Renault have made a dominant start to the 2005 season – but Toyota, Ferrari and McLaren are chasing them hard. They need to be, because if they’re not on terms with the regie at this, the first race of the ‘European season’, they can kiss their title dreams goodbye.
With the first three ‘flyaway’ races completed, Fernando Alonso leads the driver’s championship with 26 points, 10 clear of Jarno Trulli. We also find ourselves in the unusual position of there being another 16 races still to run – as many as in an entire season only a few years ago.
On the face of it, Trulli may stand a chance of overhauling Alonso’s lead because Toyota have outscored Renault in the last two races. But, realistically, Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella lost points through a collision and retirement in these rounds, and there is no obvious chink in the Renault armour just yet.
The pressure is on Fisichella, though. Since his Australian win he has had two wasted races and must not lose sight of his rampant team mate so early in the year.
Trulli, second in the last two races, must be a dark horse for victory even if he has publicly expressed reservations over how well his Toyota will perform on the unusual Imola circuit. Kimi Raikkonen is another strong tip. For three races, the Finn has unleashed awesome, covert speed on race day after qualifying poorly. This is partly a characteristic of his MP4-20, but also a consequence of needless errors, such as at Bahrain. In first qualifying this weekend, Raikkonen will be third-to-last to run, giving him a realistic chance of starting from the front two rows – something he is yet to do this year. From that position, he would be a serious threat to Alonso.
Rumours persist that Juan Pablo Montoya has not yet recovered from his should injury sufficiently to partner Raikkonen, and that McLaren third driver Alex Wurz (who has finally had the MP4-20 modified to fit his 1.85m frame) will substitute. This is a blow for Pedro de la Rosa, who set fastest lap in Bahrain on his way to fifth in Montoya’s seat. In an ideal world, both these underrated talents would have regular drives.
Ferrari, too, are seething from their early season defeats. Already the only team to violate the restricted testing agreement, they have taken their test work to new heights in their attempts to find more speed and reliability from the F2005. Remember, this car originally wasn’t supposed to arrive until the next race, in Spain.
Schumacher also has an unfavourable starting slot for first qualifying. Nonetheless, cooler ambient temperatures at San Marino will surely ease the tyre wear problems that blighted Rubens Barrichello’s recent races. But will they have the outright pace?
BAR-Honda’s situation is more desperate, but they are tipping themselves to make a strong comeback. Testing in Barcelona last week suggested they have found some genuine pace, but their more serious Achilles heels have been reliability and the inability of the 007 chassis to run effectively in the disturbed air of a leading car. If it holds together, Button should be in the points. If it holds together.
Williams and Red Bull Racing have been the pleasant surprises of 2005 so far. Williams have hammered through their backlog of wind tunnel work and positively thrown new components onto the FW27 – and there are yet more pieces coming this week. It has apparently gained vital downforce at the expense of straight-line efficiency, which the BMW engine can partly make up for, being the most powerful in the pit lane.
Red Bull, meanwhile, risk confusing their solid start to the season as they inflict a driver change upon themselves – Christian Klein out for Vitantonio Liuzzi. 2004 F3000 champion Liuzzi is highly rated in the pit lane, and has already been linked to Ferrari. Klien will be in Liuzzi’s testing role.
His first real challenge will be against team-mate David Coulthard in one-lap qualifying – an area where Coulthard has always struggled, so expect the Italian to make waves on his home debut.
It seems as if Sauber are effectively running a one-car team for Felipe Massa, with a beleaguered Jacques Villeneuve vainly peddling a second chassis and surely only races away from canning it altogether.
The Imola circuit may well upset what we have seen of 2005 form to date. The circuit rewards cars that can ride the bumpy kerbs of its many chicanes as effectively as possible, and get good traction from them. Imola has four chicanes, plus the Jordans and the Minardis – Minardi are bringing their curvy new PS05, so there is even a chance that the Jordans will get lapped first.
Passing is excruciatingly difficult on the narrow and short straights, so Sunday qualifying poses a particular challenge for the strategists – to fuel the car light and get a better grid position, or fuel more heavily and risk starting too low down? McLaren tend towards the latter option, so get your bets on Raikkonen if he qualifies well. Otherwise, the Renault’s immaculate traction should seal another win for the boy from Oviedo.