Reliability is the key

Perhaps for the first time in recent years in Formula One, the emphasis is overtly on machine than man, writes G. RAGHUNATH.

Fernando Alonso, who at the age of 24 became the youngest Formula One champion last season and the first from Spain, said after his stupendous victory in the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, the final race of 2005, "To win in F1, you need to be in the best car at the best moment. It's a combination."

Renault, without doubt, was the best car last year as Alonso savoured his best moments in five years on the circuit. The `best-car, best-moment' theme could well be played out again this season, with some mutation though, against the backdrop of the significant changes made to Formula One's sporting and technical rules by FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile), the governing body of motor sport worldwide.

In one of the biggest changes in Formula One in recent years, a new 2.4-litre V8 powerplant replaces the 3-litre V10 engine for 2006 and beyond. This straightaway diminishes the power of the cars from 950hp to 750hp and simply thrusts the burden on a team's development crew. As Mark Webber, the principal driver of Williams, noted: "Whoever manages to gain back some of that lost power will have a clear advantage."

So, perhaps for the first time since Lotus perfected the `ground effect' concept and introduced its cars with `skirts' in the late 1970s or the turbo-charged engines made their contentious entry in the early 1980s, we would see machine gaining precedence over man (read driver) this year. In fact, the 2005 season provided a foretaste of this incongruity.

If Alonso was at his best at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix, demonstrating his finesse at the wheel by fending off seven-time World champion Michael Schumacher's relentless challenge lap after lap, McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, driving the fastest car of the season and starting from the pole, had to return to the pits early in the race with a drive shaft failure. Later, the flamboyant Finn, in the Japanese Grand Prix, showed what he is capable of if given a reliable car to drive.

At Suzuka, Raikkonen's McLaren was not just fast but unfailing. And despite starting from the 17th position on the grid, the Finn decimated the field and in the final lap overtook Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella with astounding ease to take the chequered flag nearly 1.6 seconds ahead of the Italian. It was a breathtaking victory that came a little too late for Raikkonen, who, for the best part of the season, was dogged by ill-prepared and unreliable engines.

Sample this. Last year, Raikkonen finished on the podium 11 times, including seven victories, but had to retire with mechanical problems on three occasions. On the other hand, Alonso had the same number of victories, but had three more podium finishes than Raikkonen and retired in two races (one less than the Finn). On the face of it, these numbers would suggest a close fight for the championship, but in actuality it wasn't all that knotty for Alonso. The Spaniard was crowned the World champion in Brazil with two of the 19 GPs — the Japanese and Chinese — still to go. And what really distinguished the two drivers of equal mettle was the `combination' that Alonso talked of — `the best car at the best moment'.

With such great emphasis placed on machine, not all teams are as confident as Renault. The team leader Flavio Briatore was quite as excited as Alonso as Renault pulled the wraps off its spanking new RS26 V8 with `No. 1' emblazoned on it. "I am very confident we can do it again. When you are at the top you got to stay there," said Patrick Faure, the head of Renault Sport, of his team's chances this year.

Alonso wants to be the best in 2006 and beyond. "I always want to beat the competitors in everything I do," is how he puts it. Given the new Renault's superior engine management and reliability and Alonso's own sterling driving skills, it's highly unlikely that he would be upstaged this year.

Personally for Alonso, 2006 is an important season and nothing would be more heart-warming than defending his F1 title in his final year with Renault (Alonso has signed to drive for McLaren next year). However, amidst the final crucial rounds of testing, the circuit was rife with rumours that Renault could favour Fisichella over Alonso. But the Spaniard played down the "silly noises" saying he is fully convinced that his team will be neutral. "I will defend the No. 1 and they the Constructors' Championship," he told the media peremptorily. Meanwhile, McLaren appears to be still grappling with its old reliability problem, as its new Mercedes V8 engine hasn't done all too well at the testing. "We have been testing for quite some time now, but we have not been able to make progress," said McLaren's principal driver Raikkonen. And striking a rather discordant note, he has threatened to leave the team if it falters again this year.

"I have lots of options, but before deciding I want to see the level of competitiveness of McLaren," the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport quoted the Finn as saying. Raikkonen, whose contract with McLaren expires at the end of this season, has been approached by Ferrari.

There are a few other major questions doing the rounds and they, obviously, pertain to the legendary Michael Schumacher, who apparently is in his last season with Ferrari. Though the German has the offer to remain with the Italian team as long as he desires to, his future in the sport depends a lot on his (and his team's) performance this year.

