The 2006 Formula One World Championship gets underway this weekend in Bahrain, with the Sakhir circuit having the honour of hosting the opening round, as the city of Melbourne is busy with the Commonwealth Games. This is the third year that Bahrain has hosted a Grand Prix, so the track itself should hold few surprises for the teams, especially as Ferrari conducted a long test session here in February.
However, the Maranello outfit and the ten other teams will all be facing the challenges of changes to the technical and sporting regulations. As usual, these have been introduced by the FIA with the aim of reducing costs, reducing speeds on safety grounds and improving the show for the public.
This year the main changes compared to 2005 are as follows: firstly, on the technical rule front, cars now run 2.4 litre V8 engines (although one team, Scuderia Toro Rosso is taking up the approved option of running a restricted-power version of the previous 3 litre V10.) Engines must still last two entire race weekends so the biggest changes to the sporting regulations concern the way qualifying is run and the fact that tyres can now, once again, be changed during the race.
The Scuderia's Sporting Director, Stefano Domenicali explains the effect of these new rules and how they impact on the team's approach to qualifying and the race. "With the tyre situation, we will have seven sets of dry tyres of two different specifications that we are allowed to use over a race weekend. There is no longer a requirement to formally nominate one specification of tyre after a certain point in the weekend as was the case up until now. However, we must use the same specification of tyre for all of qualifying and the race."
If the rules of parc ferme remain essentially the same, with work on the cars restricted, for 2006 these rules are different when it comes to fuel and tyres. "The rules concerning fuel are different because they are now linked to the qualifying procedure," says Domenicali, "and tyres, because you can use as many tyres as you want now for the race. Qualifying will be divided into 3 parts: the first part of 15 minutes followed by a 5 minute break, a second part of 15 minutes followed by a 5 minute break and the third and final part of 20 minutes."
The race weekend also runs to a slightly different timetable this year: the Friday programme remains the same, but on Saturday, there are no longer the two 45 minute free practice session, but just one hour from 11 to 12, with qualifying from 2 to 3. "At two o'clock, the first part of qualifying begins and that signals the start of parc ferme conditions, with the exception of fuel and tyres," explains Domenicali. "In the first 15 minutes all 22 cars will run on track. Then the slowest 6 cars take no further part in the session. The same procedure will apply in the second part. At the end of these two periods, these 12 cars now have their places confirmed on the last 12 places on the grid. In these two parts you can run whatever fuel load you like, normally a light load to set the quickest time possible of course and with the tyres that you want. There is no restriction on the number of sets of tyres or the number of laps you can complete. Then before the start of the third part, with the last ten cars, it is compulsory to go back to the restriction in terms of fuel. Because time between the three parts of the session is so tight, you will be allowed to refuel using the normal race refuelling rig. There is now a system in place to give you back the fuel you use in this last part of the session, so that you start the race on Sunday with the same fuel load with which you began the final part of qualifying on Saturday. It is calculated by a formula published by the FIA prior to the start of the event. The FIA will make an estimation of kilos per lap they will give back to you. Assuming a car did 10 laps in the final part of qualifying and the FIA states that a lap of this circuit uses 3 kilos per lap, then you have to put back a total of 30 kilos on Sunday morning in parc ferme."
It is a complicated system, rendered more so by the fact that not all the drivers will be running the same number of laps in this final session, therefore the amount of fuel to be added can be different for various cars. Domenicali believes this new qualifying format will be exciting, as long as it is explained properly to spectators and TV viewers. "Otherwise it will be very difficult to understand what is going on, especially when you consider that those people who were eliminated after the first two parts of qualifying were running on minimum fuel and they may have set times in Q1 and Q2 that are quicker than pole position! But it should be more spectacular as it is a long time since drivers have all been on track at the same time for qualifying and I am sure there will be some interesting and controversial moments."
Domenicali believes these new qualifying rules will also impact on race strategy. "The twelve cars at the back of the grid are free to refuel with any quantity of fuel on Sunday prior to 12.30 for a 2 o'clock race. They can base their fuel calculations on the performance they saw achieved by the ten cars in the top ten grid positions as these drivers were running race fuel loads. This means we can have a very mixed race in the first and second stints of a race." The other change to strategy, compared to 2005, is down to the new tyre rules. "The effect on strategy of being able to change tyres in the race once again is very relevant," reckons Domenicali. "You can decide to use a very aggressive strategy if you have good tyre performance and in my opinion that will improve the quality of the race. With no tyre changes, you had to manage tyres in a different way. Now we can change whenever we want and, allowing for the number of tyres at your disposal, you can be as aggressive as you want. I'm sure it will improve the show."