Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Analysis - McLaren gaining ground 

Pointless race leaves blue team on the back foot

How high is a mountain? In McLaren’s case, about as high as it was prior to the German Grand Prix, after Kimi Raikkonen’s victory in Hungary where Fernando Alonso’s failure to score levelled the advantage he had opened up at Hockenheim.

This was a crucial win for McLaren, and their three-stop strategy and Raikkonen’s driving were absolutely perfect. It was a clear and incisive win and they were clearly on for a 1-2 until their reliability jinx struck Juan Pablo Montoya, this time in the form of a driveshaft failure. Without that they would have closed to within four points of Renault in the constructors’ championship chase; as it is the scores are 117 and 105 respectively, and the blues are under real pressure only a week after they appeared to have pulled away.

It wasn’t an entirely dominant race for the silver arrows, however, for the pace of Ferrari was a matter for consideration in the weeks before Turkey. In qualifying Bridgestone’s latest rubber compound helped Michael Schumacher to pole position, and though the tyres lost their edge before the end of a tough race, Schumacher’s fastest lap was within two-tenths of Raikkonen’s and a tenth of Montoya’s. Food for thought indeed.

While Montoya was unlucky again, so was Rubens Barrichello, who ruined his race by running into the back of Jarno Trulli at the start. That necessitated a pit stop for remedial work at the end of the opening lap, and he nearly the repeated the incident later in the race as he just missed whacking one of the Jordans as he was preparing to lap it there later in the race. He could finish no better than 10th, but as he said, Ferrari have a better car and a better tyre, and no one will be surprised if the Scuderia are testing like mad - “preparing” as Schumacher put it - at Italian circuits while their rivals observe the summer test ‘ban’. It remains to be seen whether this was a big leap forward by Ferrari or whether they were just very cunning in their strategic planning on a difficult circuit, but it all adds to the interest.

Toyota make strong cars, which was just as well as both were involved in first corner collisions. Ralf Schumacher squeezed Alonso up the inner kerb and was lucky to escape tyre damage as his right rear broke the Renault’s front wing, while Trulli was hit from behind by Barrichello. They kept going, however, their three-stop strategies helping them to finish strongly in third and fourth places. Indeed, Ralf pressured his big brother in the closing stages, but Trulli was unable to join in as the damage to his TF105 made it very tricky to drive. Nevertheless, the 11-point haul helped very nicely to keep Williams at bay.

Fifth and eighth places brought BAR five points, and hauled them within four of Red Bull Racing. That was the good news, after Jenson Button followed the Toyotas home and Takuma Sato fought for points all afternoon. The not so good news was that the 007s were not very quick. Button’s fastest lap was eighth, just behind Sato’s, and both were slower than Nick Heidfeld’s Williams and only just ahead of Mark Webber’s FW27.

Qualifying in Hungary was a disaster for Williams, with Heidfeld 12th and Webber 16th, but some brilliant strategy and a two-stop plan elevated the German to sixth and the Australian to seventh by the time the chequered flag fell. The team made some definite progress with the FW27, a fact borne out by Heidfeld’s fastest lap which was within 0.8s of Raikkonen’s and was sixth best overall. In fact, technical director Sam Michael believed that a three-stop might have worked well enough to put Heidfeld ahead of Button in the final result, possibly even ahead of fourth-placed Trulli. Unfortunately, however, they had to wind down the revs on his engine after it showed signs of overheating early on; that was a result of the radiator ducting being jammed with debris from Alonso’s front wing. By the time that was cleared out in the pit stop he had lost too much ground. With the same strategy helping Webber to seventh it was a better day for the team as they garnered five more points and salvaged some pride.

Without question this was the worst race of Renault’s season. Neither car finished in Canada, but at least they were competitive there. Here they were always struggling, and it didn’t help that neither driver got the best from their cars in qualifying.

