Monday, April 03, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 3rd April 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

With only three of the eighteen races in this years Formula one season now completed it is too early to detect any real pattern in the relative performances of the teams and drivers – with the one exception that Fernando Alonso looks head and shoulders above the rest of the field. His performance in Australia at the weekend was exceptional and confirmed what his 2005 World Championship had told us – that this is a driver of rare talent. Starting from third on the grid, and taking advantage of Giancarlo Fisichella’s problems at warm up which banished him to the pit lane for the start, Alonso was able to take the lead by the fourth lap with a finely judged, but aggressive manoeuvre which took him past pole sitter Jenson Button. From that point on there was only one likely winner and as the other drivers struggled with tyres, mechanical failures and driving errors Alonso moved on serenely to victory.

Whilst Alonso had a day to remember life was much more difficult for his team-mate Fisichella and at one point his was very openly being berated by Renault team boss Flavio Briatore for his lack of pace. Television viewers around the world heard Briatore tell his driver on the team radio that he was driving far too slowly despite having the same car and set up as the flying Alonso. This was a very public and ill-judged humiliation of Fisichella and showed that there is an obsessive streak in the Renault management – a factor which undoubtedly contributed to Alonso’s decision to leave the team for McLaren at the end of the 2006 season.

But Renault looks to be sitting pretty at this early point in the season, which is more than can be said for Ferrari who had a disastrous weekend. The Ferrari camp is placing all the blame on their tyres for the events at Melbourne (where have we heard that before?) – but in reality it is clear that the Ferrari team has a lot of work to do before San Marino on 23rd April. In Bahrain Michael Schumacher admitted that he was surprised to be on pole - and then to have finished a close second to Alonso on race day. Perhaps he knew that the car was no match for the Renault and certainly since then things have slipped away. Schumacher, like all great champions in any sport, is not the best of losers and at the age of 37 he is unlikely to be motivated to fight with an uncompetitive car throughout the season. But yesterday there was no questioning Schumacher’s determination to overcome the fact that his Ferrari was underperforming - and it was this which eventually led to his crash on lap 33. Even the greatest driver in F1 history cannot make a car with such terminal tyre problems perform.

The 2006 Formula one season is shaping up to being one of the best in recent times. Although Alonso has a comfortable lead at the moment there is now a three week gap which all the teams will be using to try and evaluate what happened in the first three races, and to try and get improvements by the beginning of the first phase of European races at the end of the month. For Ferrari there is a worrying sense of Déjà vu with many of the elements of the 2005 (not least difficulties with tyres) recurring again. The Toyota of Ralf Schumacher performed well in Melbourne to finish third, despite the fact that his car (like the Ferraris) was running on Bridgestone tyres. There will no doubt be much discussion in coming weeks between the Ferrari bosses and their tyre supplier about this curiosity! There will also be much soul searching at Marenello about the performance of Felipe Massa who managed not only to nearly write off one car in qualifying but repeat the trick in the race itself. We saw at Bahrain that Massa is a quick and skilful driver, but we also now have ample evidence that his talent is mercurial and that he is more likely to leave his car piled up in a circuit fence than he is to get it to take him to a podium.

The Australian Grand Prix confirmed Fernando Alonso’s talent, showed that Michael Schumacher still has fight in him, and revealed that we can add the Toyota team (who had a good weekend) to those of Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Honda as possible Grand Prix winners this year. Things are hotting up nicely!