French GP Race Analysis

As the season goes on so the tyre situation is getting ever more complex. At Magny-Cours Michael Schumacher's race was compromised because Ferrari did not have enough brand new Bridgestones left over for Sunday. In contrast his brother suffered because Williams did not have sufficient worn Michelins. Try explaining that to the casual F1 TV viewer

French GP Race Analysis

It's getting increasingly difficult to keep up with developments, but the tyre war is so fundamental to how the races are unfolding that you cannot ignore it, so please bear with me.

For some time teams have been opting to start with tyres that have three qualifying laps on them, at least as far as the fronts are concerned, but now the Michelin runners are actively using tyres that are not just scrubbed, but have seen serious action before the race. In essence this is to reduce the performance drop-off that the French tyres have experienced in races.

The problem is that it's hard to find get two or three matching sets which have done enough laps over the course of practice and the warm-up. And it seems it's not just the quantity but the 'quality' of those laps that counts. Two sets that have done the same amount of laps do not necessarily behave in the same way when stuck on the car for the race. And as you will see, even the experts aren't sure exactly why...

On the other hand the top Bridgestone teams were only too pleased to have brand new rubber available for race day. At least that's how it was in terms of the compound used at Magny-Cours last weekend. Who knows how it will unfold at Silverstone?

He had to turn 26 to do it, but at Magny-Cours Ralf Schumacher finally took his first pole position. And to the encouragement of the team, it was achieved at one of the most technical tracks, and not at a high speed blast like Imola or Montreal.

He made it by just 0.010s ahead of his brother. Michael was scuppered by having to pass Jarno Trulli on one lap and, of all things, by Ross Brawn getting on the radio and distracting him at an inopportune moment! He had to work harder than he has done of late, and significantly had to use all four sets of tyres (in fact his other qualifying times would have been good enough for third, fourth and sixth on the grid respectively!

The McLarens were much closer to pole than they had been at either of the last two races. David beat his team mate for the sixth time this year, but he did it only on his final run, and Mika - who failed to improve on his last two sets - was just 0.082s behind.

There were some other interesting things going on behind. Rubens Barrichello was down in eighth place, 0.868s down on his team mate. A Ferrari insider admitted that Rubens had "...lost his reference point," and there was good reason for that. All of the Bridgestone runners went for the harder compound, but up to and including Saturday morning Rubens was keen to use the softer tyre. "It's the one I tried the whole three days of the test, and yesterday," he explained. "I was the only one who wanted it..."

One can only presume that he was overruled and asked to join the Michael on the harder tyre - and his problem in qualifying was that it behaved a little differently from what he had been using previously.

Williams did split its options. At Michelin the situation was reversed, and everyone went for the softer tyre, except Juan Pablo Montoya. This was obviously expected to perform better on race day, but at the expense of the last two or three tenths of qualifying performance. The likes of Prost's Luciano Burti came very close to going the same way, but no one else was willing to sacrifice grid positions. Montoya still qualified sixth, and that gave everyone else - including his team mate - food for thought.

Two stops is standard strategy at Magny-Cours, and because the pit lane is very quick relative to the track layout, stops are less costly than elsewhere. As usual there was distracting talk of one being possible, with Montoya the obvious candidate. There was also the chance that some folk would opt for three.

The warm-up created a little confusion, for Ralf was well down the order. That led some to wonder if he was running high fuel levels and therefore considering a single stop. Or was he just indulging in a spot of gamesmanship to set Ferrari thinking? In fact he spent the session carefully putting extra mileage on the tyres he planned to use for the race. As expected he went to the grid with some fairly worn looking Michelins.

Meanwhile Ferrari had an interesting choice to make. Michael had run one set of tyres on Saturday morning, and as we've seen four in qualifying. That meant he had just two of his allocation of seven sets left. But a two-stop race required three sets, so which stint should he sacrifice?

The answer came when a scrubbed set was fitted to the car on the grid. Team mate Rubens Barrichello did the same, although he was actually destined to make three stops and require four sets of tyres.

"We thought the first stint might be a little bit of a procession," said Ross Brawn, "and we wanted to keep the better tyres for when we thought it might be more critical."

After four clean starts at races notorious for first corner carnage, it seemed unlikely that we'd get through the first lap unscathed, especially with tensions running high after the previous weekend's 'one move' controversy.

