ESP: Schuey's high five

Michael Schumacher romped to a fifth straight win last weekend, despite an early challenge from Renault's Jarno Trulli and a scare when his exhaust started leaking hot gases. By Mark Hughes

ESP: Schuey's high five

Jenson Button could blame it on the Pyrenees, on the wild and random gusts that blow down from those brooding heights, stealing along the Catalunyan valley floor before stealing your downforce.

Well, they stole his anyway. It was a tailwind that robbed the BAR-Honda of critical airflow over its wing just as he needed it most, with the rear having skipped wide over a turn-nine bump. It's a blind-exit-uphill-fifth-gear turn, and the slide came when he was already near the exit kerb, leaving him insufficient track width to correct it. A bumpy ride over the grass and his weekend was ruined, 14th on the grid.

Yet the wind somehow left Michael Schumacher alone, meekly dropping its assault to allow the champion his passage, two cars after Button's run.

It was a routinely brilliant lap and duly yielded Schuey his 59th pole. Could Button have prevented this were it not for those million-year-old hills? Actually, that was far from certain. Button's sector one time was a tenth slower than the Ferrari's, and he wasn't particularly at ease with its balance.

Arguably, however, the lap of the session was the one that netted Juan Pablo Montoya second on the grid, just 0.6 seconds adrift of pole. The Williams had been difficult on Friday, but in Saturday pre-qualifying - where on low fuel the Colombian was fastest - JPM had felt it basically okay, but a little oversteery. He gambled on the rubbering-in of the track taking care of that in qualifying, but it didn't. The FW26 was a tail-endy handful, but JPM was magnificent in his handling of that trait, the slides deftly caught, the momentum miraculously maintained. It was a beautiful demonstration of an oversteer driver's art. In sector two - fiddly direction changes and the fast turn nine where Button came to grief - he was within a tenth of Schuey in a car that looked nowhere near as easy.

BAR's Takuma Sato still holds the unofficial lap record around this track, from winter testing. Through the practices he was generally nip and tuck as quick as team-mate Button, and, although his actual qualifying lap was fairly conservative, third fastest was still the best ever grid placing for a Japanese driver. "The wind had made the car a bit twitchy in sector two," he said, "and that probably made me a bit too conservative in the last sector."

It's that wind again. "It was unbelievable," said a wide-eyed Jarno Trulli, fourth fastest in a Renault R24 that has benefited from some retro-fitting of R23 components. "It was a struggle holding the car in a straight line. And if you did get a gust of wind mid-corner you had a problem. You couldn't know what you were going to get as you went into the corner."

"It's common for the wind to pick up around lunchtime in Barcelona," said Renault's Pat Symonds, "and we are well used to it from testing, but it is usually fairly constant in direction. Today, the gusts meant the cars' handling was changing from corner to corner. Of course, it also means the conditions are not the same for every driver, which makes it much harder to assess true levels of performance."

The Renaults struggled badly for straightline speed, 8mph down on the BARs by the end of the pit-straight. Partly it was down to power, but partly due to its six-speed gearbox (everyone else has seven). The bigger ratio gap made it sensitive to the headwind.

Row three represented apparently disappointing efforts from Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher, respectively 1.2sec and 0.6sec slower than their respective team-mates. But it was a decent lap from Rubens, given that he was loaded with 18kg more fuel than Schuey. Index-linked to their respective weights, it was less than 0.5sec away from Schuey's effort. Ralf couldn't claim the same and said he found the car too nervous, particularly through the second sector.

Toyota tested at Mugello last week and, as a result, went for a different choice of option tyre. Softer than the compounds used by the others, it paid off in qualifying, particularly for seventh fastest Olivier Panis. This was a good effort, as he lost the morning practice to an electrical problem, and it put him a place ahead of Fernando Alonso. Mark Webber screwed a good lap out of the Jaguar for ninth, a place ahead of David Coulthard's McLaren.

