One of the most exiting races of the season may the first, as this is the one where the cars are really competing against each other for the first time. Teams come with the best they have in order to perform the best they can. It is therefore mostly surprising, since testing performance be not quite be the true performance of the cars with equal weight and fuel. This year was of course not different than all previous, with various surprising teams, some in good, and some in bad ways. One team in particularly managed to be very happy itself, but disappointed Bernie and a lot of F1 fans. This Maranello based squad is called Ferrari, and started the season once again with a very solid performance, with a 1-2 on the podium.
The drivers that are competing this year are the following:
As soon as the lights went to green, it was clear who was going to dominate the race, since both Ferraris were a full second faster over the lap distance than their nearest challenger, the Renault of Fernando Alonso, 1.5 seconds quicker than the Williams, two seconds ahead of the BAR and as much as three seconds faster than the McLaren! At the end of the race, there were only 6 cars left in the same lap, and it could have been less if they had not backed off a little towards the end of the race. Barrichello however kept on pushing his team mate M. Schumacher continuously, until after his second stop he got problems with the brakes. The pedal got longer, and because temperature of the brakes did not drop, he had to slow down. What was really worrying however is that Rubens was faster than any non-Ferrari competitor, even with his problems.
Clouds above Michelin headquarters
Michelin engineers already saw the storm coming, and stated that a loss at Sepang would mean they have to forget about the season. The French tyre supplier had been very strong during 2003, especially in hot conditions, and on tracks that generally have high amounts of grip. Melbourne was just the adverse, with 20°C and a circuit that is hardly ever driver on during the whole year. It was therefore that the beaten Michelin teams laid their hopes to hot circuits, but since Ferrari is already so dominant, it is hard to believe that the difference will quickly be levelled.
It is believed that the main advantage of the Michelin tyres during 2003 was because of the shape of the tyre, rather than the compound it is made of. There was a visible difference between the rolling surface of the Bridgestone Potenza in regard to Michelin's Pilot. Michelin produced, and still does, a very flat tyre, that can optimally get in contact with the tarmac surface during every moment of a lap. Bridgestone's tyres were a little more rounded, which somehow reduced the contact patch, possibly only by a few millimetres during cornering, but this is exactly where the gain can be made. The idea was apparently understood, because a quick view learns these tyres are now a lot more flat, and are reduced to slicks a lot faster than last year, just like Michelin did and does. This said, it is remarkable how the Bridgestone tyres like a lot more camber than the Michelins.
The Ferrari way
Chief aerodynamics Rory Byrne had already stated at the launch of the brand new F2004 that many of the elements from the car would still be developed before the beginning of the season. And so it happened... the first novelty during tests of the car was the front wing, which is still curved like last year, and also has the same kind of upper flap, but has changed in any other aspect. The wing now sports 3 elements, following McLaren's new front wing, and the lower horizontal plane is curved up at the sides, most likely since air flowing under the air is more useful at the sides than in the centre. Because of the regulations, there is, hence a decent design always enough air to provide the underbody and diffuser at the back to generate downforce. The thing is that the third flap already created the most downforce at the ends of the wing, and by curving up the sides, the wing is likely to produce a more even downforce divided over the complete wing, with a cleaner airflow behind it.
Another new thing was the midwing, located behind the airbox camera. This item had been previously seen on many cars like Renault and BAR in high downforce races, but it seems like the Ferrari will use them all season through. Thanks to this element, the F2004 makes me think of a U-boat. Smaller changes had been made to the rear wing, front wing endplates, the nose-front wing connection (which are now closer towards each other) and air outlets. It seems to be an excellent alternative to the original McLaren chimneys teams seem to be reintroducing again.
Red and its rivals, an overview
Once again, it was Ferrari that won the championship last year, and immediately the trend was set for the designing of any new car in F1. The rival engineers knew what to do, and tried to decrease width, height and length of the sidepods to allow a better airflow towards the rear wing. Of course there is that rear wing itself, that must be fitted perfectly within the package. The F2003-GA was particularly quick because it had such steep and narrow sidepods, especially at the rear of the car. Renault realised this very quickly be releasing their R23B last year, and McLaren were by then already busy with the MP4/18. Williams had no real reason to react, since the car was running fine at that stage, gathering race wins during mid season 2003.