True to recent form Michael made a relatively poor getaway (although this time a clutch problem rather than any inadequacy in the launch control was to blame). This ensured that Ralf was able to do his own thing into Turn 1. However Michael nearly got beaten away by Coulthard, so he had to be fairly aggressive in squeezing the Scot as they swooped into the lefthander.

The result of all this was that the top three stayed in grid order - but missing of course was Mika Hakkinen, who did not make it beyond the formation lap. This was not related to the stalls that DC suffered in Spain and Monaco, nor to the instant retirements Mika had in Brazil and Austria. Following a lengthy post-mortem Ron Dennis announced that it was a 'gearbox assembly problem.' After DC's glitch with the errant suspension bolt in Canada, it must have been painful indeed.

Back to the race. The trend at both Montreal and the Nurburgring was for Ralf to drop back in the early stages, and then catch up and pressure his brother before the first stop. This time he was in front, so logic suggested that Michael would stay with him initially, and then drop back a little as his own tyres passed their best and Ralf peaked. And that is exactly what happened, although Ralf admitted he also had a brake problem:

"The first 10 laps I just couldn't find a balance with the car. I tended to lock the wheels into the hairpin and actually I was lucky to have a bit of space in the first two laps not to lose my position there, because I had to go wide from the beginning."

After eight laps, Michael was still just 1.0s behind his brother. That grew to 1.8s by lap 16, and then 3.0s by lap 23. That was still just about close enough to take advantage of any slip-ups in or around the pit stops...

As far as the leaders were concerned the pit action started when Rubens came in on lap 21, and his short time stationary (just 7.0s) indicated that he might be on a three-stopper.

Ralf came in on lap 24, exactly one third distance. But for the second race in a row he made a costly error. This time he selected first gear a little too early, and that was just enough to catch out the guy on the right rear wheel. The stop went out to 10.3s, and with a set of tyres that looked as old as the ones he'd just had removed, he resumed.

"Ralf selected first gear before he should have done," said Patrick Head, "and that means the wheel kicks round as it selects first gear, and it meant that the wheel jumped off its pegs as [the mechanic] was just in the process of putting it on. It's something we'll sort out."

Michael was due to stop on the very next lap, so he had just that one lap to make up the 3.0s deficit. Conveniently, the Williams stop did the job for him. Michael was no doubt told on the radio about Ralf's delay, as if he needed any encouragement to go quicker, that was it.

It was a perfect stop of 7.7s, and a short fill guaranteed that he got out ahead of his brother. On a set of brand new tyres he put on a quick spurt just to open up the gap and turn the screw on the Williams man. But in fact Ralf was in trouble, for he wasn't as comfortable on this second set of tyres as he had been on the first - the same pattern that we saw in Germany, only worse.

Here's how the tables were turned at the stop:

1m19.911s (into pits)
1m38.487s (including stop)

1m16.865s (told Ralf is pitting)
1m19.229s (into pits)
1m33.910s (including stop)

As you can see Michael gained by putting on a spurt when he knew Ralf was pitting, and that led to a quicker in-lap. As we've seen, the difference in their stop time was 2.6s, and the rest came from Ralf being too slow on his first lap out of the pits.

"I had understeer/oversteer just everywhere and it was difficult to drive, just sliding round the whole circuit, and that's why I was so slow."

In fact pretty soon Ralf's concern was not keeping up with Michael, but staying ahead of DC. The Scot had been 5.5s behind Ralf before the stops, and after pitting on lap 26, the gap was down to 2.9s on lap 27 and 1.1s by lap 31. But at that point Coulthard was forced to take a stop and go for speeding in the pitlane. David had already been fined $1750 for doing 6.8km/h over the practice limit on Friday afternoon. In the race he was 5km/h over, at the very end of the pit lane, but as with Ralf's white line offence in Germany, you can't be a little bit pregnant.

"He just got it wrong," said Ron Dennis. "He just disarmed the pit lane speed limiter too early. He misjudged it and exceeded the speed limit by five kilometres in the last loop."

Again a white line was the key, this time the one that cuts across the pit exit and marks the end of the speed limit zone. Immediately before it was a shadow from a footbridge, and it could even be that David was thrown by its unfamiliar position. The stop came at 2.36pm, and was thus 36 minutes later than the end of the Friday and Saturday sessions. And unlike white lines, shadows tend to move...

