Austrian GP: Race Analysis

From seventh on the grid you need a little luck to win a Grand Prix, and someone was certainly smiling on David Coulthard in Austria. That's not meant to detract from a faultless drive from the Scot, who showed once again that he has to be taken as a serious title contender. He bided his time early on, saving the fuel that allowed him to strike when the time was right and his competitors were vulnerable. When he took the lead, he performed impeccably despite having a pair of Ferraris on his tail

Austrian GP: Race Analysis

"The most difficult place to race is the front, leading the race is very tough," said Ron Dennis. "He was there for quite a few laps, and of course there was plenty of pressure towards the end. But he set fastest lap. It was about pace, it was about saving tyres and fuel, and while Michael chased down some of his competitors quickly, our objective was to win, not just go streaking into the distance. And that's what we achieved."

On balance second place was not a disastrous result for Michael Schumacher, who after all has never won in Austria and finished last year's event in the first corner gravel trap. This time he survived a poor start and a time consuming incident with Juan Pablo Montoya, and without either of those, he would surely have won. Even with those two disasters he might have had a shot at victory had he not made a mistake on his first lap out of the pits.

On the downside an internal dispute with Rubens Barrichello will not help Ferrari's equilibrium in the coming weeks, and the knowledge that the McLarens can apparently run substantially further on fuel will certainly tax Ross Brawn and his men. That could prove costly at other circuits.

Launch control was meant to produce boringly uniform starts, but so far it's created more excitement than most people can deal with. The drivers who weren't left stranded deserve full credit for successfully avoiding the four stationary cars.

Some mechanics didn't react quite so efficiently. Several crews tried to restart cars in the fast lane of the pits, which is expressly forbidden, for obvious reasons. The safety car even had to take a detour round Mika Hakkinen when it came in. I assume that had Mika's car been fit enough to continue, he would eventually have been excluded. As it was, Jarno Trulli was eventually blackflagged for leaving the pits when the lights were red, and butting into the middle of the safety car queue. Rules is rules...

While the four cars stranded on the grid inevitably caught the attention, the failure of the Ferraris to get away cleanly was just as significant in terms of the outcome of the race.

You may wonder why things can go wrong after so much practising, but there was a simple reason. Drivers are now making practice starts almost every time they leave the pits on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. The problem in Austria, at least for Ferrari, was that the pit exit was slippery. Come Sunday afternoon the tarmac on the real grid offered better grip than the system had been tuned to expect. The track surface combined with the new rear tyres (inevitably most practice starts cause are done with worn rubber) effectively caused the Ferrari launch control system to freak out, although obviously others were not troubled.

"Grip was much higher than anyone expected," said Ross Brawn. "I think a lot of people found themselves in a circumstance which they'd not seen before, which is going to happen with launch control until we get more experience. But this is what I expected in the first race, and to happen here was a surprise. We had a very soft tyre here for the start, and most people had a new rear tyre to do the start with, so there was a lot of grip. You never have enough sets of new tyres [for practice starts], and in fact the pitlane is quite slippery and the track itself is much better."

In fact both Michael and Rubens were lucky that some cars immediately behind them, namely Jarno Trulli and Nick Heidfeld, were not in a position to charge past. As it was Michael lost out to both the Williams drivers. He knew he was in for a tough time not only because both men would be hard to pass, but because it was widely known that early in the race the Michelins would go off and their pace would slow. That would inevitably lead to a traffic jam behind, but on the other hand it would also give Schumacher a legitimate shot at a passing move. And that's exactly what happened.

"The start went right," said Montoya, "and everything went quite well until the tyres started going off a little bit. I was pushing quite hard at the beginning, and then they started to go away quite hard. We just had a stage with the tyres where they weren't very good."

"They just lose grip," noted Patrick Head. "He slowed for half a second or so for two or three laps, and then they started coming back again, and then he was able to push again."

There are many different views on the Montoya/Schumacher incident. You can't blame Michael for having a go; he knew that he had to get past, and if he was lucky perhaps others would find it tougher and he would be able to eke out a gap. He chose his moment brilliantly, pulling to the left on the run between the first and second corners, and forcing Montoya onto the less favourable line in the middle of the track. When they got to the braking area Juan Pablo was not in the ideal place, bobbled over a bump, locked up, and went straight on - and duly blocked Michael.

Juan Pablo seemed pretty matter of fact about it when I spoke to him after the race. "It was nothing really. He went to the outside and I went to the inside, and when I braked my rear tyres locked, and that was it. We both went wide." Later he was a little bit more animated with the Spanish-speaking press...

Patrick Head shed a little more light on the subject: "He said he was running a fairly rearward brake bias early in the race, and he when Michael came up on the outside he just locked the rear brakes, started sliding, and had to sort of ease off the brakes."

One viewpoint is that Montoya simply went too far this time, and just got a little carried away with this second chance to run wheel to wheel with Michael for the lead of a Grand Prix when he should perhaps have used his head. Or as one driver suggested, 'he's begun to believe his own press.'

