European GP Race Analysis

The European GP was a peculiar race. The 'guaranteed' first corner shunt didn't happen (and nor did it at those Turn 1 black spots in Austria, Monaco and Montreal) and within a lap or two the field got strung out into what was, quite frankly, a deadly dull procession. Watching from the first corner, I was struggling to keep my attention on the track. But then Ralf Schumacher caught his brother, and for a few laps we had a wonderful scrap. Before we knew it, Schuey Jr was heading for his stop and go and the fun was basically over. This was certainly not the most intriguing afternoon we've enjoyed this year

European GP Race Analysis

But while the TV show was dull, it had its moments. More than any race other race this season, the European GP was all about tyres. The battle between Michelin and Bridgestone has created an increasingly complex situation that even the teams are struggling to keep tabs on. At the 'Ring we saw an incredibly varied selection of strategies, some of which seemed to work, and some of which didn't. And this time fuel tank size and consumption were not relevant factors.

There's no need to dwell too much on qualifying, suffice to say Michael Schumacher did an amazing job to get into the 1m14s bracket. And once again he only had to use only three sets of his allocation of four. Bad luck had already given the team a bonus; a problem meant that he didn't run in the second session on Saturday morning, and thus he saved an extra set of tyres by not going for the usual last minute run on new rubber. The missing track time also made his afternoon performance look even better.

Once again his brother had to settle for second, while Juan Pablo Montoya shook off some of the recent criticism with a solid third. Behind Rubens Barrichello, the McLarens were down in fifth and sixth, and DC was a not insignificant 0.757s off a pole set on the same tyres.

"We tripped over ourselves a little on car balance," Ron Dennis admitted on Sunday morning, "and we generally didn't do a good job, but that's motor racing. You can't always get it right. I think we have the speed, but the grid positions aren't conducive to winning the race, but we'll give it our best shot.

"The fact that you're bringing, as we did here, two new tyres, one of which was completely untested, means that there's an inevitability that different teams are going to get different results from the same tyre. I don't think any of us in this team feel that we got the best out of the tyres."

Of course Coulthard won from seventh on Austria, and many times in the past we've seen McLaren get beaten by Ferrari in qualifying, and turn the tables on race day. But this time Williams was in the picture too, and the team's prospects of getting to the front seemed slim. Race day strategy would be about damage limitation.

"This is a race where two strategies can win the race," said Ron, "So you've got to concentrate on determining what is the best way, given your grid position. So we're very focussed on optimising the performance of the car in both one stop and two stop strategies."

The problem all the teams faced is that the 'Ring's fickle weather meant that there was little relevant data on successful race strategies from the past few years. It rained in 1999 and 2000, so the only solid guide was what happened in 1998. On that occasion Schumacher and Hakkinen both went for two stops, but by pitting four laps later, Mika was able to put on a sprint and get ahead. McLaren won on strategy, fair and square.

The complication this year is that tyre degradation is more of a factor. Everyone knew that two stops was in theory quicker over 67 laps, although estimates of by how much varied greatly; BAR and Jordan had it pegged at 8s and 16s respectively. But then there was the question of track position. Passing is not easy at the 'Ring, and a two stop race could easily be ruined by getting stuck behind a heavy one-stopper at the start, or by coming out of the first stop behind a car that had still to pit and was by now in serious tyre trouble. So it was an extremely difficult call...

It was no secret that the Bridgestone was going to have serious degradation problems on Sunday, and Michelin boss Pierre Dupasquier gleefully pointed that out in a press release. An ultra long first stint seemed a highly risky strategy for any Bridgestone runner; however some thought that the McLarens, which are said to be lighter on the Japanese tyres than other cars, could get away with it. Just to confuse matters, when teams undertook their serious race preparations on Friday, the track was not only 'green' but very cold. On Sunday it was extremely hot...

