene of Kimi Raikkonen's infamous last-lap exit into the barrier at the first corner, due to a flat-spotted tyre, which lost him the victory. "I am hoping to have a less dramatic race this year," said the McLaren man. "However this track seems to always see exciting and close racing."
While Renault remains at the top of the constructors' standings, just three points separates McLaren and Ferrari in second and third respectively. Behind them comes Honda, which is perhaps not performing as well as some people had expected. The car can't yet keep up with the front runners over a race distance.
Jenson Button believes that will change soon. "We had a positive test at Silverstone (last) week in which we made good progress and took another step closer to the competition," he said. "I think we are starting to see our race pace improve relative to our strong qualifying pace and we should feel positive as we head to Germany."
As well as the Schumacher brothers, the Nürburgring is also a home event for Williams' Nico Rosberg and perhaps even more so for BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld. "The race is my personal home grand prix," Heidfeld said. "The Ring is the circuit nearest to Mönchengladbach, where I was born and grew up."
"As a three-year-old I learnt to ride a bike on the Nürburgring. My father used to take me and my two brothers to the Ring quite often, and in winter we even went tobogganing on the Nordschleife. At the age of eight I had my first go-kart experience on the Nürburgring -- great childhood memories."
BMW is not doing too badly so far, fifth in the championship table behind Honda. Williams, next in line, has not had a great start to the season, beset by car failures and other problems, but Mark Webber at least picked up three points with a sixth place finish at Imola. Webber singled out tyres as a difficult area.
"Bridgestone has made good progress since the winter, but one of the biggest challenges we still face is getting the tyre selection correct for every event," he commented. "We will have to wait and see how we fare against our main opposition at the Nürburgring, but we will, of course, look to optimise our strategy and tyre usage over the course of the weekend to get the best possible result."
Despite Ralf Schumacher's podium finish in Melbourne, Toyota has really struggled in the early races. Ralf has scored all of the team's meagre seven points so far while teammate Jarno Trulli seems to be the one shouldering the brunt of the misfortunes. The Italian hopes that is behind him now.
"I've had nothing but bad luck in the races so far this year so it's time for a change," Trulli stated. "Now that we have resolved our set-up problems we can concentrate on pushing the team forwards. At the Nürburgring the weather will be a crucial factor and I am glad to know the circuit well from my time in German F3."
MF1, unsurprisingly, has no points but brings a couple of car updates along for the ride this weekend, while reserve driver Adrian Sutil will make his debut in the third car for the Friday practice sessions. Sporting relations manager Johnny Herbert recalled his own triumph at the Nürburgring with Stewart Grand Prix.
"People still comment on my win here in 1999, saying how surprising it was, coming as it did with a smaller team," he said. "We were in a similar situation back then as Midland are today: struggling with some bad luck and not quite performing up to our potential. But it just goes to show how big a role determination and sharp thinking play into it."
Hopefully Raikkonen's comment about the Nürburgring providing exciting races will hold true. Imola was tense but the nature of the circuit meant there was little in the way of real fighting for position through the field. Some good old wheel-banging action would be nice -- just not too hard, please, Yuji Ide.