Adam Cooper's Montreal Analysis

The Canadian GP had much in common with the European GP, in that the drivers went to the grid in the knowledge that rain during the race was pretty much guaranteed. Figures like 20 laps were being bandied around by those claiming to be in the know.

Adam Cooper's Montreal Analysis

And as at the Nurburgring, rain did indeed come. The way the teams reacted to the changing conditions proved to be absolutely crucial. Once again, most seemed to fail to notice that it was raining! Of course, it's very easy to say in retrospect that teams should have done this or that, but at the time it was very obvious to those of us standing at the first corner and getting thoroughly wet what the tyre choice should be. Several teams got their sums right by running their cars heavy and keeping them out as long as possible - and then blew it by going onto dries even as the rain began to fall.

The driver obviously has a big input, but he's also relying on the guys in the pits. And those making the decisions are safe and dry under pit wall canopies, and staring at TV monitors which often give a false impression - sometimes a wet track can appear to be relatively dry on screen unless there's actually enough surface water to produce spray. The engineers also have access to timing monitors. It's standard procedure to see how the first people to make the switch to wets perform before committing to a change, but in this case waiting just one lap was enormously expensive.

The destiny of the winner's trophy was effectively decided not by the rain, but at the start. Or more accurately just before it, when David Coulthard stalled just before the beginning of the formation lap. Afterwards there was no attempt by the team to hide the fact that DC had simply got it wrong. He's not the first person to do it and he won't be the last.

When a driver is in that situation, the normal procedure is for him to wait while the others pass, get the car restarted, and then join the rear of the pack for the start proper. However, his crew reacted instinctively and rushed out to restart him, despite some urgent suggestions to the contrary on the McLaren radios.

This was in direct contravention of the rules, which say all personnel must be clear of the cars at least 15 seconds before the green light signals the start of the formation lap. Indeed, the McLaren guys were still on the grid when the lights went green, and the last man was still dashing off after pole man Michael Schumacher had lit up his tyres and left. In fact the last guy left five seconds after the green, so effectively he was there 20 seconds later than he should have been.

At that stage both McLaren and Ferrari knew that a penalty would result. It may seem harsh, but the line has to be drawn somewhere, or mechanics would always be staying with cars until the last second. The question which remained to be resolved was this; would DC have gained or lost by starting from the back rather than taking a 10 second penalty later in the race?

Schumacher and Coulthard retained their respective places at the start, but their team-mates made mess of it. From sixth on the grid Jacques Villeneuve beat Heinz-Harald Frentzen away from the line, and then into the left/right complex at Turn 1 he did a fantastic job to bundle his way past both Rubens Barrichello and Mika Hakkinen. You can't put that all down to the BAR clutch; Jacques got himself in the right place and held his ground.

Had he outpsyched his rivals, who expected him to make some kind of kamikaze run on his home track? You could argue that his opponents had more at stake than Jacques - Ron Dennis insisted later than Mika was right to be careful - but on the other hand both must have known that if they got stuck behind the BAR, they would be in serious trouble.

"The die of the race was cast when Villeneuve took the aggressive manouevres he took," said Ron. "The reality was when Jacques came past Mika and Barrichello, in both instances he put himself in a position where an aggressive, defensive manouevre would have probably taken out both cars. You've got to think of a mindset. We're in Canada, he's going for it and he's got nothing to lose. To close the door on Villeneuve, who was being aggressive, was the silly thing to do. So you can't say you should have been aggressive Mika - the reality is Villeneuve really had nothing at stake. You can't just close him off. It would have meant Mika risking going into the gravel trap, which would not have been very smart, so I don't feel bad about that. I don't think either Barrichello or Mika were wimps, but Villeneuve was a complete, total mobile chicane."

Mika and Rubens certainly paid the price. Over the first 10 laps the gap from Michael to Villeneuve in third went 2.7s, 4.2, 5.3s, 6.6s, 8.2s, 9.5s, 10.6s, 11.9s, 12.8s, 14.1s. You can't give that sort of lead to Schumacher and expect to still be able to compete with him.

Rubens and Mika sat behind, seemingly unable to do anything about the BAR, which is so often set up to fly down the straights. Interestingly, on this occasion Jacques was only 20th fastest through the speed trap - ahead of only the Minardis! Jacques just drove his own race, as is his right.