It wasn't easy to keep track of all the options, and when I bumped into Dupasquier on the grid, I was relieved to find out that even he hadn't got a firm idea of how things might unfold.

"I don't think anything and I don't know anything!" he smiled. "We've never been on a cold track with bad results, because we've never been on a cold track. I don't know why people are thinking that's it's better in warm weather. I've no idea what's going to happen. Everything may stop at the ******* first corner! [Pardon his French - Ed] I think everybody has some degradation. It depends how you use the tyres, which weight you put in the car, which state are your tyres when you start. The two strategies are possible for us, but it's up to the teams to decide."

So were there any clues? A regular feature of 'go as long as you can' races is the last minute topping up of fuel on the grid. Neither Williams nor McLaren did any refuelling on the grid, whereas Ferrari did have its equipment plumbed in, on both cars. So did that mean that the Ferraris were running long?

Sometimes, of course, teams can fiddle around and indulge in a spot of gamesmanship by making it look as though they are trying to squeeze the last few drops in. Conversely they can fill up in the garage, do one warm-up lap, go to the grid with a tank that is all but full, and then deliberately not make a show of topping up...

Tyre choice proved to be fascinating. Having saved three new sets, Michael started on fresh tyres. At the opposite extreme Williams started on tyres that were later said be 10 laps old, but looked even older - Montoya's in-car camera provided a fine view of the fronts on the grid.

At the start in Montreal, Ralf was alongside Michael, if not briefly ahead, but as he was on the outside line the Ferrari was always going to get to the first turn in front. At the 'Ring, Schuey Sr again got away relatively badly. But the geography didn't help this time, so Michael had to resort to squeezing his brother towards the pit wall...

Barrichello's poor start was more damaging. He fell from fourth to seventh, letting both McLarens and Jarno Trulli's Jordan past. As the race unfolded, it became apparent that he was not only on a one-stopper, but had indeed been filled up with fuel so as to run as long as possible. The extra load certainly wouldn't have helped his start, and one can only speculate that part of the reason was for him to act as a 'spoiler' by holding up the McLarens. If so, it didn't work...

Back to the front. The Schumachers pulled away from the rest with such ease that it seemed likely that they were on two stops. Michael opened up a slight gap on his brother, which suggested that he had less fuel and might be stopping first. By lap 10, he was 3.4s ahead. But then, as in Canada, the gap came down. Ralf had bided his time, and as his tyres came in and Michael's wore out, he was able to catch up. By lap 18, it was down to 0.264s. For 10 laps Ralf was unable to utilise his full potential because he was stuck behind his brother, whose tyres were, to use the technical phrase, knackered. And that allowed Montoya to catch up.

Everything depended on who would stop first. If Michael came in earlier, even by one lap, that could allow Ralf to jump him. But then there was the question of how much fuel to put in, and therefore how long the middle stint would be...

On lap 28 both Williams and Ferrari moved their crews into the pitlane. Who reacted first is a moot point; on the digital pictures it was Williams, but on the terrestrial shots you saw at home it was the other way round! In fact both teams had independently settled on lap 28 - which by co-incidence or otherwise, was the lap that winner Hakkinen chose back in 1998...

Michael indulged in a bit of gamesmanship by trying to wrongfoot his brother by turning into the pitlane at the last possible moment, crossing the red and white kerb as he did so (there is no penalty).

"I thought [Michael] had more fuel on board than that," said Patrick Head. "So I was surprised. Ralf was right behind him, pulled over to the right to enter, and I think Michael was going to do another lap. Then as you probably saw he turned right and came in over the white line on the entry to the pitlane, or the red and white line. I think it was they who made the last minute decision to come in on the same lap as us."

However, Ross Brawn insisted that lap 28 was pre-planned.

