Analysis: Schumacher's Last Chance

The unlikelihood of Michael Schumacher winning an eighth World Championship in 2005 is a theme being picked up everywhere

Analysis: Schumacher's Last Chance

Tune into Riviera Radio, the English-speaking 'fun' station on the Cote D'Azur and a week ahead of the blue riband Monaco GP they were running with a story that Ralf Schumacher believes the '05 title to be beyond his brother.

With the race now just a couple of days away the emphasis has shifted to whether Schumacher can win in Monte Carlo. The pundits are suggesting that if a 2005 Championship challenge is to be realistic, then he has to.

Five races into a 19-race season that can be swung by the nuances of a tyre war, it's a little early to be making sweeping generalisations. But, Schumacher is 34 points behind Fernando Alonso in the Championship table and there are only two points separating a win from second place.

And so, even if Ferrari/Bridgestone do make a quantum leap, then so long as Renault retains its pace, reliability and position close to the top of the Michelin performance league, then Schumacher faces a tough task.

To illustrate the point, if Schumacher and Ferrari were suddenly to become the class of the field and there were a couple of McLarens between the Ferrari and Alonso, then while Schumacher scored 10 points, Alonso would pick up five.

In such a scenario it would take Schumacher seven races to eliminate Fernando's cushion. Clearly then, something positive does have to happen sometime soon.

Schumacher, like Senna before him, has always excelled at Monte Carlo, a circuit that rewards driver input and precision more than most, especially in the need to monster an all-important qualifying lap out of the car without sticking it in the wall.

Even as early as 1993, when Williams-Renault had an acknowledged car advantage, Schumacher put a Benetton on the front row and led the race going away until halted by a mechanical problem.

Senna, after shunting a McLaren MP4-8 very heavily on Thursday and putting himself behind, picked up the pieces and won his fifth successive Monaco, also claiming a new record sixth win in the principality.

In 1994 Monte Carlo was the first race after Ayrton's fatal accident at Imola and it was poignant that at the same time as assuming the King's mantle, Schumacher won his first Monaco. He repeated the feat, again with Benetton, in '95 and then amazed teammate Eddie Irvine when he stuck the Ferrari F310 on pole for the '96 race in his first year with the team.

Irvine reckoned that "the 96 Ferrari was such a dog that you could hear it barking over the sound of its V10". Always a shrewd operator, there wasn't too much that Irvine didn't understand but Schumacher winning three Grands Prix and taking the Monaco pole in that Ferrari were four of them...

On a damp first lap though, Schumacher took a little too much inside pavement at the right-hander after Loews hairpin and slid straight across the road into the barrier. It was almost as high profile an error as Senna's a few yards further on at Portier eight years earlier. Mortified, jaw set, face like thunder, Schumacher stalked back in and apologised sincerely to Jean Todt.

He made amends in '97 with his third Monaco win in four and, by now, had not started the race anywhere but the front row for five consecutive visits.

1998 changed all that though, when not even Schumacher's ability could get a Goodyear-shod Ferrari close enough to a dominant Bridgestone-tyred McLaren to prevent Ron Dennis's cars claiming the front row and Mika Hakkinen winning the race.

In 1999, with Ferrari on Bridgestones too, Schumacher joined Hakkinen on the Monaco front row and won his fourth Monte Carlo. He took the pole in 2000 and led until an exhaust problem overheated the rear suspension and prompted a failure, although there was a suggestion that Schumacher also clouted a barrier.

In 2001, Schumacher had to cede pole position to David Coulthard's McLaren. The German did win the race, however, bringing himself to within one of Senna's record six victories. But, significantly, '01 is the last time that either Schumacher or Bridgestone has won in Monaco.

Anyone who points to Schumacher's lack of Monaco success in the past three years as evidence of him losing just a little of his edge is way off track. The reason is tyres, pure and simple.

Under normal circumstances it is impossible to overtake in Monaco and Michelin's softer rubber allowed Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams and David Coulthard's McLaren to take the front row in 2002. Schumacher's Ferrari had the best race pace and as it developed he threatened to overhaul DC, but finely-judged pit-calling from McLaren, in the nick of time, cemented Coulthard's second Monaco win.

The '03 race was a similar story, with Michelin again affording its teams an advantage. This time, however, Bridgestone and Ferrari thought they were in better shape than they actually were and, with qualifying now run with race fuel levels, they sent Schumacher out with a little too much Shell.

The upshot was that he qualified too far down and spent much of the first stint bottled up behind Jarno Trulli. Once again he had by far the quickest car in race trim. And once again he couldn't use it. He finished the race right with the leaders but, of course, had no chance of getting by. Montoya won for Williams with Raikkonen's McLaren second.

Last year, Bridgestone addressed the problem by bringing a much softer tyre with the obvious intention of trying to get Schumacher on pole. When Ferrari evaluated this tyre on Thursday it was very quick but dropped off substantially. They were also worried by the pace of the Trulli/Alonso Renaults and their propensity for lightning starts.