DC was without the new-spec Mercedes enjoyed by team-mate Kimi Raikkonen as his had broken on the dyno. This represented a difference of about 20bhp. To compensate, he had trimmed his McLaren wings down to the barest minimum. Although it wasn't a perfect lap it was still better than Raikkonen, who locked up into Turn 10 and ran wide of the apex.

"It would have worked out either way," said Michael Schumacher when asked about the timing of his and Jarno Trulli's first pit-stops in Spain on Sunday. "I needed to be one lap earlier than him or one lap later. Either way, I felt I could go quicker."

He could, he did and he leapfrogged the race-leading Renault.

The fact that the strategic subtleties of Trulli's stop were of little concern to Schumacher illustrated Ferrari's superiority. As well as its usual car advantage, Bridgestone gave the team a pretty convincing tyre advantage. Rubens Barrichello rubbed this point home in the second Ferrari by using a two-stop strategy, rather than the theoretically faster three, to beat everyone but his team-mate. He was unlikely to beat the German in an even contest, so he sought a different strategy. With enough advantage over the Michelin runners that he was unlikely to be beaten by them regardless, what was there to lose?

Besides, Barrichello had not enjoyed the experience of Imola two weeks ago when - on the same strategy as everyone else - he barely got a single lap in clear air, trapped behind slower cars throughout.

"I was so upset at Imola, just sitting doing nothing," he said. "If I didn't want that again, my options were to try for pole or do this. So I did this."

He would have been nudged in this direction by the performance of the Michelin-shod cars in the practices. Their pace dropped off badly, while the Bridgestones hardly degraded at all. In the past, keeping the left front alive was always the key for Michelin runners at Barcelona. This weekend proved that their performance was no longer front-limited, but rear - and that caught Michelin and its teams out, amplifying Ferrari's mastery.

"Engines are now getting powerful enough to shift the problems to the rear," said Renault's Pat Symonds. "Also, it varies with track temperature. The tyre usage tends to go rearwards at a grand prix weekend compared to winter testing here."

There's a concern among some of the Michelin teams that the rear constructions haven't kept up with the fronts, where development has been concentrated. Michelin has produced 16 different fronts in the past year, but only eight rears. One driver commented: "You load the car up and then the rear tyre just seems to buckle and give way." The implication seems to be that summer temperatures and ever-developing fronts have induced grip levels the rears can't live with. Barcelona, of all tracks, will mercilessly reveal this, with a 64/36 percent rear/front balance for tyre energy.

Bridgestone, in contrast, found a sweeter spot and its tyre was far less critical and more consistent. The greater 'mechanical' grip of its structure seemed to allow a harder and less troublesome compound while still giving good grip. It gave good enough degradation rates to make two-stopping rather than three feasible. The combination of high tyre degradation, weight sensitivity and fuel consumption means two-stopping is penalised harder here than at any other track. But by keeping the tyre degradation under good control, Bridgestone allowed the likes of Barrichello and the two Sauber drivers to go for two stops. It made it feasible they might make up more in track position - by moving ahead as three-stoppers pitted, then holding them to their speed, thereby frustrating their rivals' strategy - than they lost in pace.

Yet it was a Michelin car - Trulli's Renault - that led away. Pre-race, the anticipation had been all about Schuey versus Juan Pablo Montoya into the first turn, given their front row positions and their Imola spat. But Montoya's getaway - like Williams team-mate Ralf Schumacher's - was abysmal. Schuey's was average, but Trulli's was sensational from row two, easily slicing inside the red car.

"It was right on the limit of a jump start," said Trulli. "It was one of the starts you probably have once in your life. My reaction time wasn't due to the green light, it was just that I released the clutch and at the same time the green light came on, so I was lucky."

"I was watching my mirrors," said Schumacher, "and suddenly I saw this blue Trulli flying by. At that moment, I still had the option to close the door, but I thought that, as he was coming along with much more speed, it wouldn't be very fair."

