BAR: Ferrari gets its just desert
No-one could touch Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello as they dominated the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix. By Mark Hughes
The left front of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari locked briefly, smoky Bridgestone blue highlighted against the white desert sand.
Minutes later, the session's other critical moment played out, as Juan Pablo Montoya tried to nail the final turn. His in-car display told him his normal speed here wasn't going to be enough. He was going to have to pull something extra out. By the apex he was 8mph faster than before, then the track's camber dropped away and the understeer started to build.
How these two moments were resolved determined the outcome of pole. Jenson Button's BAR-Honda had dominated the practices, Williams-BMW the pre-qualifying. Here was Schumacher on his qualifying lap locking up badly going into Turn 10 of Bahrain's new Sakhir circuit. It's a fast approach to a tight second-gear left-hander, the sort of corner that will induce exactly this sort of problem, especially at a place as demanding on brakes as this.
It's an inventive track; lots of elevation changes cut out of the rock, a fast downhill switchback and a rising sweep to a fast corner - Turn 12 - that, like the sweeps, is just on the cusp of being flat if everything is right. That's one part of the circuit's challenge. The other is four very hard braking areas at the end of long straights leading into slow corners.
As Montoya said: "It invites you to push hard because you're not going to hit anything, but there's a really big time penalty if you push too hard."
More than that, it's a challenge to the brakes, comparable to either Montreal or Monza.
With no previous information, the faster teams were finding it was the brakes that deviated significantly from their simulations. Terminal speeds were higher than forecast and, as the track rubbered up, grip increased, too, and wear rates went critical. The oxidisation curve of a carbon-fibre brake disc isn't regular; it's almost a flat line until it reaches around 1000C - then it goes off the scale.
Ferrari was playing with that critical point. You can use carbon of a different specification to keep temperatures down, but then they can drop below their ideal operating heat, which makes them grab.
On Saturday morning, Schumacher and team-mate Rubens Barrichello were locking wheels everywhere, missing apexes and sliding over kerbs. This was when Button - in a BAR that looked nailed to the asphalt through the fast switchback sweeps of Turns 5/6/7 and the sixth-gear uphill blind apex of 12 - had reigned supreme.
"We tried some different brakes with Michael on Saturday morning - the same as Rubens's," said tech boss Ross Brawn, "but Michael found them a bit too critical and we went back to the originals."
New bigger cooling ducts had been made up on Friday evening, giving the team an all-nighter.
In pre-qualifying, the Ferraris were transformed. They weren't perfect, but they were night and day better than in the morning. Schuey was only fourth fastest, but there was strong evidence that the three ahead of him - the two Williams and Kimi Raikkonen's troubled McLaren - were running light fuel. Ferrari was using similar amounts to qualifying proper.
So, four cars from the end, here was Schuey on the lap that counted, the lap that would define his whole weekend. Barrichello's Ferrari was the fastest to date - faster than the BARs which had lost rear-end grip in the cooler conditions. The German matched his team-mate in the first sector, but now here he was on the approach to 10. Barrichello had been conservative here, getting early on the brakes soon after exiting the kink of Turn 9.
"I was maybe too conservative," said Rubens. "Because of brake problems in the morning, I was too anxious, but the brakes were much better."
Schumacher wasn't so cautious. He braked deep. Deep enough to trigger the front left into locking. The circuit's temptress nature and the grabbing brake given by a cooler-running disc used in extremis had surely caught him out. But this is Michael Schumacher. Other drivers understeer wide when a front brake locks, miss their apex and either clout the exit kerb or back off for a horribly slow exit. Not him. He instantly induced oversteer to compensate. He missed the apex by no more than a couple of inches and kept the momentum up. A split-second snapshot of genius.
Pulling 18,900rpm along the back straight, he was Barrichello-quick in sector two, despite the lock-up. Into the flat-chat uphill challenge of 12, the Ferrari didn't deviate, giving its driver all the messages he wanted to feel.
Confidence now brimming, he was looking forward to really nailing the last turn. Again there was tyre smoke, and again it affected him in no way. He went through there at a totally different speed from Barrichello to cross the line almost 0.4sec quicker.
Only the two Williams were left to go (Raikkonen had elected not to run - see below). But how much of their advantage over Schuey in pre-qualifying was down to fuel load?