If Schumacher had got the pole it would have been hard for anyone to pass him, of course. But they weren't confident about the race performance of the softer tyre. And if one of the Renaults qualified beside Schumacher and beat him into St Devote then, Ross Brawn thought, they'd be history.
 
In the end, the decision came down to whether they could get Rubens Barrichello on the front row as well, to offer some protection against the jack-rabbit Renaults and possibly a buffer come pitstop time. They decided that they couldn't and so opted for the harder tyre with the better race performance but in the knowledge that, again, they wouldn't be in the fight for pole.

Schumacher qualified half a second off Trulli's pole and with Button and Alonso between them. It was 2002/3 all over again but this time Schumacher was fuelled for a long middle stint. That was why Ferrari didn't call him in when a shunt in the tunnel brought a mid-race Safety Car. To have done so would have brought him back out still behind Trulli. Leaving him out gave him a long shot at overhauling the Renault.

Of course, it became immaterial when Montoya's Williams, a lap behind, shunted into the back of the Ferrari as Schumacher aggressively tried to get heat into his brakes in the tunnel as the Safety Car was about to pull off.

Brawn later explained that Schumacher had another 17 laps in which to try and gain a pitstop's time advantage over a freshly refuelled Trulli. He would have needed to leave the Renault by around a second and a half per lap. As I said, a long shot, but if anyone could have done it, Schumacher could.

Schumacher was widely panned for jamming on his anchors in the darkness of the tunnel but there was a bit more to it than that. Other drivers, especially Montoya, had criticised him in drivers' briefings for deliberately 'brake-testing' the guy behind just before going back on the gas at a restart, just to make sure he wasn't vulnerable to better handling of the restart by the guy behind.

Monaco though, was obviously no such case. They weren't about to restart racing at the exit of the tunnel. This was about Schumacher knowing that he needed to be right on it, with hot brakes, once the Safety Car pulled off, not spending a lap getting his car performance back.

Montoya, a lap down remember, wasn't on his mind, only Trulli. The darkness of the tunnel was a red herring too. It only looks dark because TV camera lenses contrast it with the Mediterranean sunshine outside. Drive through it in a road car and visibility, via artificial light, is perfectly fine.

More likely, this was about Montoya trying to make a point, staying right with Schumacher (Trulli reported that the Williams had almost run into the back of the Ferrari at Loews), making it hard for him to warm his brakes as much as he wanted without risking a shunt.

Schumacher, thinking only about winning and feeling that as the leader he was free to do as he pleased, went for it anyway and was punted off. To say he wasn't best pleased doesn't make a start on it.

And so to 2005. Predicting tyre performance as a weekend develops is something of a black art and more so at Monaco than anywhere else. There is a day's break between first practice on Thursday and qualifying on Saturday. A tyre that works well on Thursday often doesn't on Saturday, and vice versa. Ferrari were hit harder than expected by that in '03.

The surface picks up grip as it rubbers in and there is a greater gain by going out later in the qualifying session than at other tracks. But then again, what happens if it rains on Friday and washes the track clean?

Predicting the weather over a longer period, especially in a small area protected by mountains with its own micro climate, is even more of a challenge. And tyre choice has to be made before you run on Saturday morning. All of these things have to be factored into the equation.

Adding to Ferrari's problems this year is the first-lap performance deficit that has been a Bridgestone characteristic everywhere. Typically, it might amount to half a second. Then consider that Schumacher, as a result of his Barcelona retirement, will be fourth out in Saturday's first qualifying, adding to his disadvantage.

Autosport's Mark Hughes says: "When you start to analyse ways that Michael and Ferrari could win the race, it looks tough. I suspect that the only way would be to run a very short first stint, so he is light in the Sunday qualifying session, and takes pole, followed by a very long second stint.

"But that's risky. If he doesn't get the pole and doesn't lead, he'll drop right back into the pack at the first stop and that will be the end of it."

As we've said, the slippery first day at Monaco often doesn't tell you a lot and after looking reasonably competitive in the first session yesterday, Schumacher felt a vibration in the afternoon session and recorded just 11 laps - fewer than anyone else.

Asked how he thinks Ferrari is fixed, Brawn gave a so-so shrug that indicated somewhat less than 100% confidence.

Alonso recorded not just one but a whole strong of competitive laps yesterday and looks to be in good shape, as does Montoya, who ranks his 2003 win here as his most special moment in motor racing.

Expect Ferrari's race pace to be strong but another chapter of the one-lap performance versus durability tyre issues that have kept Schumacher and Ferrari off the top step of the podium here for four years.

In the end, Schumacher's chances may well come down to the respective performance levels of his main rivals. If they are close, and he can run with them in the race, then he has a chance. If one of the Michelin teams has any kind of performance advantage over another, it looks like being an insurmountable task.

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