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Behind the scenes

Away from the glamour and glare of the Grand Prix weekend the daily grind of Formula One continues with eight of the teams testing at two different venues. Ferrari, Williams, McLaren, Renault, BAR, Jaguar and Toyota are pounding about in pouring rain at Silverstone, England while Ferrari, Williams, BAR, Sauber and Toyota also have cars testing at Monza in Italy.

In the sunshine of Northern Italy, Ferrari continued to demonstrate its dominance with test driver, Luca Badoer topping the timesheets on day one of the test. Ralf Schumacher in the Williams was next up followed by the increasingly impressive Anthony Davidson in the BAR-Honda who was less than three tenths of a second off BadoerÕs best time. Toyota drivers Olivier Panis and Ricardo Zonta, split by SauberÕs Felipe Massa rounded out the drivers in action, all three being at least a second and a half slower than the Ferrari. All five teams were evaluating low down force aerodynamic packages that will be in use for the next two races in Canada and Indianapolis.

On day one at Silverstone RenaultÕs Fernando Alonso made good use of a brief dry spell to set the pace just 4/100ths of a second quicker than the new McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen. Apart from this the times were fairly meaningless as can be seen from Michael Schumacher being almost four and a half seconds off the pace at the end of the day, but by far the fastest driver in the wet when he drove in the morning. He did not set a time when the circuit had started to dry out.

The major news of the day was the debut of McLarenÕs heavily updated car, the MP4/19B, which the team hopes will turn around their disastrous start to the season. Raikkonen, who completed 45 trouble free laps was impressed with the initial speed and handling of the car and said, ÒMy first impression is that it feels good, but it takes time to develop a new car so we still have two very busy days ahead, but the car seems to feel and behave really well so far.Ó

However, although an optimum set-up of the existing car is tricky to achieve that has not been McLarenÕs major problem this year. The lack of reliability from their Mercedes-Ilmor power plant has hampered any attempts at finding the ideal set-up during race weekends and if your races end with enormous smokey engine failures, it doesnÕt really matter how quick the car could be. The team tries to ensure that the engine makes it to the end of the race by doing fewer laps in free practice. This hampers the efforts of the team to find a good set-up for the race, which usually ends in retirement anyway making the car look slow as well as unreliable. In the recent European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring McLaren only ran about three quarters of the practice laps put in by Ferrari and David CoulthardÕs engine still expired before final qualifying, forcing him to start from the rear of the grid. In three of the seven races held so far at least one of the McLaren drivers has had to start at the rear of the pack due to engine failures and on no fewer than six occasions has their race been ended with an engine related problem. Unless Ilmor can overcome these troubles then IÕm afraid that the West sponsored team may move up the grid, but still have a smoking problem.

The rumour mill regarding the 2005 Williams driver line up continues to churn. The latest is that they are trying to tempt 1998-99 World Champion Mika Hakkinen out of retirement and that a test is due shortly. Almost everyone except Williams and Hakkinen have denied this but it is fairly unlikely to take place. Decidedly more likely is that 1997 Champion and currently unemployed Canadian, Jacques Villeneuve will test for the team, and sooner rather than later. It may be as early as later this week at Monza but more likely later this month when the team gets back from the United States Grand Prix. By then we will also be half way through the season and have a better idea where current favourite for the drive, Mark Webber stands. If, at the half way point of the season, the Jaguar team is not in the top six of the Constructors Championship a performance clause in WebberÕs contract makes it easier for him to move to another team despite having another year to run. They are currently in eighth place but only two points behind sixth placed McLaren.

The political infighting continues as FIA president Max Moseley attempts to force through his raft of changes to the sport. No sooner than there had been announcements that an in-principle agreement had been made to change the qualifying format from the tedious, 2 hour, single lap shoot out to an aggregate of two, twenty minute sessions in which each car must complete at least six laps in each, and that the new engine specification would be a 2.4 litre V8 from 2006 the griping started. First, Australian Minardi boss, Paul Stoddard was quoted as saying that he wouldnÕt agree to the qualifying changes because it would rob the smaller teams of valuable TV airtime and then BMW engine boss Mario Theissen came out saying he wanted to stick with the current V10s with a slightly extended endurance, up to three races, and would not be supporting the move to smaller engines. The problem is that under the current Concorde Agreement these changes cannot be made without unanimous agreement from all the teams. As interest in Formula One is waning due to the lack of actual racing on the track, changes are needed urgently to rescue the sport from itself.

Sam Snape

02-06-04