It was certainly a little messy, but the overhead view revealed that Michael had perhaps created his own downfall by leaning on Montoya a little too much, and could easily have outfumbled him and got by safely. Schumacher later revealed that his intention was to cut inside as Montoya went wide, rather than complete the move on the outside. Whatever, it made for great TV, and goes down as a pure racing incident. I said after Brazil that Michael would have made a mental note about this new rival, and I suspect by now he's probably filled a few pages...

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Michael was now down to sixth, or fifth if you discount Jos Verstappen, who was clearly planning an early stop and would soon drop out of this group. He was also 5.2s behind new leader Barrichello.

One can imagine how fired up Michael was at this stage. He knew he had around 30 laps before the stops in which to make up the deficit and get onto terms with Rubens and David, his main rivals. But he had a couple of other cars to get past first. He was stuck behind Panis for several laps, and that cost a lot of momentum, but once he was past the Frenchman Raikkonen proved more friendly. The following table shows how his recovery was delayed by Panis:

5.2 (pushed wide by Montoya, drops to sixth.
5.8 (behind Panis)
6.7 (behind Panis)
7.1 (passes Panis on next lap)
6.7 (passes Raikkonen)
3.3 (gets on Coulthard's tail)
Michael pits

As you can see Michael was with Coulthard by lap 38, and then he sat behind the Scot as both edged ever closer to Barrichello. On lap 45, with the stops due any time soon, the three men were covered by just 1.005s - and clearly there was everything to play for.

Ferrari had a difficult choice to make - whether to bring Michael or Rubens in first. And the team obviously had no idea as to how late DC would stop. Fuel consumption may have played a part, since Michael had to run extremely hard during his catch-up drive, and it may have been that the team had to bring him in first.

In theory the team leader should have stayed out longest, but track position was crucial in this case. If Rubens had come in first, he would have left a clear track on which Coulthard could run as fast as he pleased. In fact the ideal strategy was for Rubens to slow when Michael pitted, and therefore hold up Coulthard for a crucial second or two. I'm not talking about blatant blocking or anything outrageous, but the merest slackening in pace...

Michael came in on lap 46. But rather than hold up David while his team mate was being serviced, Rubens set his fastest lap of the race to date. And when Barrichello came in on lap 47, his in-lap was 0.6s faster than Michael's - an impressive achievement. In other words there's no doubt that Rubens was doing everything he possibly could to ensure that he came out of the pits still ahead of Michael.

Here's where we have to speculate. When I asked Ross Brawn if Rubens could have slowed David at this stage, he grinned rather sheepishly. "It would have been nice if he had! But no... Maybe later in the year. Not now." But did Ferrari ask Rubens to slow, and if so, is that where the argument between the Brazilian and the pit wall began?

If the team didn't give such an order, then you have to agree that Ferrari was playing a fair game, and not doing anything that would directly hinder its chief opponent. Perhaps the McLaren camp should have taken this into account before the subsequent criticism of the last lap place swapping started. It could have been much more messy...

As it happened, Michael dug his own hole. On his out lap he simply made a mistake and ran wide, losing at least 1.6s to what he could have achieved, and possibly more. He could not afford to give that time away on what was his single most important lap of the race to date. That, combined with the superquick in-lap from Rubens, ensured that Barrichello emerged from the pits ahead.

Now Ferrari had to worry about Coulthard. While Michael came in on lap 46, and Rubens on lap 47, David managed to stay out until lap 50. This was a result of frugal driving early in the race. "It was just a matter of saving fuel and running as long as we could," noted Adrian Newey. "He was saving fuel for a bit, so he made a bit of distance." The concept of conserving fuel in an F1 car may seem a little odd, but the difference between going to 49 laps or 50 laps requires a saving of just 2%, a figure that seems more than plausible.

With no one ahead he drove two brilliant laps of 1m10.843s and 1m10.983s, the quickest anybody went all race. On his crucial in-lap he lost a bit of time behind Jean Alesi. But it wasn't enough to spoil his party. The two Ferraris were lapping with more than 20 laps of fuel on board, and they were still able to do the times they'd been doing just before the stops. But that wasn't quite good enough. It was a case of simple physics - there was nothing Rubens and Michael could do to overcome that extra weight. And DC's actual stop was marginally shorter, because he needed to take on less fuel.

At most tracks a driver coming out of the pits in front of a car on the track just has to do a bit of blocking to stay ahead under braking for the first corner. But the pit exit in Austria is after the first corner, so it can be deceiving. A car leaving the pits and going up the hill may appear to have a clear advantage over one just crossing the grid, but at the first corner the car in the pit lane has a much tighter turn and loses momentum compared to one on the track. In other words DC could have got on to the track first, but if Rubens was close enough, the Ferrari would have been able to surge past on acceleration. It was a matter of little more than a second, but DC stayed ahead.