Points leader Alonso’s race was damned from the first corner. He started to have a look down the inside of Ralf Schumacher, but had clearly thought better of it and was backing off when the German locked his front tyres and kept moving over on him. Alonso was forced up the inside kerb. It looked as if things would be okay, but then the Toyota came over even more and its right rear wheel swiped the Renault’s wing askew and it fell of further round the lap. Worse than that, its detachment further damaged the underside of the car, robbing it of downforce, so the Spaniard was sentenced to a frustrating afternoon on his way to 11th place as he tried to maximise his qualifying position for Turkey. He still has a 26-point lead over Raikkonen, but it was most certainly not the Hungarian Grand Prix he had envisaged.

Nor was it for Giancarlo Fisichella. He struggled throughout with oversteer and “very, very low grip”, as two off-course excursions on the exit to Turn Four showed. But he also had a fuel pick-up problem which was alleviated by fuel load. That’s why he made a late stop for a splash and dash on the 68th lap. Taking the best view, executive director of engineering Pat Symonds calculated that the aerodynamic damage to Alonso’s car, together with the initial need to turn down the revs as his radiator ducts were full of debris, cost him some 1.2s a lap until a proper repair could be made during his second pit stop. As Fisichella said, it just wasn’t the team’s weekend. Worse still, their constructors’ championship lead over McLaren was severely reduced (though not as much as it would have been had Montoya finished in the second place he seemed destined for).

The arrival of Johnny Herbert as sporting relations manager certainly improved Jordan’s image in the paddock, but naturally had little effect on its on-track performance. Narain Karthikeyan said this was the toughest race of his life, but also the most consistent of his brief Formula One career, and he was pleased enough with his 12th place finish. Tiago Monteiro suffered in the first corner as somebody punctured one of his rear tyres just after he’d made up three places with a strong start, so a pit stop cost him plenty of time and left him to “push like crazy” trying to catch up as much as possible. He finished 13th, a lap down on his team mate.

After several races in which nearly everyone has finished, Sauber, Minardi and Red Bull found themselves out in the cold. Well, actually, in Sauber’s case it was a matter of heat rather than cold. Both Felipe Massa and Jacques Villeneuve were affected by an underbonnet overheating problem which affected their cars’ coils. Massa said he felt like he was doing some early testing of a V8. His problem was rectified by a change of coils when he came in on lap 43, but not before a fire beneath his C24’s engine cover had created a dramatic moment or two for his crew. He eventually got going again, but had lost so many laps that he could only finish 14th, a disappointment after he had been chasing Heidfeld from 10th place initially after making a great start. Like Massa, Villeneuve was on a two-stop strategy with a late first pit call, and he too had a fire during his second stop, but the team’s attempt to get him through to the finish (and thus improve their qualifying start positions for Turkey) was stymied when the former champion stopped on the circuit on lap 57. The fire had damaged other components, so that was that.

For once Minardi failed to get either car to the finish, which was a particular shame after Christijan Albers’ impressive pace on Saturday morning. He got caught up with Webber and Monteiro in the first-corner fallout, and as his car landed after a momentary flight it shed some of its aerodynamic appendages. Subsequently an hydraulic problem meant several pit stops and ultimate retirement. Team mate Robert Doornbos, meanwhile, raced well and was nursing his tyres nicely when he was struck down out on the circuit by the problem that would later afflict Albers.

What could you say to Red Bull? David Coulthard made a blinding start from the sixth row of the grid, but halfway round the opening lap it was all over. The trouble started when Jacques Villeneuve ran wide and his left front wheel hit Christian Klien’s RB1, sending it into a gentle but terminal roll over on the axis of its own rollhoop on the outside of the first turn. Klien was fine, but with the right front wheel hanging off his car wasn’t.

The brush between Alonso and Schumacher Jnr which resulted in the Renault shedding its front wing on the approach to the top chicane saw several drivers dodging the appendage as it lay in the road. Poor Coulthard had lost all his start-line advantage in the Klien melee, and now found himself unsighted as Webber dodged the hefty debris. DC couldn’t, and it smashed off his right front wheel, his RB1 slithering to a dramatic halt. Clearly it wasn’t just Red Bull that gave the team wings this weekend.

The Scot climbed out and actually cleared some of his own car’s junk off the track, while subsequent inspection of the cars revealed that both monocoques, new for this race, were write-offs, so bang goes several teamsters’ hopes of a break in the three-week hiatus before Turkey. Luck doesn’t come much worse than that.

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