The ING Renault F1 Team gears up for the start of the new season which begins this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne's Albert Park.
Fernando Alonso: "We will have a real fight on our hands when we get to Melbourne"
Fernando, you ended the 2008 season strongly. Can you carry that form into 2009?That is certainly our intention! We finished in a strong position last year and this year our goal is to fight for the championship. But we have lots of new regulations this year and nobody really knows what will happen when we get to Melbourne. From what we have seen in testing it seems all the teams are very close and so we will certainly have a fight on our hands.
There has been less testing available this season, but are you pleased with the progress of the R29?The first test in Portimao was tough as we had some bad luck with the weather, but when we introduced updates at the later tests we quickly improved the car. We've learnt how to optimise the set-up and we now have a car that is easy to drive and consistent. What is important now is that we keep improving and developing the car throughout the year.
Are you excited about the new regulations introduced this season?Yes, with the KERS and moveable wings the drivers now have more work to do inside the cockpit. During testing I have been working hard to adapt to these new systems so that I can get the most from them in Melbourne. I'm really pleased with the KERS system that we have developed and hopefully this will give us an advantage at the start of the season. I'm not sure if it will make overtaking easier, but it will certainly improve lap times.
What are your expectations for Melbourne?In the past Albert Park has been a good track for Renault and so I hope we can have a strong weekend. I think the order of the teams will probably be different from the last few years as we have got used to Ferrari and McLaren dominating, but with the new rules I think there will be lots of cars fighting for the win. Hopefully we will be in that fight.
Nelson Piquet: "We are heading to Melbourne with high hopes"
Nelson, you're entering your second season of Formula 1 – are you excited about the year ahead?Absolutely – I'm feeling much more confident this year and looking forward to returning to Melbourne. I learned so much with the team in 2008 and I now have a year of experience under my belt which will make things easier. It's also a new era for Formula 1 with lots of changes, but we've made good progress with the car during testing and we are heading to Melbourne with high hopes.
How difficult has it been adapting to the new rules introduced this season?The cars are totally different to last year and so all the drivers have had to adapt to this. Learning about KERS has been a challenge for the engineers and drivers, just as the moveable front wing flaps have been because these are totally new systems that are being introduced this year. We've also had to adapt to the return of slick tyres, but I'm really happy to see them back as they are always more fun.
What are your thoughts on the Albert Park circuit?It's a challenging track and quite a difficult place to set the car up as it's a mixture between a permanent venue and a temporary street course with lots of tricky slow speed corners, as well as some quicker sections. As a city, I love Melbourne: the fans are great and the atmosphere of the race is always pretty special.
Have you set yourself a target for Australia?It's still difficult to know how we compare to the other teams and so setting a target isn't easy. We know we have a good race car that is consistent and so I think we will be competitive in Melbourne. I will do my best to try and reach Q3 in qualifying and hopefully finish in the points.
Pat Symonds: "I'm fairly confident that we can deliver a strong start to the season"
Pat, it has been a busy winter at the test track - do you feel the team is fully prepared for Melbourne?I think we're as prepared as we can be, but with the new testing regime we will arrive in Melbourne with fewer kilometres on the car than we would normally have achieved in previous seasons. The weather has also been quite poor during pre-season testing, which has held us back a little, but when the car has been running it has been working well and I'm not too worried.
What about the drivability of the car? Are the drivers happy with it?At our first test in Portugal we only had one dry day and initially the car was quite difficult to drive, especially as we were getting used to the new aerodynamic characteristics. But as we've introduced the updates in preparation for Melbourne, we've moved towards a pretty driveable car that both Fernando and Nelson are comfortable with and it's now behaving much more as we want it to.
