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Williams one, two again ?   
28 March 2002 Volume 4 - Issue 6   

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Remember the years when Williams were so dominant that they invariably took up the first two places on the podium? Remember that McLaren were there too? Well, Ferrari has never been there - and this year it certainly looked as if they could do it - but that was after Melbourne. Sure Barrichello barely started the race but Schumacher won it so convincingly that it was obvious that Barrichello would have finished second if he finished.

Now all their hopes must be on the new car. Malaysia proved that they could not match Williams in last year's car.

The Interlagos circuit in Brazil is around medium as far as average lap speeds go - around 200km/H (124mph). It is not particularly hard on brakes or tyres but the bumpy surface will definitely test suspension and car handling stability.

The circuit is a mixture of very fast straights and sweeping bends on the outer part of the circuit and a tight slower inner section. Setting up is always a challenge here because the downforce needed to be competitive in the inner, slower, section will disadvantage cars in the faster, outer part of the circuit. Suspension set up will also be critical to ensure that the cars maintain an optimum angle of attack (the angle of the wings to the airflow).

The starting grid is a reasonable distance from the first corner ('S' do Senna) which is a 90km/H (56mph) left followed by a slightly faster right hand exit. I expect cars to get up to at least 250km/H (153mph) even on cold tyres before braking for 'S' do Senna on the first lap, thereafter they will be doing around 300km/H (186mph) down the pit straight.

'S' do Senna is followed very soon by another left handed corner (Curvo do Sol) that is even faster at 205km/H (mph) which exits on to a long straight (Reta Oposta) where speeds will get up to 300km/H (186mph) before braking for the 150km/H (93mph) lefthander (Descida do Logo) which is virtually a double apex hairpin.

A short straight followed by a reasonably fast right turn at 190km/H (118mph) and we get to the slower inner section of the track where mechanical grip is needed to negotiate several very slow corners with very little straight sections including a super slow right hand corner where most of the cars will drop down to 1st gear.

After Juncao (a left corner taken at 90km/H or 56mph) speed starts building through a left sweep onto Subida do Boxes (250km/H or 153mph) the left turn that leads on to a moderately short straight (which has the start of the pit lane peeling off to the left) just before a long fast sweep that leads on to the main pit straight.

This is also the most likely overtaking opportunity, but even then it has its problems. The optimum line through the left handed sweep will be taken at around 280km/H (170mph) which will cause the following car to struggle with grip at exactly the place where it needs to be faster to set up for the drag down the pit straight. This could be difficult.

An alternative is to run around the outside. That is not only the longer way around the sweep but it is also through the marbles (racing vernacular for the rubber bits and dust that comes off the tyres). Driving over this slippery stuff at close on 300km/H is a brave move.

The back straight (Reta Oposta) will be another overtaking opportunity but this is also not easy as it means getting out of the Curvo do Sol at the same speed or faster than the car being followed. This corner is too fast to rely on mechanical grip and the dirty air from the leading car will make this hard again.

There may be other places where overtaking is possible but, as it will only be possible to do so with the cooperation of the other driver, it will probably only be back marker overtaking.

The pit lane is relatively long which means that a lot of time will be lost entering and leaving the pits. Tyre wear should be reasonable too so I do not think too many teams will opt for a two stop strategy.

Notwithstanding Williams' great performance in Malaysia I still believe that Ferrari is the team to beat in Brazil. Interlagos will not be as hot as Sepang was and the long sweeping curves in Brazil are very similar to those in Melbourne where Ferrari were unbeatable.

I am not even going to try to make sense out of Ferrari's decision to take one 2002 car and three 2001 cars to Interlagos. They must have their reasons. Some feel that Schumacher plans to qualify in the 2002 car but race the 2001 car, some believe that Ferrari feel that they need to try the new car out in the hotter weather (but then why chose a place where the air is so thin?), some think that it means that the new Ferrari is not reliable and others are paranoid enough to accuse Ferrari of deliberately holding Barrichello back.