Of course, DC was still right with Michael, and he did a good job to keep the pressure on his title rival. But we knew it was an illusion. Sure enough the message eventually came that David was due a 10-second stop and go penalty. He was still only 0.7s behind the Ferrari when he came in on lap 14; he re-emerged in 10th place, 26.6s behind Michael.

We expected him to start passing people, but in fact he got stuck where he was. This suggested that overall he probably gained by taking the penalty and not starting from the back. He would have found it hard to get much higher than 10th by lap 15 anyway, and of course had a high risk of getting involved in an incident as he tried to battle his way through.

Meanwhile Michael was 22s clear of Villeneuve when spots of rain began to fall around the lap 22-23 mark. It was over almost before it started, but there was just enough to make the track a little greasy, and Schumacher's lap times dropped by only 2s, albeit only for two laps. But poor Coulthard's day was made even worse when he spun after Verstappen locked up in front of him. He was every fortunate to flick the car round the right way and keep going - but he had practiced the same move the previous day! However, a couple of places and around 10s were lost.

Villeneuve has never been fond of damp conditions, in contrast to Barrichello, who muscled his way past on lap 25. With a clear track, which quickly dried out, he was finally able to make some progress. Hakkinen remained stuck firmly behind the BAR, failing to take advantage of Villeneuve's discomfort. Meanwhile Rubens pulled away from Villeneuve and Hakkinen at 1s a lap, but interestingly he made no inroads whatsoever into Michael's lead, which stayed at 26s.

Michael made his scheduled stop prematurely on lap 34. He definitely had fuel to go a lot longer, but the team felt that he was under no threat. There was also some concern about a possible faulty sensor, which they wanted to check. While he was stopped the mechanics also cranked on more front wing. He came out just behind his team-mate.

Ferrari insiders admitted that this wasn't planned, but it worked out well. Michael had a heavy fuel load so his times dropped, and Rubens still had clear track and
was thus able to carry on at his own pace.

Just as Michael stopped, Hakkinen finally got past Villeneuve. After that he started lapping very quickly, 1.5s quicker than the fuelled-up Schumacher. Inspired by having Michael to chase, albeit with his own stop to come, he seemed to wake up. Between lap 36 and 41 he cut the gap from 8s to 0.3s, and set a series of fastest laps.

It was at this point that two things happened - like Mika, drivers began to get to the outer limits of their pit stop windows, and rain started to fall again. For the first minute it was not much heavier than before, but from where I was standing it soon became apparent that this time it was much more serious. And yet teams were remarkably slow to react. Here's how it unfolded for the guys in contention for points, with some sample lap times to show how conditions were changing:

Lap 39: Trulli 1st stop (dries)
Michael lap time: 1m20.7s

Lap 40: De La Rosa 2 (dries)
Michael lap time: 1m20.7s

Lap 41:Clear signs of rain at Turn 1.
Michael lap time: 1m21.0s

Lap 42: Hakkinen 1 (dries)
Michael lap time: 1m22.4s

By now the rain was getting heavier.

Lap 43: Barrichello 1 (dries)
Lap 43: Zonta 1 (dries)
Lap 43: Coulthard 2 (dries)
Michael lap time: 1m23.9s

At this stage BAR blew its chance of getting a podium finish. Zonta apparently called for wets, but the team misheard him and gave him dries. Not only that, but Villeneuve asked to come in and at the very last second was told to stay out, because his team-mate was expected. That's why he cut across the last chicane and headed off for another lap.

McLaren also had a chance here to salvage Coulthard's rotten day by going straight to wets, but they failed to take it - or rather, David himself failed to take it. "Yes we could have taken a run at it," said Dennis, "and perhaps put David on wets. But you'd have to have a very positive statement coming from David, from the car, saying I want to take a chance, I want to go to wets, and that's not what happened." Bearing in mind his lowly position, out of the points, it was surely worth a punt.

Lap 44: Villeneuve 1 (dries)
Lap 44: Fisichella 1 (wets)
Lap 44: Wurz 1 (wets)
Lap 44: Verstappen 2 (wets)
Michael lap time: 1m29.5s

This was a crucial lap. Incredibly, Villeneuve was given dries despite stopping at this late stage, and in the confusion the team managed to lose him an extra six seconds in the stop! However, others had finally bowed to the inevitable. Benetton timed it perfectly for Fisichella, as he came in right on schedule and went straight to wets. Team-mate Wurz came in 9s behind and had to wait his turn while the team got his tyres ready. He lost around 18 extra seconds, far more than if he had stayed out for one more lap, but a lot less than if he had made an extra stop like others would have to.