The pictures now clearly show what a resemblance there really is between the Ferrari and Renault. Both their flipups run downward at the connection point with the sidepod, after which they steeply go upwards to lift the air just above the rear wheel. The initial downward direction is also present at McLaren's MP4/19, however being not so obvious. The reason is the downward direction of the sidepod, and the air flowing above the sidepod. Since it is better to let air flow in bends rather than sharp corners, the flipups catch air without changing its direction, after which it pushes all air in a curved way upwards. McLaren seem to be going through a hard time, since the day they decided to start with the development of the MP4/18. The current car has problems with getting the Michelins to work at the rear, while the front lacks downforce. While a change from Hitco brakes to Carbone Industries solved their overheating problems, the bite of the Carbone discs is much more aggressive. As the MP4-19 is already a nervous car, this aspect does not please the drivers!
Williams have a totally different approach, with low and flat sidepods, therefore justifying the missing of the downward starting flipup. It appears as if two flip ups are more efficient since this second one has now been added, compared to last year's car. It now seems like Williams have simply been too busy with their tusked nose, and forgot to really develop the car aerodynamically at the back. Even though Williams completed 15585 test kilometres, the car was not as fast as hoped for, particularly slowing down towards the end of the stints, marking too much tyre wear. It also has too much downforce in front compared to that in the rear and it also has poor traction. During testing at Imola the car was 10km/h slower than the Ferrari 100 m after the exit of the final chicane. The reason for that weakness is partly due to insufficient traction control and suspension geometry. If you listen to the Ferrari, it sounds similar to the Renault as both use less and less cylinder for their traction control and more ignition retard. This is more efficient, if the engine can handle it that is as the main problem that can arise is that the outlet valves can become very hot.
B.A.R steps up from the midfield
The attraction of Geoffrey Willis from Williams to BAR last year had a solid impact on the car's performance last year, however being sort of unreliably, the team lacked the points that would reflect its potential from 2003. Now, in 2004, Jenson Button drove his car to fourth, proving that his car is capable of getting him on the podium. As with any other team, the BAR 006 has reworked sidepods, that are smaller than on the 005, however sporting the same kind of flip-ups in front of the rear wheels. The rear wing also has a two vertical elements connecting the both horizontal plates to each other. The (disputable) reason for this is to limit sideways draft, but we at least know for sure it comes from WRC. The link is then quickly made, since BAR boss David Richards is head of prodrive, a WRC manufacturer.
The pace can be partially explained by the extra efforts that Honda is putting into its Formula One campaign with 500 people in Japan, 80 in England and 25 at BAR. 225 of them are currently working in the chassis and transmission departments. The internals of the gearbox are made by Honda as well as the geometry of the rear suspension. For that, Honda has built a 20 post rig in Tokyo and the software for the suspension testing has cost 10 million Euros. The engine now weighs approximately 93 kg and has 910 hp at 18,600 rpm and the piston problems they had in winter testing are now solved.
Sauber isn't doing bad either, which is not that hard to explain, considering the team is now also known as "Ferrari 2" or "The blue Ferrari". The cars are very resembling to the F2003-GA, and run this season with a 2004 spec Ferrari engine, and 2003 spec Ferrari gearboxes. The tyre sensor on the left picture was also seen at Ferrari last year, but was here only present during Friday's free sessions. The cooling grills à la Ferrari were also only present during the race and qualifying. The Ferrari Sauber cooperation may prove to be strategically very important for both teams, since they share information about engines, gearboxes and of course the Bridgestone tyres. The resemblances are therefore very handy, since Ferrari now knows more or less how the car handles with the tyres, while Sauber profits from a proven technology.
Aside from the very noble conquest for peace taken up by Jordan and Bahrain, the following image indicates where the most of the work has gone to. The car has a lowered sidepod, and the flipup system has been revised. It still looks a little immature, but the previous configuration for the EJ13 was far worse than that. The team was still a little advantageous over Minardi, but both must improve in case they want to get some points this season, apart from a very very lucky race.
To show why a winter test limit is very necessary, here the kilometers driven by each team during this winter in preparation to the season 2004:
- Williams FW26 - 15585 kms over 33 test days
- Ferrari F2004 - 5565 kms over 21 test days
- McLaren MP4/19 - 13922 kms over 31 test days
- Renault R24 - 6745 kms over 17 test days
- Toyota TF104 - 10149 kms over 24 test days
- Minardi PS04B - 3236 kms over 10 test days
- Sauber C23 - 7261 kms over 19 test days
- BAR 006 ( and 005 concept) - 5290 kms over 13 test days
- Jaguar R5 - 6317 kms over 13 test days
- Jordan EJ14 - 3629 kms over 12 test days