On a softer Michelin than everyone bar the Toyotas, Montoya squeezed it for all the grip it had. The first sector is perfect for the longitudinal traction of the softer-walled French tyre. Montoya duly went 0.2sec quicker than Schuey through there. Sector two is split between a couple of big Michelin stops - into 10 and 11 - and the fast sweeps of 5/6/7, which are Bridgestone territory. Nonetheless, Montoya was fantastic here, the car visibly snappier than the Ferrari in the switchback as it took up its greater sidewall flex, but with its driver riding it out with awesome commitment. He was a little messy into 10, but less so than Schumacher, and duly stole another tenth off the champ.
So three-tenths up going into the final sector, the exit of 12 merging into 13, then the faster-than-it-looks final turn, labelled 14 and 15, but in reality a single curve that opens up after a tight entry. Even with that cushion, Montoya knew it would be marginal. Ferrari, Bridgestone and Schumacher ruled in sector three.
"Even with their extra mid-wing, they are quicker than us on the straights," said JPM. "The Ferrari engine is just something else."
Nowhere did that translate better than in the final turn, where Montoya's fast entry sent him understeering wide after the apex and gave him an exit speed way down on the Ferrari's. So not only did JPM miss pole, he didn't even match Barrichello.
Ralf Schumacher set an identical sector one time to JPM, but messed up sector two and had to get out of the throttle in Turn 12, ending up fourth. The Ferrari was quicker, but not by a lot. It had taken a remarkable run from Schumacher to prevent a Williams pole. In failing to even beat Barrichello by gunning for the champion, Montoya couldn't be faulted. It all hung on two moments.
Michael Schumacher climbed from his Ferrari, parked in its traditional post-race centre spot in parc ferme and joyfully acknowledged his team and the crowd. Rubens Barrichello got out of his with very different body language. As they walked, the Brazilian made a gesture to his team-mate, rotating his index finger at the side of his head. It appeared to all the world as if he was angry with Schumacher. Barrichello didn't betray it in public, but he looked tired, robbed of energy by something. For the second time in three races he had found himself pulling his punches into the first corner, so as not to hit his team leader - and this, in turn, had made him extremely vulnerable to being hit by the snarling pack behind.
Had the Ferraris collided and taken themselves way off into the huge asphalt run-off with terminally damaged cars, this would have been a gripper of a race. You would have had Juan Pablo Montoya leading most of the way, but Jenson Button, after getting the upper hand in a long struggle with Jarno Trulli for second, coming on ever harder at the Williams as the race entered its latter stages, then finally benefiting when Montoya encountered mechanical dramas.
However, Button was almost half a minute behind the red cars at the end - and this on a stop/go track that theoretically shouldn't have played to Ferrari's strengths. There was more talk of a repeat of 2002. If the Scuderia can win here and in the heat of Malaysia, went the reasoning, just think what it'll do at traditional Ferrari venues, such as Imola and Barcelona.
But there's still reason for hope of a more competitive season than the inaugural Bahrain event suggested. First, just as in Malaysia, race day was unexpectedly 10C cooler than qualifying, and that almost certainly played pro Ferrari and anti-Michelin.
Secondly, evidence suggested that if a Michelin car could get ahead at the start, then it will seriously damage Ferrari's strategy, and would be able to press that home as it gains speed when the track accumulates rubber. Even Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn fears as much. "If you look at Button's times in the middle and second part of the race," he said, "he could have given us a very hard time if he hadn't had such a poor first stint. We have a certain performance cycle with the tyres, which if we can use and get to the first or second stop ahead, then we're okay. But if we can't use that performance cycle, and we have to follow a car on a Michelin performance cycle, then we could be in trouble. So for us it's very important to get on the front row."
That's why Ferrari's brake concerns of Friday and Saturday (see Qualifying) were intensified. Bigger brake cooling ducts, as made up by the team on Friday night, extract a serious aerodynamic penalty. Ferrari had relied heavily on Schumacher's genius to get it pole, and his remarkable time had, in turn, induced Montoya to push hard enough that he made an error on his qualifying lap which had enabled Barrichello to stay on the front row. Otherwise, we might have seen a very different start from the one we had, where Schumacher locked up badly as he cut across Barrichello's bows into the first turn.
"I couldn't come off the brake," said the German, "because I was already on the limit in terms of braking point, so I had to keep it locked."
Not wanting to collide or even take advantage, Barrichello was forced to help out. Schumacher had relied on the co-operation of his team-mate to make amends and the Brazilian wasn't happy about it. Montoya chopped across his gearbox, almost losing his nose, but keeping his place, while behind Trulli lost out in the jostling to Takuma Sato and Ralf Schumacher.
