ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 10 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Times are Tumbling

  by Will Gray, England

Will Gray analyses the vast reduction in times seen at the Australian GP's qualifying session. Where is this speed coming from, and which team made up the most time reduction since last year?

The effects of a tyre war were clear to see at the first Grand Prix of the season in Australia. When the pre-season rumblings over whose testing times are true and whose are just public relations stunts were finished, it was in qualifying and the race that the true story of the amazing developments that have taken place during the winter was revealed.

Although the grid and finishing positions show no sign of any worries for Bridgestone, now that Michelin are on the scene, the times show they have had to work hard to stay ahead. Michelin managed just one top-ten time in qualifying - Ralf Schumacher's fifth place on the grid - and could only claim two drivers in the top-ten finishers with an eighth place for Jaguar's Luciano Burti and a ninth for the Prost of Jean Alesi.

But although the French manufacturer did not break up the expected running order in their first race, their presence has been felt by their Japanese rivals.

That the pole time for this year's event in Melbourne was a massive 3.664 seconds faster than the one last season shows clear proof that the improvements in tyre compounds have dramatically increased the speeds in Formula One - despite rule changes hoping to reduce them.

Indeed, the major aerodynamic reductions on the cars over the winter were so dramatic that the lap times would certainly have reduced had Michelin not introduced tyre competition, and the new developments certainly point the finger at tyres being the most significant time-gainer in Formula One. A look at the qualifying times for last Sunday's race shows just how the teams have fared since they were last in Australia one year ago.

Perhaps the most important figures are for Ferrari and McLaren, where we have seen a clear shift of power over the last three seasons. In 1999, Mika Hakkinen's McLaren was 1.3 seconds faster than the Ferrari of Schumacher when the teams debuted their cars in Melbourne. When they returned in 2000, after a full year of development on the 1999 cars and the use of that information to improve their 2000 machines, Ferrari had closed on their rivals and Schumacher was just 0.5 seconds behind his Finnish rival.

Ferrari clearly improved their car at a faster rate than their British rivals during the 2000 season to take the World Championship, and despite having some significant new rule changes to cope with, that development has helped the Italian team with their new challenger. One year further down the track it is the prancing horse that begins the year at the head of the field in 2001, with Schumacher now 0.5 seconds faster than Mika Hakkinen as, excuses and qualifying problems aside, Ferrari have stolen one whole second from their rivals since the Australian Grand Prix in 2000 to shift the balance at the top of Formula One.

There appeared to be a clear step in the pace of the midfield, and it looks like there could be a new split within those runners if the times in Melbourne qualifying are an indication of what is to come.

Jordan seem to be the team to beat as the best of the rest, but Williams also look good with the Michelin tyres. However, the splitting of the top four by those two teams in qualifying is not as encouraging as it may look - the time between Frentzen, who has been the top non-McLaren or Ferrari runner at Melbourne in the last two years, and the pole position man has remained virtually constant.

Along with these two teams, Sauber, BAR, and Eddie Irvine's Jaguar were all within 2.1 seconds of pole to fill the top 13 grid spots, and Irvine's teammate Luciano Burti would surely have improved on his 21st position if it were not for a big crash in qualifying.

Behind that group, however, there was then a massive 0.9 second jump to the next set of runners in what now seems to be a 'lower' midfield comprising of Prost, Arrows, Benetton and Minardi, all more than 3 seconds slower than the fastest man.

It is clear, then, that some teams have improved more than others and by comparing an average of the performance between each team's two cars in Melbourne this year with last year's event, we can see whose new car and driver combinations work and reveal who has got off to a flier, and who ended up slow out the box.

Ferrari was on average four seconds faster than they were in last year's qualifying session whilst McLaren only bettered their previous performance by three seconds. However, the most improved team in Melbourne was Williams. They claimed a massive 4.8 seconds on their average last year, although this can perhaps be put down to a disappointing debut qualifying for Jenson Button in last year's race compared to a much better performance by Juan Pablo Montoya this time around.

British American Racing and Sauber were both four-second improvers too, but the rest of the field did not gain quite so significantly. Jaguar and Prost both improved by similar amounts of around 2.6 seconds, whilst Benetton will be wondering what they are to do about their comparatively disappointing 2.2 second improvement.

The qualifying times from Melbourne do give pointers to the upcoming season, but as the cars constantly improve, it can all change in the long season ahead. McLaren may be behind now - and if the figures are anything to go by, they are some way behind - but remember Ferrari started in the same position in 2000... and look what happened to them at the end of the year!

Will Gray© 2007
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