Adam Cooper's race analysis

Malaysia turned out to be a fairly interesting race, perhaps better than we deserved considering that the title battle was settled and the teams' version was all but done and dusted

Adam Cooper's race analysis

Michael Schumacher started the season with three wins, and finished it with four in a row, but once again he was helped by a little misfortune amongst the main opposition. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard both made mistakes that effectively cost them the race, and perhaps the one-two that McLaren so dearly wanted to end the season with.

Such a result might not have won the teams' title, assuming that the Ferraris were still running, but it would have reduced the gap to less than 10 points. And McLaren would then have been able to point to the controversial FIA decision after Austria, when 10 points went astray, and claim a moral victory of sorts. Instead Ferrari's cup was filled to overflowing, and the team's evening party was quite something, by all accounts. The sight of Jean Todt stripped to his underpants will not easily be forgotten by his crew...

Usually the decision between one and two pit stops is fairly clear cut; one or the other strategy will be faster over the race distance. This time the decision was very finely balanced, especially as tyre wear was not a major issue, and the top guys really had to study each other after the warm-up. Some people's plans were obvious; Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher were down in 19th and 20th, suggesting that they were going to start very heavy. Hakkinen went quick right at the end, but that turned out to be a bluff, for the slower times he set earlier on provided a more accurate guide to what he had in mind.

The complexion of the race changed at the start. Once again, Michael Schumacher was beaten away by Mika Hakkinen, who has made a habit out of making up for missing out on pole position. But this time he messed up; he clearly rolled forward a few seconds early, and while he appeared to have stopped by the time the lights went out, he was still adjudged to have jumped the start.

While some might think this a harsh decision, particularly those whose initials are 'RD', Mika certainly gained an advantage by being out of position and closer to Michael than he should have been. The German wasn't able to perform his familiar chop, because Hakkinen was alongside almost instantly. Perhaps caught a little off-guard by Mika's getaway, he also lost out to David Coulthard, who made a superb, aggressive run around the outside of the first corner.

Ferrari has almost come to expect Michael to convert poles into second places, so he is never saddled with a strategy that relies totally on being in front, but the team certainly didn't envisage him being behind two McLarens. This disappointment was tempered by the instant report on the timing screens that Hakkinen's start was under investigation, and thus more than likely to lead to a stop-go. The safety car period, which lasted just a lap, gave driver and team a chance to study their options.

On lap 3, the first flying lap after the green, Hakkinen let Coulthard by. This looked like being a twist on what we saw at Indianapolis; a McLaren under threat of a stop-and-go holding up Michael. But this time instead of Coulthard allowing Hakkinen to catch up, it would be Mika allowing David to get away.

Any thoughts of some questionable blocking by the Finn were soon dispelled, for he ran wide on a corner, and Michael was instantly past. And just seconds later Barrichello dived through as well. From being in the lead at the end of lap 2, the Flying Finn was fourth and 3.4s behind at the end of lap 3!

"I was hoping that he'd be able to keep Michael back a little bit," said David. "I wasn't sure at what pace he'd be able to run. But the team told me about five corners later that Michael was second, so I thought, 'Oh s***', and just tried to pull away as best I could."

What none of us knew at this stage was that Mika was carrying an exceptionally heavy fuel load. In fact the McLarens had started with contrasting strategies; David was on two stops, and Mika one. And the Finn was not planning to stop halfway, on lap 28 - he actually had enough fuel to go all the way to lap 35. This was 10 to 11 laps further than the two Ferraris would go, and that massive weight difference meant that in the early laps he had no chance of holding off the nimbler red cars.

The inevitable penalty was then announced, and Mika came in and took it on lap 5. In Malaysia stops are relatively costly, because the pit entry is on the outside of the last corner, so those going in actually take a longer line than the cars on the track, unlike at most other venues. In total Mika lost around 23.8s, and since it came so early in the race, that put him right to the back.