Before the stop he was just 8.3s behind Michael, but that grew to 32.4s. It's interesting to note that a stop and go at Magny-Cours costs around 24s, whereas Ralf lost 30s at the Nurburgring, simply because of the layout of the pitlane.

Any thoughts of victory, and even the podium, now appeared to be over for DC. Not only that, Ralf was falling ever further back from his brother. What for a while had been an intriguing three-horse race was now reduced to another demonstration run by Michael.

The Ferrari ace took another new set of tyres at his second stop, but found them less effective than the middle set. "It looks like there was too much pressure in the tyres because I never had the same grip as before," he noted. Fortunately he was miles ahead by then, and was able to cruise to the flag. His radio went down before the end, which is why he received signals to cut the revs on his pit board.

Ross Brawn said that the strategy of saving the brand new tyres for the second and third stints had worked: "It seemed to, yes. Michael was very cautious on the last set, because what we concerned about was that it was a longish stint. We wanted to make sure that before the end the tyres didn't go away, and he'd be defenceless against someone coming on strong. When he went out and the situation stabilised in the third stint, then he backed off a lot to make sure he had good tyres if he needed them, and he didn't need them."

Fortunately there was at least some entertainment going on behind. As Ralf continued to struggle, Juan Pablo Montoya, going well on his harder tyres, caught him up; indeed between laps 31 and 37 he cut the gap from around 10s to almost nothing. Once he got behind Ralf, his lap times dropped, and the team was faced with an interesting dilemma that was not perhaps in the game plan when the Colombian was put on different tyres.

Although Barrichello and Coulthard seemed to be safely behind, they were still a threat, and it seemed silly to leave Montoya stuck behind his team mate. But would you want to be the one to ask Ralf to move over?

By some unfortunate co-incidence, Ralf apparently had radio problems throughout the race. "I didn't hear anything from the team after the start. As long as you don't speak to the team you don't notice. At a certain stage I didn't get a real answer, I just got noise in one ear. One didn't work at all."

The FW23s ran in tandem for some seven laps before Ralf came in for a new set of tyres on lap 44, a few laps ahead of schedule.

"Ralf was going so slowly," said Patrick Head. "It was not so much to better Juan's position, but we were very concerned that we were dropping back into Barrichello's and Coulthard's clutches. Ralf obviously had a major problem at the time with the balance of the car, and instead of just himself it was taking both cars back into a position where they could have lost two places on the track."

Bringing Ralf in early appeared to been the most diplomatic option available to the team, but in fact the German insisted that stopping when he did was his decision: "The team got me but I couldn't hear the team, as something with my ear pieces was wrong. I just called the team to tell them I was coming in, so whatever the team wanted, I don't know..."

The decision certainly helped Montoya. With Ralf gone he was able to lap quickly, and enjoyed a few laps in the lead thanks to his unusual stop schedule, and when he finally made his late last stop on lap 50 he emerged ahead of Ralf. But on the very next lap he slowed and stopped with an engine problem, and what would have been second place was lost. Thereafter Ralf had an easy run to the runner-up spot: "With the third set it came a bit better but never as good as at the start."

Once again circumstances had cost us an intriguing on-track battle, but fortunately another one developed in the closing laps as Coulthard caught Barrichello. Early on Rubens had been switched to a three-stopper, and with David having had a stop and go, he too had effectively made three stops, albeit without the benefits of lower fuel levels and tyres that he could run hard on.

In the end he just couldn't find a way past the Ferrari, although he very nearly pulled off a repeat of last year's move on Michael, when the Brazilian was wrongfooted while lapping Jean Alesi. In fact Barrichello's final set of tyres (scrubbed after using new rubber in the second and third stints) had blistered, and he was having some trouble. His eventual reward was third, which was no mean achievement from eighth on the grid. Had the three-stop strategy made the difference?

"It's difficult to say until I go back through it," said Brawn. "But what it did do is give him good tyres at the right time, so he was able push. Instead of having to drive round on the edge of the tyres, he was able to drive flat out every stint, which was important for him. Obviously we benefited from David's problem, but Rubens drove a very good race and managed to make the most of the new tyres and the strategy."

The odd thing is that a quick driver who qualifies badly normally makes progress by doing fewer or later stops than those ahead, rather than the other way round...

