Tue 28 Apr 2009
This has been a pretty disasterous start to the season for the two teams most people fancied to be up there challenging for the championship.
Prior to the season commencing, I heard McLaren say (boast?) that they had been working on this car for the last 18 months which would make you think that it would be pretty good. It hasn’t been.
Ferrari were the first team I heard say that last season had affected their concentration on this new season - their reasoning being that they had to continue trying to develop last year’s car right up until the very last race, thereby eating into resources which should really have left last year’s car behind and turned their attention to the new challenger.
That is quite an admission, and McLaren now seem to be following this same story too - by developing so many new parts for the season finale in Brazil last season, they turned their full focus to the new season too late and are now suffering because of it.
So, how will McLaren and Ferrari respond?
Much has been made about this being Ferrari’s worst start to a season for 20-odd years and if we think we’ve heard a lot about it in Britain, spare a thought for those in Italy - the media over there must be going mental!
The first four races being pretty far away from home has made it hard for all the teams to try and improve their cars from where they started the season, but with the F1 circus returning to Europe in a couple of weeks I think we can expect to see some radical alterations from every team when they turn up in Barcelona.
The real problem any under-performing team faces this year is the ban on in-season testing, and dealing with this is where I think these two teams will differ vastly.
Ferrari are famous for having a private test track or two hidden up their sleeves at which they have spent many days in the past simply driving round and round and round for hours on end. This not only gives the drivers some extra experience, it also means they can make literally any part and stick it on ”just to see if it works” - given that they had limitless laps, they didn’t really have to think too much before bolting parts on.
This is just how Ferrari works I think, it’s perhaps a bit old fashioned nowadays and it certainly is compared to how McLaren go about their business.
Since Lewis Hamilton appeared on the scene we have heard talk of their simulator which they used extensively to help him get acclimatised to F1 even before he had sat in a car at a race weekend. I’ve a feeling that this willingness and indeed eagerness to embrace new technology is what will see McLaren outpace Ferrari in the coming races - in fact it already seems to have been the case in the last couple of grand prix.
With actual physical running severely restricted this year, those with the most powerful computers which can run simulations on parts and how they will contribute to the lap-time will surely come out on top. It’s here that McLaren appear to be way ahead of their Italian counterparts.
On a sidenote, it may be that this reliance on a more modern approach to testing may actually have hampered McLaren early on.
Prior to pre-season testing was when McLaren seemed pretty upbeat about how the season was shaping up. Those first tests revealed a McLaren which was way off the pace, but every team running varying fuel levels and a multitude of other variables meant that it was hard to get a true reflection on whether their struggles were real or not.
Their use of practically every trick in the book to try and find out why their aero wasn’t working as they thought it would confirmed that their lack of pace was real however.
With what their computers back at base were telling them not matching up with what was really happening at the track, this was giving them a big headache. After all they were going to be relying on this method to work on improvements throughout the season which would end up being useless if they couldn’t trust what they were being told.
Having had a few pre-season tests and now four grand prix weekends under their belts, I would guess that they have managed to get enough data to re-calibrate their systems back at base - if indeed that was what the problem happened to be - which has led to their recent, albeit slight, improvements.
Both McLaren and Ferrari are intent on the same thing, getting back to winning ways, but they seem to be going about it in different ways. It will be interesting to see who fares best and whether it is soon enough to make a difference as far as the World Championship is concerned.