The 2006 FIA Formula One World Championship gets underway this coming weekend at the Bahrain International Circuit. Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya will be racing the Team McLaren Mercedes MP4-21 in the desert Kingdom, which is opening the season as the Commonwealth Games is currently taking place in the usual host city, Melbourne.
The Bahrain Grand Prix, which is being held for the third time, heralds the start of what promises to be another competitive and exciting year in the sport of Formula One, with 18 races in five continents across the globe, ending in Brazil in eight months.
2006 has seen the introduction of a raft of new technical and sporting regulations. The change from V10 to V8 engines is the most significant, and has dominated the design process of the MP4-21. Fundamentally a new car to incorporate the new Mercedes-Benz FO 108S V8, the basic concept of the MP4-21 is an evolution from 2005. Other technical changes include the raising by 50mm of the forward deflector, and an increase of 50 per cent of the crash test loads to the rear structure. The MP4-21 hit the test track on Monday 23rd January, and has completed over 8700 test km over the course of an intensive programme of 28 days.
Sporting regulations will see the re-introduction of tyre changes during pit stops and a new qualifying format. The single lap system of 2005 has been replaced with a three part knockout. Multiple cars are allowed on track throughout the qualifying hour, which is split into two 15 minutes sessions and a final 20 minute session. After the first 15 minutes, the bottom six cars drop out of the running, assuming the last six places on the grid. This is repeated for the second session, leaving 10 cars to compete in a shootout for the top ten grid positions.
Kimi Raikkonen: "It is great to be back racing in Bahrain this weekend. It has been a busy winter season for us, with hard work taking place in every part of the team. Since my first outing in the MP4-21 at Barcelona on Thursday 26th January I have covered more than 3200 km with the new car. The car has felt good on track and is quick, which can be seen from the improvements in lap times of more than 3 seconds. Of course I want to carry on from our performance last year and be challenging for race wins, however we will only see where we are in Bahrain after qualifying. It is also going to be interesting this weekend to go back to tyre changes in the pit stops, we had to adapt driving styles slightly for last year as we didn't have tyre changes, so it may mean people are more aggressive as it is not so important to look after your tyres. Bahrain is a good track, it always seems to have exciting races and I hope there will be another one this year to start the 2006 season."
Juan Pablo Montoya: "The start of the 2006 season will be even more exciting than the previous years with all the changes of the technical and sporting regulations. It is a bit different for me this year as I now know the team and the car really well from the very start of the season. We have completed some intensive work on the test track. Since starting my test programme with the MP4-21 on 24 January I have been at the wheel for 12 days and covered more than 3500 km. In addition to this I have spent 8 days at the McLaren Technology Centre with the engineers, working on debriefs, seat-fitting and in the simulation department and I feel well prepared for the long season ahead. But as always there is a lot of work still to be done. The Bahrain track hasn't been my most successful venue to date, and starting there will be slightly tougher for me, as I didn’t race there last season. However I qualified well in 2004 and I always enjoy driving on tracks designed by Hermann Tilke. It has a good mix of corners, turn 12 is pretty cool and quite like Eau Rouge, so you are pushing it hard through the corner as it sweeps you right up the hill. The track is quite tough on the brakes though, as there are a number of long straights and slow corners, and little chance for them to cool. However it is not as bad as Canada, but we do need to make sure we manage this through the race."
Martin Whitmarsh: "At the start of every season, Team McLaren Mercedes sets out with the same expectations and aspirations: to win races and the Formula 1 World Championships. The 2006 season will be no different. With regulation changes, ranging from the introduction of V8 engines to a new knockout qualifying format and the reintroduction of tyre stops, dominating the build-up to the 2006 season, Team McLaren Mercedes has been working intensively on maximising the opportunities these changes have provided back at base and with the test team on track. This period has also seen significant work with Michelin to adapt to the return to tyres that perform under short stints rather than for full race distance. Despite initial work beginning on MP4-21 in August 2004 and the car completing around 8700 test km, as always, relative performances cannot be truly judged until the first few races have been run. I expect there will be a number of teams challenging for the titles. Kimi and Juan Pablo alongside the entire Team McLaren Mercedes and our Partners will battle hard and are looking forward to the challenges ahead."
Norbert Haug: "The 2006 Formula One season provides bigger challenges for all teams than the previous one. The fundamentally new engine regulations now specify eight instead of ten cylinders and a displacement of 2.4 instead of three litres. New aerodynamic limits in the rules and the shorter engine set an enormous task for the chassis engineers – many small modifications required big efforts and cost a lot of money. The start with the new MP4-21 at Barcelona on 23rd January was not trouble free and in the beginning we were not where we wanted. However, in the following five and a half weeks or about 40 days until the final test at Valencia on 1 March, our team showed what it’s capable of, be it chassis or engine wise. During 28 test days, Kimi, Juan Pablo and Pedro covered a total of 8692 kilometres which is on average one Grand Prix distance per day and therefore equates to a total of 28 Grand Prix distances in preparation for the first races. The lap time improved continuously throughout the tests and the long runs were OK compared to the fastest. Several times, our new V8 engine stood the strain of two race weekends and up to 50 percent more, on the circuits of Barcelona and Valencia as well as on the dynos at Brixworth and Stuttgart. Prior to the start of the season this coming weekend, I want to thank everybody in the team for their enormous efforts. During the last six weeks they almost worked 24 hours a day, at the test track and in Woking, Brixworth and Stuttgart. I know the best reward for everybody working so hard, and I hope we will go and get it as often as possible in the 2006 season’s 18 races."