Monday, April 4, 2011

Ferrari feel pressure to unseat Red Bull

Pressure comes with the job when you work for Ferrari, and there was no hiding from expectation on Friday when they became the first Formula 1 team to unveil their 2011 car.

Asked if he felt an "obligation" to win, technical director Aldo Costa replied simply: "Yes."

Chief designer Nikolas Tombazis said he was "quite optimistic about this car and how it will go during the season".

And team principal Stefano Domenicali, always cautious about his public proclamations, said: "F150 was created with a simple aim. Our goal is to win the championships. We know it won't be easy, but that is definitely what we are aiming for."

It is normal for F1 teams to sound optimistic when they launch their new cars. One gets used to a seemingly endless series of wildly confident predictions about what each team will achieve in the coming year, to the point that at the first race of each season you can almost hear the whistling of air from a series of burst balloons.

Ferrari are different, though. Such a fixture are they at the top of F1, so successful have they been over the last decade, that the big surprise is if they do not turn out to be title contenders.

They certainly were last year, only to lose out in the most agonising fashion at the final race of the season when a catastrophic decision to call in Fernando Alonso for an early pit stop left him stuck behind Vitaly Petrov's Renault and let in Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel to win the race and snatch the title from under the Spaniard's nose.

However, while Alonso went into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix leading the championship and hot favourite to win it, Ferrari know they were somewhat fortunate to be in that position.

Fernando Alonso gives the new Ferrari F150 its first laps at the team's Fiorano test track

Ferrari have worked hard to make the rear of their new car as low and narrow as possible. Photo: AP

The Red Bull was comfortably the fastest car last season and it was only a series of mistakes and failures by that car and its drivers that allowed Alonso to capitalise on a quite superb run of form in the second half of the season and take the championship lead.

In many ways, 2010 was a success for Ferrari. Their decision to drop Kimi Raikkonen in favour of Alonso paid off in spades, and they proved that a poor 2009, when they won only one race, was an aberration not the start of a trend.

But second place is not good enough for this team that carries the hopes of an entire nation, and millions of other fans around the world. And the pressure is on to at least match Red Bull for pace in 2011.

Ferrari are the only team to have been in F1 since the world championship started in 1950. And while they have been through their ups and downs, they exist to win.

When they do not, questions are asked, and Ferrari are painfully aware of how they let the championship slip through their fingers.

Yes, there was the error in Abu Dhabi - for which chief engineer Chris Dyer has paid by being relieved of his position and moved to a factory-based role.

But there was also the slow decline in competitiveness from winning the first race to a dreadful Turkish Grand Prix in May, when Alonso finished eighth having not even made the top-10 qualifying shoot-out.

This period coincided with a series of uncharacteristic mistakes made by Alonso himself that cost him a hatful of points in the first few races of the season.

In that context, their rise back to competitiveness in the second half of the season, and Alonso's near-miss in the championship, served only to remind them what might have been.

The frustration of lost opportunity, and the determination to make amends, ran through the Ferrari launch on Friday.

As Domenicali put it: "Last season we had difficult and beautiful moments, and we want to build on those beautiful moments."

So expectation is high, both within Ferrari and without, and a lot rests on the sleek new F150 that Alonso and team-mate Felipe Massa unveiled in Maranello.

To the untrained eye, the car looks similar to the F10 with which Alonso came close in 2010. But the detail hides some significant changes - and some surprising revelations.

Chief among these is the decision to retain push-rod rear suspension, rather than the pull-rod that has been used by Red Bull since 2009 and which is expected to feature on the majority of the grid in 2011.

Pull-rods had been out of fashion since the late 1980s, but were brought back by Red Bull's design head Adrian Newey - widely regarded in F1 as a genius - as a response to the major technical changes that were introduced for 2009.

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These included severe restrictions on the design of diffuser, the part of the car where the floor sweeps upwards under the rear wing and which is so important in creating downforce.

Newey's pull-rod design actually proved a handicap in 2009 following the controversial adoption by some teams of the so-called double-diffuser, around which a pull-rod was difficult to package.

But with the ban on this item, 2011 effectively marks a return to the intended diffuser regulations of 2009, and Newey's design is expected to come into its own as a way of lowering the centre of gravity and improving airflow.

Most teams are expected to follow Red Bull's lead, so it is interesting that Ferrari have chosen not to.

My sources in Italy tell me that instead they have come up with a clever repackaging of the dampers, bringing them forward in the car. This allows them to have a much lower back to the gearbox without the penalties inherent in a pull-rod design, which is very difficult to work on - the mechanics have to take the floor off to adjust the dampers.

Fascinating as these things are, no F1 car's performance is defined by one single aspect of its design - it is about how a complex package works together.

And it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into this car in the context of the rule changes for 2011 - most notably the debut of movable rear wings to aid overtaking and the re-introduction of the Kers energy recovery and power-boost systems, which come with heavy batteries that create a packaging headache.

"We had to rethink quite a lot on the car from the aerodynamic point of view," Costa said.

"The ban on the double diffuser, the introduction of the new rear wing concept and a lot of other detailed clarifications around the back end of the car pushed us to have a complete re-think about the rear of the car.

"(There's) a completely new layout with a completely new concept. Also the introduction of Kers has pushed us to review the central part of the car. Because of all these changes, Kers and then develop the car around new tyres, changes related to the safety of the chassis, it has been quite a different project."

Have they succeeded? Ferrari will begin to get the first indication next Tuesday, when their new car runs against those of Red Bull and Mercedes on the first day of the first pre-season test.

Between then and the first race in Bahrain on 13 March there are a further 15 days of testing for teams to hone their designs. And it is clear where Ferrari's ambitions lie.

"I'm feeling very motivated," Alonso says. "2010 was an interesting year for me. It was my first with Ferrari and I enjoyed the atmosphere. 2011 will be an important year with a new challenge after changes to the rules. We have to commit to everything we do and I think we are up to the challenge."


Tim Schenken Albert Scherrer Domenico Schiattarella

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