Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Race Analysis - what might have been 

Could McLaren's loss be Renault's title gain?

Just imagine for a moment that Juan Pablo Montoya had not decided to lap Tiago Monteiro when and where he did on lap 56 of the Turkish Grand Prix. And that McLaren had scored their first 1-2 since Austria 2000. Quite apart from the fact that winner Kimi Raikkonen would have 71 points to series leader Fernando Alonso’s 93, McLaren would have had 123 to Renault’s 128.

Of course, 'what-ifs' don’t count in motor racing, but those statistics give you a feel for the magnitude of the challenge Renault face from the silver arrows.

It’s probably fair to say that McLaren would rather win the drivers’ and Renault the constructors’ championship, and that the opposite is likely to be true. It will take a miracle for Raikkonen to catch Alonso, and though Renault have a major upgrade coming for Brazil it may take another to keep the blue team in front.

Put simply, McLaren were in a class of their own in Turkey, and their reliability was excellent. Montoya’s fastest race lap was a whopping seven-tenths better than Alonso’s, and Raikkonen (who really didn’t have to push so much) was half a second clear of the Spaniard.

That said, Renault did what they needed to, with Alonso and Fisichella both finishing, and their only real problem was a refuelling glitch that cost the latter 10 seconds in his first pit stop. Likewise, McLaren’s only snafu came when Montoya’s fuel nozzle momentarily refused to disconnect in his first stop. Until Montoya’s incident with Monteiro, that is. That damaged his MP4-20’s diffuser, and a lap later sent him sliding wide in Turn 8. In a trice, Alonso pounced for second place, so after all that Renault have 130 points and McLaren 121.

BAR suddenly looked like their 2004 self, with Jenson Button driving strongly up from 13th to fifth as the 007 proved competitive with the Renault. Button’s best lap was only two tenths off Alonso’s and one off Fisichella’s, while Takuma Sato was less than a tenth slower than his team leader. The decision to switch the Japanese driver to a single-stop strategy almost earned him a point, and the team’s reliability was good.

Toyota could not maintain BAR’s pace in the battle of the Japanese V10s, but Jarno Trulli was quick enough to take sixth place as Ralf Schumacher trundled round behind Jacques Villeneuve’s Sauber for 12th place after he was delayed at the start by the clash between Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld.

Based on Massa’s speed, the Saubers should have been points contenders. The Brazilian set 10th fastest lap, close to the Red Bulls of Christian Klien and David Coulthard which wound up eighth and seventh respectively further to boost the team’s score to a respectable 27 points. Good job too, with BAR breathing down their necks on 24. They remain well clear of Sauber, who have only 14. Even after losing his front wing and having to pit at the end of the opening lap for a replacement, Massa through his revised one-stop strategy could have challenged for points, but an engine failure rendered the point academic. Villeneuve found that the Bridgestones on the Minardis and Jordans warmed quicker in the early laps than his Michelins, which helped the slower cars to get out of the corners better and to stay ahead on straight-line speed. By the time he had fought past them all, he’d lost too much time to better his 11th place finish.

One place ahead of him, Rubens Barrichello’s result demonstrated just how lost Ferrari were in Turkey. The Brazilian said he drove a “very, very tough” race flat out throughout, but admitted that he chose the wrong tyre option (all of the teams ran harder compounds) and lacked grip. As for Schumacher, his F2005 was damaged in the incident with Webber but also suffered a power steering problem. This was repaired purely so he could rejoin and minimise the damage to his starting position for Monza qualifying. The champion admitted that he had gone to the line expecting not to score points, which shows the scale of the problem Ferrari face, but it is difficult not to see them bouncing back to some extent at their home track.

Minardi were very happy to have beaten Jordan after Robert Doornbos brought his PS05 home 13th, three laps down, vindicating the decision to go for Bridgestone’s harder tyre and high fuel loads. The Dutchman reported that the car got better as the race progressed and his sole problem was when the car stalled leaving the pits after his first stop. Team mate Christijan Albers, however, met with refuelling rig and gear selections problems that ultimately caused him to retire.

The Jordan drivers had adventures, Monteiro with Montoya, Narain Karthikeyan having to learn the circuit to some extent after losing so much track time on Saturday because of his engine gremlins. They had to be content with 15th and 14th positions respectively.

Finally, Williams suffered complete disaster after both Heidfeld and Webber showed promise early on. Each suffered a right rear Michelin tyre failure, prompting some to speak prematurely of a disaster on an Indianapolis scale. This proved wide of the mark. It was something to do with the FW27 itself and the way in which the cars were set up; inside speculation after the race suggested perhaps that some part of the bodywork - possibly the diffuser or the rear wing endplates - were fouling the tyre under the 4g+ loads imposed in Turn 8.

So that was the Turkish Grand Prix. For McLaren it was more sweet than bitter, likewise for Renault, but even though many other teams went home with their heads down the universal verdict was that this is a valuable addition to Formula One racing’s venues.

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