From the dustier side of the grid, Button was bundled down to seventh, while further back the lightning start of Fernando Alonso was brought up short as Christian Klien edged him towards the pitwall. Later in the lap, Alonso tried again to pass the Jaguar and again Klien aggressively closed him down, this time damaging the Renault's front wing. Alonso was in at the end of the lap for a new one and had his strategy changed from three stops to two. It was the beginning of a mesmeric fightback.
Schumacher completed the opening lap 1.5 seconds ahead of Barrichello. They were running different materials on their brakes. Schumacher's was softer with better stopping power, but was more marginal on wear. Barrichello's much harder discs needed more warming up, but critically he needed to save fuel on the parade lap and wasn't able to go as fast as he wished.
"It took a couple of laps before the brakes were working properly," he explained afterwards, very downbeat, "and Michael pulled out a gap."
In fact Schumacher, despite a flat spot from that lock-up, destroyed Barrichello in the opening laps, setting a pace that stunned his team-mate. By lap five he was almost five seconds clear. Meanwhile, Barrichello was a similar distance ahead of Montoya's Williams, and the full extent of Ferrari's dominance became clear.
"They were just gone," said JPM. "There was nothing much wrong with my car. The balance was okay, the engine was good, but we just didn't have the grip they had today."
There was the hope that Montoya was on a heavier fuel load, but it proved false. Pretty much everyone had opted for three stops, with a short first stint of nine to 10 laps.
Everyone except the BARs, that is, who were fuelled for 11 (Sato) and 12 (Button). In fifth, Ralf Schumacher was getting frustrated at being held up by Sato's heavier car. He had a few feints down the inside into Turn 1 before committing to a move inside at the start of lap seven. He got to the apex ahead, but Hermann Tilke had designed this track with a switchback - Turns 1 to 2 - so the inside line for 1 puts you on the outside for 2. Sato, therefore, remained side by side perfectly legitimately, and got alongside again to show he was still there. The Williams driver chose to turn into the apex of 2, leaving Sato nowhere to go. Right front touched left rear, the Williams did an airborne spin with a heavy landing, the BAR continued on with only slightly misaligned tracking, although its loss of momentum enabled Trulli to nip by for fourth. Schumacher was later reprimanded by the stewards, while Sato was exonerated.
Schumacher proceeded to drive very slowly back to the pitlane, where after a damage check, he was sent back out. Williams tech boss Patrick Head was less than amused at the incident, and the amount of time lost coming back into the pits.
A lap later, McLaren's nightmare worsened when Kimi Raikkonen was forced to retire with his engine ablaze. Fuelled for a two-stopper, he'd got as far as 11th from his back-of-the-grid start, and had spent that time battling with Klien's lighter Jaguar.
Schumacher's Ferrari kicked off the first round of stops on lap nine. His was routine. Barrichello's, a lap later, wasn't. The left-rear wheelnut cross-threaded, the mechanic attached a new one, bent down to pick up his gun and the lollipop man thought he had finished and signalled his driver to go. Barrichello let in the clutch only to find his wheels spinning in the air as the rear jackman, realising the score, had kept the car up until the wheel was on. It meant that Barrichello was now over 11 seconds behind Schumacher.
"I tried to come back," revealed Barrichello, "but for a champion of Michael's calibre such a gap is too easy to control."
It meant that Schumacher could conserve his brakes and tyres.
"Both tyre companies were fighting with blisters," he said, "so you had to tread a fine line, not push too hard, stay slightly below the limit. That's why you saw very little correction on the steering, just very smooth driving."
Of the other stops, David Coulthard and Mark Webber had a drag race out of the pitlane, with DC just getting ahead for what would be seventh place, reversing their battle on the track after Webber had passed the McLaren into Turn 1.
Both BARs briefly led, courtesy of their longer opening stints, but at his stop, a sticking wheelnut on the left rear delayed Button and prevented him from getting ahead of team-mate Sato for fifth. BAR had added some front wing and now his first-stint understeer was banished. The Briton admitted that he was being held up slightly by Sato at this stage, "but that wasn't such a bad thing because I was able to conserve fuel and pit a bit later than originally planned".
A few laps later, Sato's rear wing gurney flap came unglued - just as in Melbourne. Going through Turn 13 on lap 17, he suddenly felt less rear-end grip than before, slid wide and clattered hard over the exit kerbing, damaging his front wing as he did so.