If these don't sound like the words of the inventor of the Schuey startline chop, bear in mind he wouldn't have been so charitable had it been against someone who was a genuine threat to his victory.

Trulli leading was a slight concern to Schumacher, but not because he didn't believe he'd be able to pass him at the stops, only that it restricted him to the Renault's pace at a stage when he would have preferred to have been building up more time over his real closest threat - Barrichello - who lay fifth, but who the German knew would be stopping one less time. There was no real prospect of Schumacher overtaking Trulli on the track - the circuit just isn't conducive to that.

Barrichello's first-stint pace was good, given his heavy fuel load. He was behind Takuma Sato and Montoya, but ahead of Fernando Alonso. With Schuey stuck behind Trulli until lap nine, he was able to pull out only 7.8 seconds over Barrichello until stopping on lap 10. The Renault crew did a superbly fast stop for Trulli, and, in a desperate attempt to keep him ahead, put in a little less fuel than Ferrari would subsequently put in Schumacher's tank. But it wasn't to be. The champion's in-lap pace, freed of Trulli for the first time, was too great for that - but it was close. Running within 0.5 seconds of Trulli when the Renault stopped, the German's in-lap was 1.4 seconds quicker, but the stop was 0.8 seconds longer and he only just escaped into free air, with the Renault bearing down on him. Trulli's out-lap was 1.7 seconds slower than Schuey's, compared to an average lap only 1.3 seconds slower. He could conceivably have kept the Ferrari behind for another stint - and thereby opened up a victory possibility for Barrichello - had he just been able to push a couple of tenths harder on that critical lap.

At this point, Schumacher might have assumed the back of the race was broken for, as Barrichello said, "My only chance against Michael was if Jarno kept him behind for a stop longer than he did." The standard Ferrari agreement is that the drivers are allowed to race each other up to the second stops. Schumacher needed to pull out 20 seconds or so to give him the margin necessary for his extra stop - and that now looked not only feasible, but likely.

But Schuey's beautiful horizon was about to be hit by a menacing cloud. At his stop, the crew had noticed a leaking exhaust, on the left-hand side, outside the bodywork. As he rejoined, blissfully unaware, the problem was reported to tech boss Ross Brawn. This was a worry. Thoughts in the team went back to Monaco 2000 when heat from an exhaust caused a breakage in a carbon-fibre suspension arm. But heat sensors near the rear wheel this time showed that this wasn't an issue. Of more concern was whether the bodywork would catch fire or any connections would be melted.

"Ross came on the radio and said, 'There's not much we can do, we can just hope it will last,' but he wasn't very optimistic when he was saying that," said Schuey.

The fuel mixture was richened to keep temperatures down and the driver was instructed to cut the revs and be as smooth as possible on his engine inputs. The outside world didn't know of the problem until much later, when the crack became bigger and could be heard.

Montoya had pitted on the same lap as Trulli, but was leapfrogged by the strong pace of Alonso's in- and out-laps. Montoya was in no position to respond. He was in braking difficulties - as was team-mate Ralf Schumacher. Williams fitted smaller brake ducts than normal for Barcelona in search of aerodynamic performance. But it transpired it had been too greedy.

"From as early as lap three my pedal began to get long," said Montoya. He nonetheless sat up close to Sato's gearbox, thereby intensifying the problem. Ralf had been more cautious. Even the day before, he had been concerned about the pedal travel lengthening and so requested a bigger master cylinder (requiring a heftier push but keeping travel more consistent). In the race, Ralf was taking it easy on the brakes and altering the bias several times during the lap.

Sato, by staying out a lap longer than Schuey, briefly led the race before pitting and surrendering the lead to Barrichello, who stayed out another seven laps before his stop and got under way again in third. Schumacher now led Trulli by 5.8 seconds, but because of his problem just eked that out rather than pulling clear.

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