Australia will be a good indicator - Bob Bell

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After a difficult 2007 season, the ING Renault F1 Team is ready to fight back as the new season will kick-off this weekend at Melbourne. Bob Bell, the team's Technical Director, believes that the Australian GP will be a good indicator of how we’re going to fare for the early part of the season.

Bob, the team has completed a busy testing programme this winter. How did that go?

"I think we are happy with how things went overall and we achieved pretty much everything that we needed to in terms of preparing for Melbourne. On the performance side it’s hard to know exactly where we stand; it’s going to be very close between a big group of teams. But we had a successful winter in terms of getting on top of the car and learning how to set it up, so we know we’re extracting the most from our package. There were no obvious handling problems with the car, and certainly none of the problems that we had last year. We’re also pretty comfortable with the reliability of the cars, which is what so much of winter testing is about. But from now it’s a matter of entering into a development race against all the other teams to develop the car and to do all we can to make sure we are improving faster than everybody else."

What about the mood in the team now that Fernando is back?

"I think there is a renewed optimism this year and Fernando coming back has really buoyed the whole team. He really is a great source of motivation for everybody. The wonderful thing about Fernando is that he’s a real fighter and he will always get the best out of the equipment on the day. You know that every race you enter with Fernando behind the wheel there is a chance that he will bring back a trophy because that’s the sort of driver he is. And so it fills everyone with real enthusiasm to be going into the first race with Fernando back in the team."

The team fields another rookie this year in Nelson Piquet. How has he adapted to the role of race driver?

"Nelson has worked hard over the winter and his performances during testing have shown that he has already reached a high standard, and so I think he is as ready as he ever will be for his first race. He is working well with the engineers, who have done a good job of getting him ready for the season, and he has shown good pace. Now it’s a question of showing that pace in a race as opposed to on the test track because a race obviously has different pressures and there is a lot more things for a driver to think about. It will be interesting to see how he copes with that, but I’m sure he will do a good job."

You have said before that the R27 was too conservative. So how has the team approached 2008?

"We have pushed very hard in all areas, and particularly on the aerodynamics. The reality of modern F1 is that the quality of the aero package determines a car’s success – and this has been our primary focus. The front end too has come in for particular attention, notably the front wing and the front suspension. The suspension architecture is now much more akin to what is deemed ‘fashionable’: the zero keel solution offered us no real benefit for a number of years, but it has opened up potential for us this year in order to extract maximum performance from the tyres."

Tell us about Albert Park from a technical standpoint. Is it a circuit that will play to the strengths of the R28?

"I don’t think it will be disadvantageous to the R28, put it that way. It’s a track that has traditionally required a car with a good change of direction and good braking characteristics, and this should suit the R28. But it can be a bit bumpy in places and I think we’ve possibly got some work to do with getting the car to work well on the bumps and the curbs. The other thing about Albert Park is that it’s all about driver confidence, and so a good set-up is essential. I think that is something we can achieve with the R28: we can set it up to give the drivers what they want. It’s not going to be disadvantageous to us in any particular way, and I would expect it to be a good indicator of how we’re going to fare for the early part of the season."

Last year the team struggled to adapt the car to Bridgestone tyres. Has the team resolved those issues?

"The relationship with Bridgestone has always been good, and even when we were struggling to get the best out of the tyres they were an excellent partner to work with. But it’s true to say that we are in much better shape this year with our understanding of the tyres and we now have a car that is better at exploiting the characteristics of the tyres. So I’m not really concerned about the tyre utilisation; we know that we can set the car up to get the best out of them."

The team has enjoyed great success in Melbourne with two wins in the last three years. What is a realistic objective for this weekend?

"We want to be fighting for a podium – that will be our clear objective for the season, and that’s what we’re aiming for in Melbourne. Exactly how things will shake out is anybody’s guess, but we will be doing everything we can to try and achieve that. Albert Park is a circuit that Fernando knows well, and he’s been successful there in the past, winning with the team in 2006. It’s a new circuit for Nelson, and so our main focus is to make sure that he is as well prepared as he can be. It’s probably the most difficult circuit for a driver to learn because it’s so technical and one of those places where drivers find it difficult to get their lines absolutely right."

Formula 1 enters an era of standardised electronics with no driver aids. What impact, if any, do you expect this to have on the spectacle?

"The driving may be a bit more interesting to watch and the cars may move around a little bit more, but I don’t think it will fundamentally alter the pecking order among the drivers. It may catch out the unwary, particularly in wet conditions, but I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference. The public won’t be able to point a finger at the sport and say “that’s a result of the new electronic systems”. But the introduction of standardised electronics was not about trying to alter the spectacle; it was about levelling the regulatory playing field and containing costs. Overall I don’t think the spectacle of Formula 1 will change as a result."

The competition among the teams is close this year. How do you see the pecking order at the moment?

"All we can go on is what we have seen in winter testing, and so we are fairly sure that Ferrari are the frontrunners with McLaren probably a little bit behind them. After that there seems to be a gaggle of teams that are all very close to each another, possibly slightly behind McLaren or maybe just with them. So it’s very difficult to call where we think we will finish in Melbourne, but we do go there with high expectations."