The 2005 season was eminently forgettable for both Schumacher and the prancing horse. After five successive World championships, beginning in 2000, and a tremendous 2004 where he logged a record 148 points with 13 victories, Schumacher crashed with a resounding thud, as it were, last year with just one farcical win in the six-car US Grand Prix in Indianapolis to show. And interestingly, with Schumacher's sagging fortunes, Ferrari's hopes of defending its Constructors' Championship went up in smoke.

Seldom has a team's fortunes depended so heavily on a single driver. That's the class of Schumacher, for you.

Unlike last year when the team waited inordinately to introduce its new car, Ferrari will unleash its new, lightweight 248 in the Bahrain Grand Prix that will go on stage on March 12. Schumacher is pretty confident of reclaiming the world championship, though he concedes Renault is the favourite this year again.

The new rules pertaining to tyre changes and the new engine are expected to work in favour of Ferrari. Last year, one set of tyres for each race meant the companies — Michelin and Bridgestone — had to go in for a sturdier and reliable compound. But Bridgestone, used by Ferrari, failed to live up to the demands and this blunted the Italian team's challenge considerably in the last season. Now that tyre changes are allowed during the races, Ferrari believes it would be a different game altogether.

The new engine, albeit less powerful than the outgoing variant, could also offer Ferrari a slight technical advantage over the rest. The clincher here could be the seamless change gearbox (this helps the engine maintain steady power even during gear shifts) that Ferrari has perfected.

Schumacher says he definitely wants to add another World Championship title to his kitty. He is convinced that his team is all geared up to reclaim the position it conceded to Renault. And Bahrain will reveal how well the two are prepared for the joint mission.

From the Indian point of view, Narain Karthikeyan, the man who sustained the nation's interest through the longest season in F1 history last year, driving for Jordan, has been relegated to the position of a test driver for Williams this year. Williams is of the view that Narain could get his chance midway through the season, but that depends on extreme situations or on how poorly Mark Webber or rookie Nico Rosberg performs.

For the first time in so many years, the starting grid will enjoy a complement of 22 cars (11 teams). Four teams in new incarnations — Sauber as BMW Sauber, Jordan as Midland F1, Minardi as Scuderia Toro Rosso and BAR as Honda — and one brand new team Super Aguri F1 have thrown their hats into the ring. And the F1 fans would love to believe that these teams would do much more than just make up the numbers.

OFF TRACK

Spa-Francorchamps, one of the most challenging circuits in Formula One that stages the Belgian Grand Prix, has been pulled off the calendar this year. The status of the GP was in doubt ever since its promoters filed for bankruptcy late last year.

The FIA, however, has gone on record saying that the Spa could return to the F1 fold in 2007 and that the sport's governing body in Belgium would use the time to carry out some modifications to the circuit. The decision to pull out the Belgian GP has reduced this year's F1 calendar to 18 races.

Meanwhile, the Silverstone circuit, which hosts the British GP, is set to get a major makeover. It would then be promoted by Northern Racing, a company that also administers horse racing.

Under the contract signed between the F1 bosses and Northern Racing, the latter would promote the British GP until 2009. The company has also been given the option of renewing the contract after the expiry of its first term.

CHASING NORMS

In one of the most significant changes to the Grand Prix weekend this season, FIA has junked the single-lap qualifying system for a knockout format that promises to be electrifying.

The new format will be held over two sessions of 15 minutes each, followed by a final 20-minute run for the pole position.

All the 22 cars will run in the first session, at the end of which the slowest six cars will be eliminated. And depending upon the times clocked, these cars will fill up places 17 to 22 on the grid. The remaining 16 cars will get back on the track after a five-minute break for the second stage of qualifying. This 15-minute session will decide places 11 to 16 on the grid and will be filled up by the slowest six cars from the round. The last ten cars will then compete for places 1 to 10 on the grid in the final 20-minute session.

There is no restriction on the fuel load for the first two qualifying sessions. The cars knocked out of these two sessions are permitted to refuel to any level ahead of the race. The cars in the top 10 grid positions, however, are not allowed to carry fuel loads more than what they had at the beginning of the final qualifying session, for the race.

FIA has also amended the rule to allow tyre changes during races, unlike last year when the teams were allowed only one set of tyres for each race. This year the teams are permitted to use seven sets of dry slicks, four sets of wet slicks and three sets of extreme weather tyres during a race weekend.

As part of the technical changes, the 3-litre V10 engine has been jettisoned for a 2.4-litre V8. The change is aimed at bringing down the speeds, especially while negotiating the corners and bends. The new engine that packs about 750hp is expected to scale down the power of the cars by nearly 20 per cent.