This is how the crucial laps around the pit stops unfolded:

1m13.840s (in to pits)
1m34.932s (out of pits)

1m11.879s (takes lead on last turn)
1m10.843s (fastest lap of the race)
1m10.983s (second fastest lap of the race)
1m14.590s (in to pits, delayed by Alesi)

1m14.412s (in to pits)
1m36.549s (out of pits, goes onto dirt)

For some reason after the stops Michael dropped back from his team mate. You would have expected him to be all over the Brazilian, and later he offered no explanation for this loss of speed. But perhaps he'd damaged his tyres running onto the dirt, or was taking a breather and deliberately saving his rubber for a late charge. But for that to be effective he needed Rubens to make life easier for him and allow him a run at Coulthard.

This is where many critics of Ferrari's team tactics have missed the point. It's my understanding that Barrichello started to receive the 'move over' order around 10 laps from the flag. It was not just a case of gifting Michael two points, but of allowing the World Champion to get up behind Coulthard and if not find a way by, at least try to bully him into a mistake. And having Schumacher in his mirrors would definitely have given DC extra pressure that he didn't really need at this stage.

Having said that, at the 10 laps to go mark Schumacher was still a couple of seconds back, and therefore hardly breathing down Barrichello's neck. He subsequently got a little closer, with five laps to go the gap was around a second. There was still time for Michael to get by and at least worry Coulthard, but Rubens defiantly held on.

Were they actually racing? Well, Rubens set his fastest lap of the race with three laps to go, and Michael did his with two laps to go, which certainly woke David up. When Barrichello finally made his showboating last corner gesture he gave up the two points, but in Jean Todt's eyes, that may have been too little, too late...

The fuss over Ferrari's tactics overshadowed a brilliant drive by Coulthard. Ron Dennis made it clear that McLaren had won on strategy, but it hardly took a genius to know that the way to win this race was to run as far as possible before the stops. McLaren simply went further than Ferrari could manage, end of story, and there was no requirement for the sort of instant decisions that win races affected by rain or safety cars.

While there was a strategic element in that DC could play some role in saving fuel, I suspect that the roots of the Austrian victory go back to when Adrian Newey and his colleagues drew the tub of the MP4-16 - and squeezed in the biggest fuel tank they could justify...

Finally it's worth taking a diversion into fuel tank capacities, or at least what we can glean from how far individual cars were able to run. This will give a good idea of how other races where late stopping is the key, such as Montreal, might turn out. Last year's Austrian GP was very similar to this one in that the first couple of laps were run under a safety car, so we can make a direct comparison:

Sauber/Salo (Mika claimed he could have done a couple more laps)

Sauber/Raikkonen & Heidfeld

So what can we learn from this? Well, the most striking thing is that Coulthard ran eight laps further than last year. Of course there's no way of knowing if he started full in the 2000 race, and perhaps a more likely scenario is that he did start full but pitted a few laps before the end of his window. In that race he was under no pressure from behind, and could do nothing about leader Hakkinen (who pitted as early as lap 38), so there was no need to take things to extremes.

Nevertheless, we're talking about an eight lap discrepancy here, so we can at least speculate that this year's McLaren has a larger tank and/or the package is more fuel efficient. Even Ferrari can only guess.

"It's impossible to judge," said Ross Brawn. "The right strategy here was to go as far as they could. They followed the right strategy and it paid off for them. We've got to examine if we can improve our situation, because we've got a couple of races coming up where it will be just as critical. There are lots of ifs and buts - F1 is 'if' spelt backwards, as everyone knows! But I think if Michael had managed to get a break then he would have built enough lead to have been OK. But he didn't."

There's no point in asking the team, however: "Whatever we do is something that we might repeat or won't repeat," said Ron Dennis. "Sharing it with the world isn't particularly smart, as is why we do things or how we do them. Every team has the ability to save fuel, utilising either different parameters on the engine, or even driving style. What was very, very apparent, and you could see, was that the way to take the lead was to be in the pits last. And we achieved that and got the result."

It's worth noting that traction control has an effect on fuel usage, and it could be that some teams have sorted it better than others. "The methods being used do affect fuel consumption a little bit," said Ross Brawn. "But probably traction control systems ultimately will be more efficient than some of the engine management strategies that were necessary before to make the engine driveable."

It's interesting to note that Barrichello ran only one more lap than last year, so there seems to be very little difference in what the red cars can achieve. It's a shame that neither a Williams nor a Jordan got as far as the pit stops, because that would have been revealing.

BAR did two laps less and Jaguar three more than in 2000, and while those figures don't necessarily prove too much, for the reasons outlined above, the most dramatic difference was at Benetton, where Button ran a whacking 10 laps less than Alex Wurz managed last year. Does the B201 have a smaller tank to maximise the packaging opportunities provided by the lowline engine? Is said engine incredibly thirsty? Or did Jenson start light so that he wouldn't be totally embarrassed by the Minardis? We can but guess...

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