"The tyres were a bit dog-eared by the end of the first stint," he admitted. "They were a bit ragged, but it wasn't too bad. It co-incided with Williams getting very, very strong. It was quite difficult, the last five or 10 laps of a stint, but we had to hang on because of a strategic problem. We had to keep Ralf behind and hope that he was going to stop very close to us, and in fact he did. It all worked out, but the car got very difficult at the end of the first stint, and that's really where Michael won the race."

In theory Ralf had the advantage as his pit was further down, meaning that even if Michael got going first, Ralf just had to turn sharp left into the fast lane and block his brother. But he spoiled any advantage he had by sliding to a halt beyond his mark, forcing the crew to shuffle sideways. He also put a little more fuel in (his middle stint would turn out to be two laps longer).

Michael duly beat him out, and thus Ralf's next concern was to try and stay ahead of Coulthard, but as he emerged from the pits the McLaren swept past. With so much going on, Ralf made a fundamental blunder by crossing the white line between the pit exit and the first corner. But more of that later...

Michael, David and Ralf were now running together on the track. Since DC hadn't yet pitted, it was now likely that he was on a one-stopper, so all three drivers had just one stop to make. But DC's worn tyres did not allow him to pose any kind of threat to Michael, and after a couple of laps he appeared to let Ralf by at the Dunlop Hairpin.

In fact, he had decided that there was little to be gained by trying to hold up Ralf and wanted to see him catch Michael. Having watched the earlier battle on the big TV screens DC thought that A) Ralf might take four points off his brother, and B) If he was really lucky they'd put each other into the gravel trap...

Despite getting past David, Ralf was not able to make an impression on the Ferrari. In fact the pattern followed what we saw at the start of the race, when Michael's new Bridgestones were initially quicker than Ralf's worn Michelins:

Ralf passes Coulthard for second
Ralf makes stop and go

Michael appeared to be in control, but at about this time we might have expected to see Ralf begin to close the gap again, and set up a fascinating battle prior to the final pit stop. But instead it all went wrong for the younger brother.

No one at Williams saw Ralf's transgression - everyone was focussed on the stop itself. When the timing screens revealed that 'an incident involving car number 5 was under investigation,' the team assumed it must be for pit lane speeding.

The rules state that no part of he car may cross the outer edge of the line, and quite clearly he had about half the car over it, albeit only for the last few metres. But you can't be a little bit pregnant, so a 10s stop and go resulted. It might seem a bit harsh, but the line is there to prevent people exiting the pits from making wild blocking moves on cars coming down the straight. Ralf went unpunished for a similar transgression earlier in the season, and the matter has been mentioned in recent drivers' briefings, although not at the 'Ring.

Once the penalty was confirmed, the team brought him straight in, on lap 39. At that stage he was just 6.1s behind Michael; after the stop, the gap was 36.9s, and any chance of a podium was gone.

So too was any excitement as far as the top six was concerned. There's no way of knowing how things might have turned out, but consider this; at the time of his stop and go, Ralf was 4.6s ahead of Montoya. And the Colombian eventually finished 4.1s behind Michael! Of course you can't really extrapolate from that, because Michael obviously slowed in the closing stages, having at one time been 14s clear of Montoya. But similarly Juan Pablo wasn't on the limit, as he desperately needed a finish, and settled for second well before the end.

An indication of what might have happened at the second stop was the fact that Ralf ran two laps longer than his brother. Had he been sitting behind him, that could have made all the difference. As it was he finished 33s behind. Over his last stint he cut the gap to third placed Coulthard from 12s to 5s, before effectively giving up and allowing it to go out again.

That's all speculation, but the reality is that once again, Ross Brawn got it right.

"We had a long night thinking about what to do!" he said. "We still didn't make the decision until after this morning. It was tough, because you're racing against Michelin, and you know they're going to get better at the end. How do you defend against that?

"We were just trying to look at the tyres, how the tyres work and how the tyres react. But it was clear they used their best prepared tyres for the first stint. They used a set of tyres that was quite old for the first stint, and then they had to use newer tyres for the second and third stint, which I think is why they weren't so quick."