Let's look at the few facts that we know: The new Ferrari broke lap records in Fiorana and Mugello. At Mugello is was piloted by Badoer, who is a competent driver but substantially slower than Schumacher and Barrichello. The new car has done substantial miles and although we do not know, there are no rumours that it is not reliable. Surely if it did suffer from problems we would have heard by now?

The car is fast, certainly faster than last year's car.

Michael Schumacher has indicated that he is very happy with the new car.

There were more than one 2002 running at Barcelona during last week's test. So it is not that only one car was available.

My guess is that Ferrari are not sure that the new car is tough enough to last for the full race but Schumacher wants to give it a go. The compromise is to bring one car, see how it fares and even race it if it makes it to Sunday.

It is also likely that the 2002 car has better launch control. If that is the case Schumacher may feel that it is worth the risk because both his previous starts this season have been pedestrian, if not pathetic.

Barrichello probably decided that he did not want to take the risk in front of his home crowd. I am sure it was his decision.

Sooner or later Ferrari will be forced to use the new cars. The hybrid 2001 car is not fast enough to stay ahead of Williams. So they get there partially.

Williams on the other hand must be feeling very confident that their cars will make the grade. They were very fast in Malaysia and reliable. They must be hoping that Ferrari never get their 2002 car race ready.

Ralf has set his sights on beating Montoya. This is the year that he cannot afford Juan Pablo to get ahead. I am sure that he cares more about finishing in front of Montoya than finishing on the podium. Let's hope that he does not get as carried away as he did in Melbourne. Barrichello will not appreciate being overtaken but I am sure he prefers that to being overrun.

On the other hand Montoya seems to totally disregard Ralf Schumacher. He has firmly set his sights on winning races and he does not care which Schumacher he has to beat to do it. It is all in a day's work.

The combination of Montoya's propensity to break a car, if he can, and the very bumpy circuit could cause his retirement. If not I predict that the race will be between him and Michael Schumacher regardless of which Ferrari is used.

I really do not want to comment on McLaren. Adding my morbid thoughts to an already dismal picture just does not seem fair.

Coulthard is good and Raikkonen seems brilliant. They must be hoping that they will qualify well and at least finish the race. Keep on hoping - it can't get much worse.

On the other hand it could. Look at Jaguar who were contemplating using last year's car. I don't know if they can remember but that was pretty awful too. At least this year's car is a little more reliable.

The only good news is that I do not feel that either Irvine or de la Rosa are in the top league, so at least we do not have to suffer the frustration of watching the car spoil a good driver's career.

Conversely, Button, who was doing poorly last year is back up there again. The Renault is already looking fast and Button is exploiting it. He is looking a lot more comfortable in the car this year.

Trulli is also fast and bears watching too.

Sauber must make hay while the sun shines. As this year's engines evolve we will see this team fall back slowly. Their drivers are good and the cars are competitive at present.

Minardi are almost in the same boat except that they appear to have improved their reliability (although they had 2 failures in Malaysia late in the race). In the early races they will still get an opportunity to finish in the points but as the rest of the field gains reliability they will find it increasingly more difficult to finish in the top 10 let alone in the points.

I am very impressed with Toyota's performance this early in the season. They could easily finish in the points again.

Jordan and BAR are both struggling with the same pathetic engine. It is unlikely that the Honda motor will shape any better at higher altitudes so expect the same mediocrity for yet another race. This is frustrating because they have some very good drivers in Villeneuve, Panis, Fisichella and Sato.

And Arrows may finish better than Jaguar but that does not mean that I recommend watching them. They will only shape once they can get their cars going.

I hope that Michel Schumacher does race the new car even if it does not finish the race. We need to see if it is fast enough to compete with the Williams. If it isn't Williams will dominate and I will be writing about the race between Renault, Sauber and Toyota.

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