European GP analysis

Adam Cooper untangles the winning strategy at the European GP with our new Race Analysis feature

European GP analysis

On the grid at the Nurburgring, as the wind blew grey clouds across the sky and mechanics dashed around with sets of tyres wrapped in warmers, I compared notes with ITV strategy guru James Allen. Like everyone else, we didn't have a clue what the weather was going to do, although it seemed more than likely that it would rain before the end of the race. The Ferrari people had apparently put a time on it; 20 minutes, someone had told James. The crew was busy adding an extra rear wing element to Michael's car, giving him a little more rear downforce - a wet set-up, in other words.

The 'Ring is one race where I try to escape the confines of the press room and go and stand on a corner - the first to be precise. Rather than make me want to go and hide inside, the threat of rain merely makes a first hand view even more appealing. Apart from anything else, you get a true picture of when it starts to drizzle, when it gets heavier, and so on.

In the event, the Ferrari weatherman wasn't too far out. The first spots came as early as lap nine, after around 12 minutes, and about three minutes after that, it started to get serious.

For a while the drivers tried to stay out, and since other showers during the weekend had lasted for mere minutes, this decision was understandable. What they couldn't possibly judge during those first soggy laps was how much wetter a corner was going to be than it was on the previous lap. Even Michael Schumacher admitted that leader Mika Hakkinen had the toughest job, and he paid the price. From the start Michael had never been less than 0.611s behind him, and on lap 11 the German slid down the inside of the cautious Finn at the chicane, and took the lead.

At the start of the next lap Verstappen spun off at Turn 1, and Johnny Herbert, having nearly come in at the end of lap 11, made the decision to stop on lap 12. He had little to lose where he was, but incredibly, no one else followed him in that lap.

What was surprising was how long some people pontificated before coming in. Generally, it's the driver's call - the only limiting factor is whether their team-mate is already due in (more of that later). Where the race engineer can help is by studying the sector times of the first man to pit. Even before he ends his first lap, it should be obvious how much quicker wet tyres are going to be. Here is how it all panned out, with Michael's lap times showing how conditions were deteriorating:

You don't need Ross Brawn's slide rule to work out how Rubens Barrichello dropped from third to eighth, and Herbert rose from 17th to ninth! Johnny gained over 30 seconds on the Ferrari driver when prior to the rain he'd been losing 2-3 seconds a lap...

Between these two extremes there were all sorts of permutations of drivers who gained and lost. You might say it's easy to look back now and say so-and-so was silly not to stop earlier. But without access to lap times, from the puddle I was standing in it seemed blindingly obvious that Herbert knew what he was doing, as he did in this race last year. Anyone who didn't have to hedge their bets in order to defend a points scoring position could afford to gamble.

In some cases there are mitigating circumstances. As I said earlier, teams can only service one car a lap, unless there's a big enough gap between them (McLaren did manage it with the second stops on lap 45), so somebody has to decide who gets first dibs. I didn't get a chance to speak to him - his grim face told the story anyway - but I'm guessing that Rubens was forced to stay out while Ferrari focussed on what Michael might want to do. Even if Rubens had asked to come in on laps 14 or 15, he almost certainly wasn't allowed to, so he had to sit it out until lap 16.

Schumacher is the World Championship leader, and was leading the race, so Brawn and his men were in a tricky position, but it seems that once again Rubens got a big lesson about the 'equal treatment' he was promised. However, it's a case of what goes around comes around; seven years ago in the Japanese GP a rookie called Eddie Irvine was forced to do two extra laps of a flooded Suzuka while Jordan waited to service Rubens. A whole chunk of time was lost, and for that reason Eddie has always looked back on the race that made his name with mixed feelings...

There are other factors at play. The Williams drivers started on heavy tanks, with a view to stopping only once. Ralf's slide down the order from sixth to ninth in the early stages is proof of that. Clearly, the team tried to keep both drivers out as long as possible in the hope the rain might cease; the tactic backfired, and both drivers were well and truly stuffed. "We weren't sure if it would keep raining or stop," rued Jenson Button. "But we obviously made the wrong choice, and lost a lot of time." An understatement, methinks - the gap between Jenson and the leader went from 30 to 70 seconds!

Despite stopping relatively late, Michael didn't lose his lead, as no one else was close enough before the rain to challenge him. Mika came in right behind him, but had a problem when a right wheel stuck at the stop, so he dropped behind David Coulthard. However, the Scot was struggling with a handling problem, and was in no position to resist when Mika re-caught him.

The rest of the race panned out without undue drama, at least as far as the leaders were concerned. However, the two main contenders adopted very different strategies. Michael came in for a fill-up and fresh wets on lap 35, 20 laps after his first stop. That left him with a hefty 32 lap run to the flag. Hakkinen stayed out until lap 45, 30 laps after the first stop, and thus had 22 to the flag with his final set of tyres.

So for 10 laps in the second half of the race we had Mika ahead with a tank which was approaching empty, but tyres which had done a lot of laps, while Michael had a car which was pretty heavy, and newer rubber:

For the first few laps the gap went up, and at one point Ferrari - and Michael - must have been getting concerned. Then it stabilised, and stayed around the 25s mark until Mika made his second stop. Michael's quick and consistent lappery with a heavy load on board at this stage proved to be decisive.

After Mika's final stop on lap 45, Michael was back in front by 12.537s. In the run to the flag it went as high as 15.020s (lap 48), and as low as 4.915s (lap 63). Then on lap 64 Mika found himself in a mega traffic jam, and lost an incredible 5s on one lap. Any chance of chasing down Michael was gone.

Michael was the hero of the day, but you have to say Hakkinen did a good job. He has a pretty mediocre record in the wet, and it's one area of his driving which might cause one to question his claim to a place amongst the all-time greats. But bearing in mind his earlier delay in the pits, to be so close to rainmaster Michael so near to the flag was not a bad effort. Michael could have gone quicker if he wanted to, but he would have exposed himself to errors in traffic and so on. He even admitted that he was fearful of 'another Spa.' And his tyres, which had to last for 32 laps, were definitely past their best. Pressure from Hakkinen might have tipped the balance.

The sympathy votes go to Coulthard, no doubt portrayed as a plonker by the world's TV commentators who could not possibly have known of his problem, and to Rubens. His early delay was compounded by a bizarre three-stop strategy (as in Melbourne!) which did him few favours, but he flew throughout and did a lot of passing. Giancarlo Fisichella and Pedro de la Rosa both did super professional jobs, and spare a thought for Minardi's 'invisible man' Gaston Mazzacane, who survived to the flag in eighth, despite being one of the last to pit for wets. The confident Argentinian has finished the last five races, and is by no means out of his depth.

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