To summarise, here's how the strategy unfolded for the leading contenders:

Michael: 28-22-17
Montoya: 29-21-17
Coulthard: 38-29
Ralf: 28-24-15 (not counting stop and go)
Barrichello: 44-23
Hakkinen: 33-34
Irvine: 37-30
De La Rosa: 44-22 (66 laps)
Villeneuve: 43-23 (66 laps)
Raikkonen: 32-34 (66 laps)

It's clear from this table how many different options were available, but assessing their relative effectiveness is not easy. However, Eddie Irvine's performance from 12th on the grid acts as a very interesting barometer. Both he and de la Rosa showed that the Michelins worked well over a long first stint, and indeed on lap 34 Eddie set the fifth fastest lap of the race - just 0.062s shy of the best lap of race winner Michael!

Further evidence of Michelin's form was provided by Prost, with Luciano Burti setting the seventh fastest lap on lap 57, and Jean Alesi climbing the order in the latter stages until spinning off. This might make you wonder why Williams didn't try something different.

Team members insisted afterwards that their strategy had been ideal, and that there was no alternative. That was presumably because Williams started on tyres that were so old that 28 laps was just about doable, and 35 or more certainly wasn't. While it might have been logical to cover Michael's likely strategy by putting Ralf on two stops, could the team have taken a punt and put Montoya on one? I suspect that he would still have finished second, and might have had a chance of winning...

Of course, Ferrari split its options in just such a manner by putting Rubens on one very late stop. His race was compromised by a poor start, but he was never really in the thick of things, and proved that it was impossible for a Bridgestone runner to get away with a massive 44-lap stint. After the race, having finished 45s behind his team mate, he seemed a little bemused by the whole thing.

"We had to guess what people were doing in front," he said. "We had to choose something, and I don't think particularly it was any good, because the tyres were going away pretty much. I couldn't do anything, and I was struggling with the grip. I started on old fronts, which was probably the only good thing we had. But before my stop, it was very bad. In the end we had no tyre left. When I came into the pits I put new tyres, and the thing just improved a helluva lot. I don't think we were on the pace of the Michelins today, so it was quite a boring race..."

Coulthard's 38-lap opening stint seemed to work for him, but as suggested earlier it seems that the McLaren is easier on the tyres than other Bridgestone runners. But he admitted to problems: "From a balance point of view we were using up the rear tyres quite quickly, so we had a lot of oversteer early in the race, which is a little bit different to what we were struggling with in qualifying."

Irvine's race performance also showed up some of the Bridgestone runners that had qualified ahead of him. The Jordans went for two, but their premature retirements made it impossible to judge how that would have panned out. Clearly Jacques Villeneuve didn't benefit by running a very long first stint, while the Saubers seemed to get it completely wrong by pitting half way, which appeared to be the worst of both worlds. Hakkinen did exactly the same. However, he may have been forced to come in a little early after a moment at the chicane convinced him that the nose was damaged - in fact it didn't have to be changed.

As we've seen Mika and David were on similar one-stop strategies, although Mika pitted five laps earlier. And yet how can we explain that he eventually finished 40s behind his team mate in an identical car?

"He did a massive lock-up into one of the chicanes," said Dennis, "and flat spotted a front tyre. And then really had a hard job with the vibration. It really cost him a fourth place, not that we're here to come fourth."

A fair excuse, although obviously it was the Finn's own mistake that led to the problem. However, when Mika replaced that damaged set of tyres, he was 19s behind David. He was armed with a healthy set for the second half of the race, but in that time the gap was more than doubled. It's true that there was no one to chase, but equally there was nobody holding him up. He was even caught by Irvine in the closing laps. Frankly, he didn't look like a double World Champion.

Dennis and his crew have an incredible loyalty to Mika, and will never dare to criticise his commitment, at least in public. But after a showing like this, perhaps questions have to be asked...

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