How soon do McLaren need their new car, which will test for the first time in France this week? That's the question arising from Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix, which provided Michael Schumacher with a third consecutive victory of the season, and left him only two points adrift of McLaren's series leader, Kimi Raikkonen.
The new points system - 10, eight, six, five, four, three, two, one - from first to eighth place, is doing what it was intended to: making it hard for a driver to run away with the title as Schumacher did last year. But on the face of it, McLaren-Mercedes, who began the year with a bang and should have won the opening three races (only the damp drama in Brazil prevented that), now seem to be on the back foot.
However, Ron Dennis the team principal, does not agree with that, and seems in no hurry to rush through the new MP4-18A model which will be unveiled to the public at Paul Ricard today.
Dennis is satisfied with the performance of the updated 2002 car, the MP4-17D, even though it seemed a little less sharp from Imola onwards in comparison with the Ferraris. "I think perception of the car's sharpness is coloured by grid positions rather than finishing positions," he said. "We think that the car is capable of competing against, and being more competitive than anything other than the Ferraris.
"They have a stronger car now in the F2003-GA, which is able to give us a harder time, to say the least. We knew that they would probably come sooner to the circuit with their new car than we would with ours, but only as the world championship unfolds will we see if our strategy was right. I see their car as an incremental improvement on what they had before, not a big step. So we are quite optimistic about our ability to compete in the latter half of the season, whenever we introduced our new car. We're not panicking."
The release is believed to have been delayed so that the car could be redesigned following last-minute changes to the 2003 regulations. "The way we have to tackle the programme is not to produce one model of the car and test it but to produce several of them and all the components, and then race it as soon as we see fit," said Dennis. "That tends to slow the rate at which the first car is built because you have to go through all the crash test process simultaneously. That's a bit of a challenge while maintaining the 17D and pushing its competitiveness as well. Difficult times, but that's life."
On Sunday Raikkonen maintained his points lead with a strong drive to second place. When Schumacher was running hard after his refuelling fire, the Finn was never much more than 10 seconds behind, despite not being able to use the full revs of his Mercedes V10 engine after it needed two valves replaced "in the field" on Saturday evening. So Dennis has a point. Without that handicap the fight would have been closer.
Dennis does not believe that the new Ferrari is a "quantum leap" over the old, but expects his new car to be just that. The key will be whether it is reliable. It is a new car with an all-new engine, and though the technical director, Adrian Newey, refuses to use the word "radical", it is expected to be a departure from accepted design mores.
There could be a great season ahead if the pendulum swings in Ferrari's favour in the middle of the year, with McLaren rising once again in the latter part as the MP4-18A hits its stride.Reuse content