It also obviously totally negated any advantages he might have gained with his one-stop strategy. Without the penalty, he should have been able to hang on to fourth place, and would probably not have been threatened by Alex Wurz or anyone else behind. He then would have sped up on low tanks, gaining ground on his rivals as they made their first stops.

Now he had to get through traffic. On the face of it this was not a difficult task for a McLaren, but even a double World Champion faces problems when he's carrying twice as much fuel as some of those ahead, and those cars are racing for position and therefore not obliged to move over. In other words, Mika was stuffed...

Out front, an interesting pattern emerged. Coulthard was able to pull away from Schumacher, and that left both Ferrari and McLaren second guessing how much fuel the other was carrying - logic suggested that DC was lighter than his German rival. "ObviousIy, I was concerned," said Michael. "I was on the limit, I was pushing, but I couldn't go any faster." This how the gap went out:

On the next lap David ran wide at the exit of a corner. He was soon back on the tarmac and he lost less than a second of his advantage. "I don't recall locking up," said David, "but I seemed to develop a vibration from the front of the car. I was mis-sighted coming out of Turn 6. I slightly misjudged the exit line and ran off the track. I didn't think it would be enough to do any damage."

But that error was to prove costly. In practice Jos Verstappen had had a similar excursion, and when he returned to the pits steam was pouring from every orifice of the Arrows.

DC's trip wasn't quite so spectacular, but nevertheless like Jos he had filled his radiators with grass and dirt. These days teams push cooling to the limit, because cooling means drag. Thus there's very little margin for error when the radiators are partially blocked, especially when the air temperature is well over 30deg. Back in the McLaren pits, it was soon clear that the Mercedes was running a little too hot.

The team made the decision to bring David in for his first stop earlier than scheduled, and at the end of lap 17 he came into the pits. Quite how far he was planning to run is not known, but he suggested that he could have gone further than Michael. That would have taken him to at least lap 25; if true, he came into the pits with at least eight laps' worth of fuel on board. This was crucial, because he lost the opportunity to increase his lead on near empty tanks.

Ross Brawn could barely believe his luck when David stopped; it was just what he wanted to see, and it mattered not whether he was on schedule or forced in early by circumstances. Michael too knew the implications, and did not need much encouragement. Suddenly getting a sniff of victory, he raised his game considerably, as the following table shows:

Obviously Michael was benefiting from the decreasing fuel load (and the fact that "the tyres become better when they get older"). But I would suggest that the times also show that despite his insistence that he was pushing, he had effectively fallen asleep in the first stint, when he allowed Coulthard to open up a lead of 6s. He certainly wasn't driving with the intensity we saw in Suzuka... but then, even Michael finds it difficult to dig that deep, unless he really has to.

Meanwhile during these laps David was on a heavy fuel load. He'd also decided to put on new front tyres, rather than the scrubbed fronts that he had started with. This proved to be an error, and he found the car less comfortable at this critical time.

"It meant that the rear of the car was very unstable initially until the tyres wore down," DC noted. "So for about eight laps on the new fronts, I was struggling. I was about 0.7s slower, and that was really because of entries. I just couldn't carry the speed into the slow-speed corners."

The net result of Michael's little spurt was soon clear. Helped by an in-lap which was 1.3s quicker than Coulthard's, he came from 6.012s behind to head David by 4.274s...

That was effectively it; there was no way back for DC. Or was there? Once in front Michael again relaxed. There was good sense in that of course, because the heat made it tough for man, machine and tyres, but perhaps he reckoned without a touch of inspiration from David. Once again on similar fuel loads, the McLaren was again quicker, and the gap came down to 1.9s by the time David made his second stop on lap 38. This time he went back to scrubbed fronts, and was much happier with the balance.

Michael came in just a lap later, despite an 'in-lap' which this time was nearly 1s slower than David, he still got out in front. In fact it was a close-run thing, and McLaren almost outsmarted the opposition. Ferrari did not realise that DC's first stop was so premature, and having taken note of the amount of fuel going into the McLaren, could not have known that he had still so much (eight laps' worth?) still in the tank when he stopped. So the team was surprised when DC's middle stint lasted so long.

