Hockenheim Race Analysis

A few seconds into the German GP, I thought I might have trouble extending this story beyond a couple of paragraphs; Schumacher crashes and the McLarens clear off seemed likely to be the gist of it! Love him or loathe him, Michael always provides some kind of excitement, and when he departed so early - at a track which usually provides a procession - it seemed that we were in for an uneventful afternoon

Hockenheim Race Analysis

And yet an hour and half later I was standing under the podium watching a tearful Rubens Barrichello after one of the most exciting races we've seen, in a season which has had more than its share of drama.

There was much to talk about afterwards, not least the Schumacher/Fisichella incident (the third time this year that the Italian has been involved a collision before the first corner!). But the real story of the race was Barrichello's rise from 18th on the grid, so that's what we'll focus on here.

Rubens went to the grid with a two-stop strategy in mind - as did Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had endured an equally unlucky qualifying session and was a place in front of him. Ferrari and Jordan decided that this was the only way to get their men through the midfield pack and give them a possibility of making the points. A lighter fuel load provided extra speed onto the straights, and more room to manoeuvre under braking for the chicanes.

At the last minute Rubens added rear wing (as did Coulthard and several others). This cost him a little top speed, but had obvious benefits in the twisty stuff. Crucially, it would also help him when the rain came.

"The car wasn't good in the warm-up, to be honest with you," said Rubens. "We made a lot of changes for the race, and then the car was great. I put a little bit more wing on at the start, a bit for the rain, and also because being light I had a chance to take the slipstream and go."

All weather forecasts suggested that it would rain at some point, and spots on the grid pointed in that direction. With the uncertain weather there was also the chance that Rubens and Heinz-Harald would luck in, and one of their two stops would co-incide with a deluge. In addition, there was a strong suggestion that heavy rain on the straights would force the safety car to come out, and again that might just fall into their favour.

Rubens got his first big break on the formation lap, when Jenson Button, immediately in front of him on the grid, suffered from a dead engine. He had to start from the back, so Rubens effectively moved up to 17th, and also had a clear track in front of him - always useful at the start.

Rubens took full advantage of the clear track ahead and was able to head off in a straight line without having to weave around. To his left, Frentzen made a poor getaway, so Rubens was instantly up to 16th. On the run down to the first corner he also pulled alongside Mika Salo to take 15th, and then moved up to 13th as Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella speared off into the gravel.

His early progress was so spectacular that it's worth looking at in detail (with the gap to leader Hakkinen in brackets):

Lap 1: (5.6s)

Although he'd done quite well off the line, Rubens had to make up as many places as he could on the first lap, when other drivers might be less decisive and committed, and gaps would be available. With a good exit from the second chicane he was able to draft past Nick Heidfeld on the straight for 12th, and then under braking for the Ostkurve chicane he dived inside Alex Wurz for 11th. He sat behind Ralf Schumacher through the third chicane, before ducking inside and passing him as they turned into the stadium. He finished the first lap in 10th place. "I had less fuel, and other people were quite heavy, so I had a chance on the first lap to overtake a lot of people."

Lap 2: (7.1s)

Next up were the BAR pair. He passed Ricardo Zonta for ninth on the run to the Ostkurve chicane, and then ducked inside Jacques Villeneuve under braking for the third chicane.

Lap 3: (7.8s)

Rubens had no problem closing the small gap to Eddie Irvine, but his initial attempt to get past at the first chicane was met with a chop. That cost him a little bit of momentum, but he soon got into Eddie's tow and repeated the move he'd done on Ralf, coming down the inside into the stadium to claim seventh.

Lap 5: (10.6s)

Progress inevitably slowed down, and Jos Verstappen, who was fast on the straight, was not a soft touch. But after a couple of laps Rubens got him under braking for the Ostkurve chicane, moving into the points for the first time.

Lap 6: (11.2s)

Like team mate Irvine, Johnny Herbert had no chance of holding off anyone with superior straightline performance, and Rubens took his fifth place under braking for the first chicane.