We have some radical new regulations this season – do you enjoy the challenge this represents?I certainly enjoy the challenge and I think it's great to have change reasonably regularly - I wouldn't want to rip up the rule book every year, but the regulations had been quite stable for a while so it was time for a change. There are a lot of things to get used to: new aerodynamics, operational restrictions in testing and of course KERS, which is a technology that we've had to learn from scratch. Initially we may have been sceptical about the ability to get KERS on the car in such a short space of time, but we've managed to get our system working well and that's a credit to all the guys who have worked on our system at Renault.
Is the Australian Grand Prix a popular race with the team? I enjoy it and I think the whole team does as it's when we get back to racing, which is ultimately what we're all here for. Melbourne is a great city and everybody looks forward to going there, although I suspect we will end up seeing a lot more of the garages in Albert Park than the city itself!
Have you set a target you would like to see the team achieve in the first race?The target I set at the beginning of the season is always the same: to be winning races and challenging for the championship – it would be wrong to have any other intention. However, when you start tempering your expectations with reality, you may moderate that target a little bit. Nonetheless, I do believe that we've got a car that is good enough to challenge for wins and when you combine that with our drivers and the team's ability to go racing, I'm fairly confident we can deliver a strong start to the season.
Melbourne: Tech File
Melbourne's Albert Park is a stop-start mixture of temporary street course and a purpose-built track. This means the circuit includes an interesting variety of corners with unusual geometry and a constantly evolving track surface. Setting up the car is therefore a challenge, which is further complicated by the fact that most of the sixteen corners are really quite different with each one presenting a different sort of challenge for the cars and drivers.
AerodynamicsMelbourne is on a par with the aerodynamic demands of Silverstone or Sepang and therefore requires a medium to high downforce set-up. With the introduction of moveable front wings, the drivers will be able to change the angle of their front wing by six degrees twice per lap (once to change to the new angle, and the second time to return to the original setting) which could be used to help balance the car between two corners or to aid following another car closely.
The circuit features a few critical high-speed corners, such as the fast fourth gear open chicane that forms Turns 11 and 12, which is perhaps the most challenging part of the lap, as Fernando Alonso explains:
"You have to be so precise through this section. We take these corners at over 200 km/h and the approach to turn 11 is tough as your view is channelled by the concrete walls and you don't see the apex until late. If you make a mistake in turn 11, you lose position for turn 12 and that can ruin your lap time."
By using a higher downforce set-up, the drivers will hope to get good traction on the exit of the slower corners, which is important for carrying good speed onto the straights.
SuspensionMelbourne has a number of chicanes where a responsive car with a good change of direction is critical. The suspension therefore has to be relatively stiff to achieve this, but at the same time the car needs to be soft enough to use the curbs and have good stability under braking. An optimum set-up therefore demands a compromise, dovetailing hard and soft settings accordingly.
BrakesAlbert Park is a demanding circuit on brakes with six major braking zones demanding stops from over 300 km/h. It is not the severity of the braking, but the frequency that makes an efficient brake cooling solution a priority during the race. The track surface can be bumpy in the braking zones, but nothing too significant and a soft enough car should be able to ride the bumps without locking up under braking.
Tyres The temporary nature of Albert Park means the track is ‘green' and dusty at first and gradually improves over the weekend. With the re-introduction of slicks this year, the team will pay careful attention during free practice to the behaviour of the super-soft and medium compounds that Bridgestone will bring to this race – both of which must be used during the race. The high track temperatures that we usually experience in Melbourne will play a role in determining which compound is preferred by the drivers.
Engine Performance Melbourne offers a good test for engines with the V8s operating at full throttle for 66% of the lap. However, the secret of a good lap time depends not on peak power, but on good torque to help launch the car out of the slow corners that connect the succession of straights. This is particularly true of turns 14, 15 and 16, which are all tight, tricky corners, as Nelson explains:
"The car wants to understeer in the final part of the lap and so that can make it difficult to get on the power early. Having KERS this year might make a difference as we may be able to use it to help our acceleration out of these low-speed corners or if we are trying to gain or defend a position. Either way it should help improve our lap times."