"Maybe we didn't react very well," said Michael's engineer. "The second stop we could have gone a little bit longer. We thought that Coulthard was stopping a little bit earlier, so maybe Michael relaxed a little bit. When you have a guy one second behind, it becomes difficult. But it was OK; we just called him before he hit traffic."

If he was hoping for an easy run to the flag, Michael was to be disappointed. Coulthard kept pushing and was right on the German's tail within seven laps of the stops. He stayed right there until the end, albeit knowing that his only way through was if Michael made a mistake. But the leader was in control: "I judged it and obviously you don't go for 100%, because you don't want to make a mistake by doing a 100% drive. You just go this little bit slower, which means the lap times are a little bit less. I wasn't really forced into a mistake, and preserved my tyres for the final moment, whenever an attack would have happened." To summarise, here is how the stops worked out:

Behind them Rubens Barrichello had what can only be described as a lonely run to third; he was only 13s down at the end, but it might as well have been a lifetime. A slow second stop didn't help. However, his best lap, set just before his first stop, was quicker than any by David.

Hakkinen's run to fourth was rather more adventurous. As mentioned earlier, he had to get through traffic with a fuelled-up car, and tyres that had to last for 34 laps. He made heavy work of it, at one stage taking several laps to get past Marc Gene's Minardi.

He got up to fourth by lap 30, which sounds impressive, but by my calculations the only drivers he actually caught and passed on the road were Gaston Mazzacane, Ralf Schumacher, Gene and Giancarlo Fisichella! And funnily enough, it eventually became clear that all of them were on one stop. None was going quite as far as Mika, but they certainly weren't in super light, two-stop configuration.

Others either retired or were passed when they were in the pits. Mika also eventually got by Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve on the track, but only after their stops had dropped them back into his sights. Hakkinen's own stop, at which the McLaren crew removed a set of Bridgestone that can best be described as 'well-used', dropped him back to sixth. But when Jacques and Eddie made their respective second stops, they fell behind the Finn again, and fourth was secure.

Catching Barrichello for third was never on, and Mika eventually finished 35.4s behind the winner. As mentioned earlier, he lost some 23.8s with his stop and go. Further examination of the times reveals that on the very last lap he gave away 3s by backing off and cruising across the line, while the guys ahead were still hard at it.

So in effect we can say that Mika was just 8.6s shy of Michael at the flag. On the face of it that would seem to suggest that his one-stop strategy would not have won the race. But we have to consider the fact that he lost an awful lot of time in traffic in the first half. He may also have lost a lot of motivation in the early stages, but if he did it didn't show up so much in the last part of the race, when he was lapping quicker than the fairly intense Schumacher/Coulthard battle. And he had absolutely no reason to go that fast, since there was no way he could catch Rubens; he was just doing it for the sheer pleasure of driving on the limit. What a shame that we'll never know how things would have panned out without that penalty...

Jacques Villeneuve did a good job to get in the points for the third race running, while a charging race by Irvine deserves comment. He was in no mood to mess about, and on an aggressive first lap got involved with both Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. Thereafter he kept Jacques in sight throughout, finishing just 1.8s behind. Brake troubles for Alexander Wurz helped both men, but nevertheless this was a pretty good showing for a Jaguar team that seemed in disarray just a few weeks ago. In contrast both Williams and Jordan had disastrous weekends and were never in the hunt.

There was much of interest behind. Most of those in the midfield went for two stops, but, as mentioned, Mazzacane, Gene, Ralf Schumacher and Fisichella went for one, as did Herbert and Verstappen. It was thus very hard to judge the true picture until the last third of the race, but most of these guys were either out or, like Verstappen, in gearbox trouble by then. The only one to have an untroubled (but equally uninspired) run was Fisichella; he did a marathon 32 lap first shift and finished just 4s behind Salo, who made two stops and drove like hell in-between! Further proof that the choice was a fine one...

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