Lap 12: (11.8s)

Initially Rubens was nearly six seconds behind Pedro de la Rosa, and it took him a while to get on terms with him. "I had to set really quick times because my pit stop was coming, so I had to go for it. I had to overtake de la Rosa and Trulli without losing much time. I had a little bit more wing than you would think to overtake people, but I was fast in general." When he did catch up a touch of desperation seemed evident when he locked the left front at the Sachs Hairpin on lap 11, and slid a little wide. However, on the next lap he got by for fifth at the Ostkurve chicane.

Lap 15: (14.0s)

Rubens got on terms with Jarno Trulli's Jordan surprisingly quickly, and the Italian knew that he had no chance of holding the Ferrari off. Barrichello drew alongside him on the straight and finished the move under braking into the first chicane. Thus Rubens moved into third place at exactly one-third distance. His stop was obviously due soon, so he was almost on empty tanks at this stage.

Of course, what mattered now was the gap to the McLarens. Although his light load had helped him to climb the lapchart, he was not able to run that much quicker than leader Mika Hakkinen - partly because of course because he spent much of the first 15 laps behind other cars. On the odd laps when he did have a clear run, he was never more than 0.4s faster than the McLaren driver.

Rubens held third for just three laps before pitting at the end of lap 17. He dropped initially to sixth, as Trulli, de la Rosa and Frentzen got past. He regained fifth a lap later when HHF - who had made good but less spectacular progress - made his stop.

We were now in a strange 'limbo' period, where Rubens had new tyres but a reasonable amount of fuel, while the cars ahead had old tyres and were nearing the end of their first runs. There were also early signs of rain, according to Barrichello: "After 15-20 laps it started to spit a little bit at the chicane, but it didn't' slow us down."

Rubens immediately began taking almost 2s a lap out of de la Rosa and Trulli, but again he was not able to make great inroads on the McLarens. Here's how the gap from Hakkinen to Barrichello progressed:

Lap 18: 34.9s (Rubens 12.1s behind de la Rosa)
Lap 19: 34.6s
Lap 20: 33.6s
Lap 21: 33.2s
Lap 22: 32.8s
Lap 23: 33.0s
Lap 24: 32.8s (Rubens gets onto de la Rosa's tail)

At this stage, with the halfway mark gone, the situation was clear cut. In the next few laps Rubens would have been able to pass Pedro and Trulli as they pitted, open up a useful advantage with a clear track ahead, and then make his second stop and resume still safely in a comfortable third. But it's obvious that there was nothing he could do about Hakkinen and Coulthard, who would still have been well clear.

However, it was at this point that fate, in the extraordinary shape of a bloke in a plastic mac, intervened. "I thought it was Santa Claus," said Rubens later...

The safety car period came at the perfect time for just about everyone, with the exception of the handful of drivers who already made their single stops just before. The guys immediately in front of Rubens, Trulli and de la Rosa, both came straight in at the end of lap 25, just as the safety car was called for.

Because the order came too late for it to catch the leader, lap 26 was effectively another racing lap. At the end of it Hakkinen ducked into the pits. Of course, McLaren had a big problem. In theory the team can only service one car at a time, and Mika rather than David got the nod. Coulthard went on past the pits, and as new race leader, he was picked up by the safety car.

He was faced with the frustrating prospect of a long and rather lonely lap, stuck right behind it, until he too could come in. After the race Mika was a little evasive when asked why he had the honour of coming in first, when it's understood that at McLaren the fastest qualifier has priority. DC admitted their had been some confusion on the radio, and the situation was complicated by the fact that his scheduled stop was due at that time.

In retrospect the McLarens were so far ahead that they could probably have come in together. Such a move is not unprecedented - some teams did it in when it rained in Canada. David could have waited patiently for Hakkinen to get fuel and tyres, and then moved forward to get his own service. Even with the inevitably delays, he would almost certainly have still emerged from the pits in second place, been able to catch up Mika in the queue, and the status quo would have resumed.