Verstappen was almost as lucky as Fisichella, as his second planned stop was timed just right.

Lap 45: Schumacher 2 (wets)
Lap 45: Barrichello 2 (wets)
Lap 45: Trulli 2 (wets)
Lap 45: Villeneuve 2 (wets)
Lap 45: Zonta 2 (wets)
Lap 45: Coulthard 3 (wets)
Lap 45: de la Rosa 3 (wets)
Hakkinen lap time: 1m44.0s

At this stage the pits went crazy! Barrichello had to wait while Schumacher was serviced, losing around 16s because the Ferrari team hadn't got his tyres ready - clearly lessons have not been learned from last year's Nurburgring farce. Zonta had to wait while Villeneuve was taken care of, although he only lost 5s. And Coulthard was back in after only two laps on dries.

Lap 46: Hakkinen 2 (wets)

McLaren chose not to get involved in the sort of double stop confusion which had blighted Benetton, Ferrari and BAR, and Hakkinen was kept out until lap 46 and became the last man to pit for dries. In fact the team still hoped that the rain would stop. However, his last couple of laps were extremely costly. "There was dialogue," said Dennis. "We were speaking to Mika and saying what are the chances of staying out on slicks? Because if it had suddenly stopped raining, it would have been a way to win the race. And that's what we were trying to evaluate. As he had a time cushion calling in later with him didn't hurt us at all with anyone other than Fisichella." That's true, but only because everyone else had made a mess of it.

To show how the points contenders fared during this confusing period, here is a table showing the positions on lap 47, after Mika became the last man to stop, and a comparison with how things looked on lap 38, before Trulli kicked off the first round of stops. Note that Michael Schumacher had already made what was supposed to be his only stop at that stage, and Jos Verstappen had made the first of his two scheduled stops.

1. M Schumacher (2nd - 6s)
2. Barrichello - 32s (1st)
3. Fisichella - 34s (7th, -27s)
4. Hakkinen - 52s (3rd, - 9s)
5. Trulli - 58s (5th, -17s)
6. Wurz - 59s (10th, -35s)
7. Verstappen - 66s (16th, -55s)
8. R Schumacher - 67s (8th, -28s)
9. Coulthard - 70s (9th, -29s)
10. Villeneuve - 70s (4th, -17s)
11. Zonta - 81s (6th, - 25s)

The following table puts all this into perspective, and shows how much Fisichella gained from his perfectly timed single stop:

Zonta: 56s
Villeneuve: 53s
Hakkinen: 43s
Coulthard: 41s
Trulli: 41s
Barrichello: 32s
Ralf: 28s
Wurz: 24s
Verstappen: 11s
Fisichella: 7s

Ron Dennis insisted that McLaren had not made any mistakes: "Being the first one onto wets, there is no doubt that it was a gamble. We were even trying to basically stay out on dries with Mika. We were probably out one lap longer with Mika than we should have been. But that didn't cost him any places. No one knew how hard it was going to rain. It's a little unfair to say Fisichella lucked out, but Fisichella was in a completely different place on the road, and as it happened it worked out for him. Did the team make any bad decisions? I don't think so. We are more than capable of making bad decisions and taking the criticism. You can be a hero or you can be a zero, and in the conditions that prevailed at the time they were taken, I'm pretty comfortable that we took the right decisions."

After the rain things settled down. Michael had a fright when he straightlined the first corner on lap 48, and thereafter he went only as fast as he needed to, and allowed Rubens to catch up. As at the 'Ring, Hakkinen eventually got into a good rhythm, and caught Fisichella, who was lucky to survive a series of off-track moments. Getting close enough in the spray to try a passing move was another matter. Verstappen made a couple of good passes as he moved up tot fifth, but both Villeneuve (with Ralf) and Coulthard (with Wurz) got involved in collisions when they tried optimistic moves. The McLarens and Benettons were running very low downforce - they topped the speed trap table - and were certainly not easy to drive when the weather was at its worst.

The conclusion is that Ferrari and Schumacher got the job done, although they did not benefit from any super strategy - they simply didn't do as badly as their main rivals. Michael certainly needed that big cushion he was able to open when Villeneuve held everyone else up.

Rubens was arguably the star of the race, and had the team not fouled up his change to wets, he might have been able to push Michael harder. Spare a thought too for poor Frentzen, who started very heavy and was scheduled to come in around the time that Fisichella made his stop for wets. Had brake problems not halted him, he could have been a serious contender.

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