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F1 at end of an era?

2005-04-04 07:49

Egmont Sippel

Renault Formula One driver Fernando Alonso is greeted by Renault team members after winning the Formula One Bahrain. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
CLICK HERE for the Bahrain GP gallery

It is too early to tell, of course. But on the day after the end of an entirely different kind of era, Ferrari failed - almost spectacularly, and for the first time in six years - to clinch victory on debut with a new car.

In a cruel twist of fate, the blackened nose of the F2005 unintentionally stood for a little bit more than simply the mourning of the Pope's death.

In retrospect, at year's end, it might also come to signify the end of Ferrari's unprecedented and unbroken spell of F1 dominance, starting with Maranello's constructor's championship in 1999 and Schumacher's driver's title in 2000.

Since then, nothing and nobody have been able to stop them.

Until now.

So, what are the chances that Fernando Alonso and Renault could continue their early season form?

Well, fairly good, at least. But much will depend on the efficiency of the Michelin tyre in colder climates.

Up until now, and not surprisingly, the 2005 season has played into Bibendum's hands. Pierre Depasquier and his merry band of rubber specialists are past masters at creating tyres that run a bit cooler than Bridgestone rubber. Their compound and construction philosophy works well on hot asphalt in warm climates, where Bridgestone rubber tend to overheat, blister and loose grip.

But in colder European conditions the trend is reversed, mainly because Bridgestone's fractionally softer compounds provide a little bit of extra grip, without track temperatures ever being high enough to induce excessive wear - except in really freaky years, like the summer of 2003.

Remember how Williams and McLaren came back at Ferrari? And how Alonso lapped Schumacher at the Hungaroring?

So much more

It wasn't the first time ever that Schumacher had been lapped, of course, and not the last either. In 1996, Damon Hill caught the German maestro in Brazil, on a wet to damp to dry track. And just recently, in Sepang this year, Alonso again put a lap between himself and the world champion.

But more, in the words of Frank Sinatra, so much more: Jarno Trulli did it his way and also put a lap between himself and the Schu. At the rate he's dominating Little Schu as well, he might even inflict that kind of embarrassment on Ralf at some stage of the 2005 season!

Oh! The ignominy of it all! A Ferrari being lapped by a Toyota! Hi you, over there in your blood-red Modena 360 - just look at my Prius! One can just imagine it. Any doubts that Maranello might have had over the wisdom of introducing the relatively untried F2005 in Bahrain evaporated at that moment when Trulli showed his exhaust pipes to Schumacher at the end of Sepang's main straight.

That was the closest, by the way, that the interim scarlet car ever came to the front runners in Malaysia. For the rest of the race, they needed binoculars to spot Alonso and Trulli.

At least Schumacher scored points over there, because of the adapted F2004's reliability. Having rushed the F2005 into action and leaving Bahrain with nothing but confirmation of the new car's speed might make the crucial difference, come Sunday afternoon, 16 October 2005.

If Alonso - or any other Michelin runner, for that matter - is crowned world champion in China by less than a couple of points, the whole of Italy might again go into mourning.

Ferrari difficulty

The wisdom of Ferrari's Bahrain bash will transpire in time, of course. But in the interim Michael and Rubens will get the short end of the stick at Imola, in terms of having to qualify early on Saturday afternoon - a position from which it is not impossible to recover, but difficult to win.

And Ferrari better start doing some of that fairly soon, otherwise Alonso - with Spain, Monaco and the Nurburgring coming up next - might even extend his present advantage of 24 points over the world champion.

Barcelona favours good car balance (remember how the Spaniard stuck to Schumacher's new car in Catalunya, a couple of seasons ago?). And Monaco plus the Ring are big on traction (remember how Trulli won in Monaco last year - in the Renault - and how the selfsame Trulli almost snatched the lead off the line, also last year, at the Ring?)

Alonso and Renault might then, take it away from Ferrari over the next three races. That is to say, if the tyre war favours Michelin. And it might, notwithstanding the general expectation that Bridgestone will quickly regain lost ground in Europe - and for a very simple reason: drivers and cars, as we know, are now limited to a single set of tyres for qualifying plus the full race distance.

And Michelin compounds and construction, running a that little bit cooler and therefore slower at the start of a race but stronger at the end, might just provide the crucial edge to catapult a Renault or McLaren into the driving seat, even if the F2005 could quite possibly be the quickest bullet over a single lap, and also the fastest car in the early parts of a race.

All of this remains to be seen. But it is not to say that no other car than a Renault or McLaren will come to the fore, if Michelin gets the upper hand. Williams has surprised friend and foe in Oz and Malaysia, although the car and its drivers looked at sea in Bahrain's desert.


Keep a third eye on BAR, though. The car is struggling for pace at the moment, mainly because of two reasons:
1) front wing stall, which means that air is channeled around the BAR in such a way that the car is suddenly - and with considerable force - subjected to an air shock even before it hits the apex, where after drivers simply have to live with over steer. This curtails apex and exit speed, and worse: a sliding tail ruins the rear tyres.

2) The second problem is that the BAR, with an extremely low center of gravity, fails to heat up its tyres, which limits cornering speed, which reduces down force, which forces the drivers to go slowly, which prevents them from getting enough temperature in the already cool running Michelin tyre.

Catch 22, then, for BAR at the moment. But there might be a saving grace, and that is a Honda engine that is still revved to 19 500 rpm, in quali - which is still 1 000 r/min more than any other engine. That might result in a couple of initial reliability problems, but once sorted - and with front wing stall eliminated, possibly with a more adventurous front wing than the very conservative effort the cars are having to carry at the moment - the BAR might fly.

McLaren's got a slightly different problem. The aero package looks good and the car is well-balanced.

The MP20 therefore looks after its tyres well, which results in a consistent race pace. It's not for nothing that Raikkonen got the fastest lap in Malaysia, and De la Rosa the quickest in Bahrain. The Spaniard's performance, in fact, has surprised many people.

But remember that when he joined Eddie Irvine a couple of years ago at Jaguar, he got thrashed in his first outing, in Barcelona, only to out-qualify his illustrious team mate in something like six out of the next eight races. The man is quick, if sometimes a bit optimistic and over-exuberant - which all helped to make 'Driver of the Day' in Bahrain an all-Spanish affair.

But is Pedro quicker than Kimi? No way! Senna once pointed out that test drivers actually have an immense advantage over race drivers, because they spend so much more time in the car. The man that should be worried is Montoya. Analise carefully, and you will notice that Raikkonen easily had Montoya's measure in Oz and Malaysia.

Alonso, in fact, enjoys the same advantage over Fisichella. And Trulli is thrashing Ralf at the moment.

But that's only part of the Toyota story. The other part is that they have, in one giant leap, catapulted themselves from the back of the grid, right to the front.

Which is, perhaps, not so strange - for we now have two of arguably the four or five best car manufacturers in the world (excluding niche marques like Ferrari and Porsche) running at the front of the grid, seemingly well ahead of a third member of this illustrious quantette, namely BMW - with Honda and VW also in the mix, even with the latter is not in F1.

Is this then, the passing of the baton? Is this the dawn of a new era in which the world's most specialized motorized sport is dominated by the manufacturers of mass-produced cars?

It will be an irony, yes. But it will also inject massive interest in a sport teetering on the brink.

So, go for it, Renault and Toyota!

  • Egmont Sippel is the motoring editor of Rapport

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