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I was wrong. For how long?
I predicted that McLaren would still be faster than Ferrari, but that the gap between the two teams will be smaller. I was certainly wrong.
Throughout the weekend Ferrari were decisively faster than McLaren. It started on Friday's first practice and thereafter Ferrari looked dominant. They were faster in every practice with the exception of the Sunday warm-up and qualified on the first row of the grid.
Michael Schumacher said that he has been working on getting the start right during the off season and whatever he was working on paid off as he was well clear of Hakkinen by the first turn. Barrichello can benefit from doing the same start practices because he lost several positions at the start, which allowed Hakkinen to move into second place where Barrichello should have been.
Barrichello touched Frentzen during an overtaking manoeuvre (which sent Frentzen way back in the pack) and I suspect that, although Barrichello recovered from the incident with no apparent damage, his car did sustain some damage because he was not able to catch up with the leaders and later could not stop Coulthard from overtaking him. It was almost as if his car was clumsy through the corners – very different from the nimble car in practice, the day before.
If he did not damage his car when overtaking Frentzen, I suspect that he would have stayed ahead of Coulthard with ease.
Towards the end of the race Coulthard was catching Michael Schumacher, but that was probably only because Michael had slowed down to preserve his car.
The Ferraris were fast, considerably faster than the McLarens.
McLaren will fight back. They will certainly get faster as the season progresses and Ferrari will need to develop at the same pace to maintain their superiority. Ferrari had several engine problems during the free practice sessions and for a while I started suspecting that they may have reliability problems during the race. This may turn out to be their Achilles heel.
I was very surprised to see the Jordans perform so well. Frentzen could have finished on the podium if he did not come off second best when Barrichello overtook him and Trulli was also doing very well when he retired. Their poor performance and bad reliability record seems to be something of the past.
BAR also looked good – I was particularly impressed with the car's overall performance. It was not only fast in a straight line but also seemed to handle very well.
Williams was very fast although they did not seem to handle as well as BAR or Jordan. This surprised me as Williams have always built very superior chassis with exceptional roadholding.
Slow them down?
Last year when the new rules were announced I nd predicted that the teams will overcome most of the restrictions in the wind tunnel before the start of the season. I was right – aerodynamic downforce may be somewhat less but it is not significant enough to substantially change anything.
What surprised me is the huge increase in speed due to Michelin entering the tyre war. I expected tyres to make a big change, but I did not expect it to be that big.
Last year Bridgestone was providing the only tyres for all the races and their motivation was very different from today. As there was no competition they were motivated to build tyres that would last full distance without deteriorating and, providing that all teams were getting the same quality and grip, Bridgestone were not motivated to improve the performance or speed of their tyres.
This year their attitude has changed completely. Now it is necessary to provide a range of tyres that maximises grip under all circumstances. We are back in a season of fierce competition between tyre manufacturers and the extra grip is just astounding. We can also assume that tyre development has a long way to go still – so we should see even more performance from the tyres as the season develops.
What is even more astounding is the dramatic increase in average speed. This year more than half of the cars qualified faster than Mika Hakkinen's pole position time last year and Michael Schumacher's fastest lap of the race was around 2 seconds faster than last years pole time.
Talk in the pits suggest that the rule changes in aerodynamics may have slowed the cars down by between 1 and 2 seconds and that engine power increase and other minor improvements would account for a little under one second. That means that the tyres were responsible for about 4 seconds a lap.
As tyre grip should really only improve time through corners (including breaking and accelerating) 4 seconds at Albert park equates to massive increases in cornering speeds.
Australia is a reasonably fast circuit and although the increase in speed is dramatic I suspect that this is nothing compared to the slower tracks where mechanical grip is a major factor. It is at circuits like Monaco that we will see the biggest increases in speed.
I am concerned that this large increase in cornering speeds will increase the danger to drivers and spectators. We have already had the very tragic death of a marshal in Melbourne, and although that may not be blamed on the extra grip of the tyres, the very high speed that late into a corner is one of the consequences of improved grip.
With that much mechanical grip we should also see more overtaking. It was difficult to judge the effect of tyres on overtaking ability at Albert Park as it is not a circuit that has many overtaking opportunities, so we will have to wait before we know.
I suspect that the cars are now too fast for many of the circuits that this season will be campaigned on – I hope that this will not result in more tragedies.
Agree or disagree ?