"Yeah, I know. Maybe we're wrong! But quite frankly we did expect the tyres to be a little bit more fragile than they were. They were much more durable than we expected. So I don't know if that was very significant, that strategy, but it certainly gave him a bit more fun having new tyres to charge around on."

To summarise, here is how the pit strategy unfolded for the leading contenders:

Michael Schumacher: 25-20-27
Ralf Schumacher: 24-20-28
Rubens Barrichello: 21-15-18-18
David Coulthard: 26-25-21 (not including stop and go)
Jarno Trulli: 25-22-25
Nick Heidfeld: 21-21-29 (71 laps)
Juan Montoya: 30-20-22 (projected)

As at the Nurburgring it's clear how many variations are possible even on the two-stop theme, with different teams having their own ideas about how to split the second and third stints. This table also shows why Brawn was concerned about Michael's third set of tyres lasting over a long 27 lap run. One presumes Ralf was originally expected to run 24-24-24 before making his premature second stop.

The big question is this - how would DC have fared without his stop and go? Well, he would have been stuck behind Ralf during the middle stint, and had he not forced a way by, everything would have depended on the timing of their second stops.

Even if Ralf had gone to his pre-arranged limit, David would have stayed out longer and would certainly have got past and claimed second. It's impossible to say whether he would have got anywhere near Michael, but the earlier he had a clear track, the more chance he would have had of at least forcing the World Champion to maintain his pace. And as we've seen Schumacher was only too happy to back off and keep his tyres in good shape.

While it's obvious that Michael could have gone quicker, it's also true that David lost a lot of time stuck behind Rubens. The following table makes for interesting reading:

- before stop and go: 8.376s
- after stop and go: 32.490s
- one lap prior to Michael backing off for the finish: 19.571s

During his chase he also set the fastest lap of 1m16.088s. "We were competitive," said Ron Dennis. "That's the most important thing, to be competitive. Of course we want to have a result, and then you look at the gap and think what could have been and all these things, but at the end of the day it's the result that counts. But it's less painful than being uncompetitive, I can assure you..."

Finally, back to where we started. I hinted after Monaco that some Michelin teams had considered not changing tyres at the stops, and at the Nurburgring Benetton went ahead and left the fronts on. They did the same with Giancarlo Fisichella at Magny-Cours after inspecting the tyres that came off Jenson Button's car on the previous lap. Strange days, indeed...

Meanwhile Jaguar appears have got a better grip (sorry...) on the tyre situation than the other Michelin teams. Eddie Irvine was fast throughout at the Nurburgring, and in Magny-Cours he was again flying, when not being held up by the likes of Panis and Frentzen. He eventually set sixth fastest lap.

Eddie spent three years in Japanese F3000 and did virtually nothing else but test tyres, and that knowledge has clearly come in useful as he and his engineers have got a good handle on what works and what doesn't. So how do you get the best of out of the Michelins?

"I don't know," said Irvine, somewhat unconvincingly. "Well I do. But it took lots and lots of work to find out, so **** off..."

But the big headache for Michelin is what went wrong with Ralf's second set, which was ostensibly identical to the first. Both were used over three laps in qualifying, and then given more mileage in the warm-up, as Michelin boss Pierre Dupasquier explained:

"Both sets, the first and second, were very close in the way they were prepared. But maybe somehow there was a difference."

It's worth noting however that on two of Ralf's qualifying sets he did not set a representative time, so therefore they were not worked as hard when they were new as the tyres he did a hot lap on. Did that explain the discrepancy come the race?

"That may be the answer to our question. We don't know. Any difference in the power you put on the tyre, the work you ask from the tyre, all those differences may affect them. Although usually it doesn't."

And what of the difference between doing a slow formation lap and then a start with the first set, and going hard out of the pits straight away with the second?

"Anything may and will..."

As I said, it's all getting a bit complicated. But there's an easy way for Michelin to simplify things for all its runners.

"Obviously it would help if we were in a position to use new tyres," says Patrick Head. "But at the moment that isn't the case, so it's something that between us and Michelin we've got to be looking at."

"That's what happens with two manufacturers," says Ross Brawn. "Their philosophy is obviously different to our philosophy. I think the new tyre approach is better, because you can keep new tyres. If you end up spending all your day scrubbing tyres, it's difficult. Whereas I think the new tyre approach is easier to handle..."

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