The Bahrain GP of 2005 holds special memories for Renault Sport F1 for two reasons.
Not only did Fernando Alonso win the Sakhir race, but it also led to an even more satisfying victory for the Spaniard at the San Marino GP with the very same engine. Indeed the second win provided a fine demonstration not just of the skills of Fernando, but of the Viry staff who had helped to ensure he won.
Alonso’s 2005 season had got off to a flying start, and it was soon obvious that the Renault R25 would be a title contender. His team mate Giancarlo Fisichella won the season opening race in Australia, while Fernando finished third. He then triumphed in Malaysia, and followed up with a second success in Bahrain to establish a strong lead in the championship. However disappointingly for the Renault camp, the other R25 retired that day.
“Bahrain was a very good weekend for us,” recalls Rémi Taffin, who was Fernando’s engine engineer in 2005 and is now head of track operations, “until we got to the early laps of the race, when we had failure on Fisichella’s engine. It was very surprising for us, but fortunately we didn’t get a failure in Alonso’s engine, and he went on to win the race.”
That season drivers had to use the same engine for two race weekends, or face a grid penalty.
“We had to go to Imola after that race,” says Rémi. “And it was the second race for Fernando’s engine. So we absolutely needed to find out what happened to the engine of Fisichella. And we traced it as being a problem of detonation.”
Further research at Viry proved that it was the climactic conditions in Bahrain – which were a novelty for all the F1 engine manufacturers – that had led to the detonation.
“With very specific conditions the combustion of the air and the fuel in the engine is not triggered when you think it’s going to happen, so you have a lot of pressure into the cylinder chamber, which can lead to a crack on the piston. It’s something that you basically tune with the ignition timing setting, you allow less or more depending on the conditions.
“It was the first year in Bahrain, and thus the first time that we competed in very hot weather and very high air temperature – but with very low relative humidity. Such conditions are very prone to trigger detonation in an F1 engine. It was something we had never experienced on the dyno.”
The big question now was what to do for the next race. The RS25 V10 engine that Fernando had won with in Bahrain was supposed to be back in his car for Imola.
“I think we had a week in between, so we had to strip Fisichella’s engine and find out what happened, and also look at the engine of Fernando. We saw some indications that he had too some problems, so it was a question do we decide to change it, or keep it for Imola? And of course if we changed it he would get a grid penalty, which was obviously not very interesting for us!
“After we did a lot of work on the dyno the final decision was to keep it. Fernando was really part of this decision. There were three or four people around the table, and he said, ‘OK, we’ll go for it,’ and he committed to doing very few laps in practice, and anything else we would need to get there.
“I think we did five laps on Friday, six laps on Saturday morning, and then qualifying. There was a lot of discussion around the paddock – what are they doing?”
Keeping the mileage low through practice was one thing, but come the race Fernando just had to get on with it. However, he received some good advice from the Renault engineers on how to minimise the amount of stress the engine underwent, and thus reduce the chances that it would suffer a failure. It was far from an easy afternoon, as he was under pressure for much of the race from Michael Schumacher.
“We stayed in front but Fernando had to do the last 20 laps with Michael on his tail, and in theory the engine could not last. He had to tune the revs and so on corner by corner. At some points he was pulling the revs he needed, and he was saving at other points.
“It showed how clever he is, and how much of a racer he is. It was very challenging for him. Many other drivers would have chosen to change the engine. We were fighting McLaren that year, but their car wasn’t so reliable, and Fernando could easily have said let’s be safe and go for points. He was clearly thinking, ‘I want to win.’ I think that was one of his best races for defending a position! And eventually he made it.”
It was a real team effort, and in the end Fernando crossed the line just 0.2s ahead of the Ferrari. The points he earned that day would prove priceless as the season went on, and at the end of it Fernando won his first World Championship. But he would not have at Imola without the superb support from Viry.
“When people say why do we need all these people at the track or why do you need all those tests on the dyno – it’s because we can face situations like that...”