Button immediately passed Sato and the Japanese headed for the pits for a replacement wing. Now Button set about chasing down Trulli's fourth place, while Sato attempted to make up ground on his revised strategy. By the time of the second stops (laps 24-27) Schuey had a 15-second lead over Barrichello, who in turn was eight seconds up on Montoya.
"My tyre choice today turned out not to be the right one," said JPM, "because of the colder conditions, but it wouldn't have made that much difference, honestly."
The raceday track temperature rarely got beyond 30C, in contrast to the 50C-plus seen at times on Saturday, which might have played more into Michelin's hands. As it was, JPM's soft-option Michelin lacked grip, while his team-mate's harder tyres showed rather better in between his incidents. The German's best lap was a couple of tenths quicker than JPM's and the third fastest of the race. After the Sato incident, he went on to bang wheels with Alonso and hit Fisichella into a spin.
Alonso was making great progress from his early delay, a task made more difficult by a lack of straightline speed. He had a hard time getting past Felipe Massa's Sauber, but finally nailed him in superbly ballsy fashion up the hill into Turn 12, with Massa then getting into the dust as he defended too long against a move that had already worked, losing himself another place as he recovered. After robustly fending off Schuey Jr, Alonso leapfrogged Fisichella in the pits, and his next target was Webber's eighth place. For much of this time he was the fastest man on the track, his will visible from the car's urgent body language. Trulli, in the sister car, was lapping about 0.5 seconds slower in fourth place, about six seconds behind Montoya, and was being steadily caught by Button.
Webber had half-spun on the out-lap of his second stop, without losing a position, but, soon after, Alonso was upon him. As the Renault swooped down on the Jag through the kink of Turn 9, Webber appeared to brake early, catching Alonso by surprise. It gave the Aussie only short-lived respite. The Renault was far quicker over a lap, though slower on the straights. Next, Alonso slipstreamed the Jag along the back straight and made a move up the inside into Turn 11, but Webber made a late aggressive chop, upsetting Alonso greatly.
"I can understand he was pissed off," said Webber later. "But there was a lot of confusion going on. The pit board was telling me it was Trulli, but I thought I'd seen Alonso's helmet, so I wasn't sure if I was fighting for position. Then I got a blue flag and that confused me, because if it was Trulli lapping me, how come I hadn't been lapped by Michael and the others? So I was on the radio asking, 'Is this for position?' Fernando came down the inside as they said, 'Yes, it's for position', I had to make a late move."
A few laps later, Webber went wide into Turn 1, allowing Alonso to nip by. Next target: Sato and Coulthard. Sato was making good progress after his earlier delay and resultant skewed strategy, and was pushing Coulthard hard. On lap 33, he got inside the McLaren into Turn 1, but DC hung on around the outside, just as Sato had done with Schuey Jr earlier. Sato proceeded to show how the German should have done it, giving his rival racing room without surrendering. Side by side they went through Turn 2, but Sato was now fully ahead and in sixth place.
At the final stops (laps 37-43), Trulli was held up, yet again, by slower traffic on his out-lap, and this played perfectly into Button's hands. Staying out for an extra three laps, he produced a fast pace, the team did its customary fast stop and Button jumped the Renault to go fourth. At the same time, Alonso leapfrogged Coulthard for seventh position and closed down on Sato.
Although Button was now lapping at Ferrari pace, Montoya was only going a couple of tenths slower and was five seconds ahead. It illustrated how the pace of the Michelin cars had built, but, by this time, the Ferraris had a half minute lead.
The remaining question then was whether or not Alonso could pass Sato, but the BAR man was being resolute, not putting a foot wrong under the most intense pressure from a faster car.
Then Montoya's times became erratic. With 10 laps to go, he was in trouble. The hydraulics were giving out. With the car against the rev limiter, it was clear he was in a lower gear and Button cruised easily past for third, followed soon after by Trulli.
"First I lost seventh gear, then fifth, then sixth, so they told me to stay in fourth. Then I lost the diff, power steering, clutch and throttle. It's disappointing, but that's racing," said a surprisingly chipper Montoya later.
Next DC crawled into the pits, with no air pressure for his hydraulics. The team tried to repressure it, but that got him only to the end of the pitlane. This put Ralf Schumacher in eighth and, as Montoya slowed yet further, he was passed by Sato, Alonso, Schuey Jr and - on the last lap - Webber for the final point. By which time the Ferraris were long into their slow-down lap and about to stop in parc ferme, Michael wearing a smile, Rubens a scowl.
BAR: Ferrari gets its just desert
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