Meanwhile Rubens had followed Hakkinen in. Although only nine laps had passed since his first stop, Ferrari made the crucial decision to get the second one out of the way. As he blasted out of the pits, he was passed by Trulli, who had stopped the lap before. This ultimately led to the Italian's downfall, for he was reported for passing under yellows, which later resulted in a stop and go.

To summarise, this is when the top guys stopped:

Lap 25: Trulli/de la Rosa
Lap 26: Hakkinen/Barrichello/Frentzen
Lap 27: Coulthard

And this is how the order had changed by 29, when the track went green:

Hakkinen (Previously 1st)
Trulli (3rd)
Barrichello (5th)
De la Rosa (4th)
Frentzen (6th)
Coulthard (2nd)

Although he'd already passed him once without much trouble, Rubens didn't seem to be able to do much about Trulli this time around. The simple explanation was that they now had identical fuel loads, ie enough to go to the flag, whereas before Rubens had been lighter.

After two laps of green the safety car was called for once more. Another mad Frenchman had been spotted out in the forest, but this time it was Jean Alesi, throwing his helmet away after enduring what he called the biggest accident of his career. Yet again Pedro Diniz was involved in a controversial clash. It's interesting to note that no penalty resulted; the digital TV service at the track, on which the officials mostly rely, totally missed the initial collision, although it was visible (if not entirely clear) on the world feed. This was a strange incident, for Alesi lost both left-hand wheels in the initial impact with the Sauber, which was virtually undamaged.

The safety car was soon gone, and it did not affect the battle at the front, and Rubens continued to sit behind Trulli. For a few laps it had been overcast and very windy, and it was obvious that rain was on the way. Where I was watching in the stadium the first spots fell around lap 32, just as the safety car went in, and a lap later Nick Heidfeld, with little to lose, made a very early change to wets. On lap 34 it became more serious, and Jenson Button came in. The following lap it had pretty much became a downpour in the stadium (the sad lack of any further lapcharting in my soggy notebook is proof of that!). But most of the rest of the track was still dry.

This was in total contrast to conditions drivers faced earlier in the weekend, when the stadium was OK but the straights and chicanes were wet. It goes without saying that deciding what tyres to go for was not easy. The guys on the pit wall could see the rain in front of them, but could not properly judge what the rest of the circuit was like, or what was likely to happen to it in the next couple of laps. Again, McLaren had the problem of having two cars to deal with, and this time leaving one waiting was not an option. BAR, Jordan and Arrows faced the same conundrum. BAR's decision process was not helped when Zonta bumped Villeneuve into a spin at the start of lap 35, which meant that radio traffic was a little busy for a while!

The first three teams opted to split the difference - Hakkinen, Villeneuve and Trulli all came in. The Arrows pair were far enough apart on the road for them both to be able to come in on the same lap without Jos being delayed too much (after Villeneuve's spin BAR had the option to do the same, but didn't).. Salo, Ralf, Mazzacane and Irvine (who had three offs on consecutive corners!) also pitted.

Just four guys stayed out on dry tyres; Rubens, Coulthard, Frentzen and Zonta. As we've seen, the latter three had good reason not to come in, in that their team mates were still running, but for Rubens it was a very specific decision to stay out. The Ferrari crew was ready with wets, but it was agreed he would try one more lap. And at the end of it, he decided to carry on - armed with the knowledge from Ross Brawn that he still had a very good chance of still outrunning anyone who had switched to wets. He just had to keep it on the road for 10 laps, around 20 minutes, and hope that the rain did not spread back up the straights to the chicanes. Along with DC, Barrichello benefited from his decision to run more wing.

Rubens was able to pull slightly away from Coulthard, who had Frentzen breathing down his neck. That clearly didn't help David's ability to concentrate on staying on the island, and he didn't look very comfortable. After three laps he decided to come in for wets after all, making a last minute decision to duck into the pitlane as he rounded the last corner. The final straw was a moment at the hairpin in the stadium. Just seconds later Zonta, who had been going very well, went straight on into the gravel at the same place - he was distracted by news on the radio of a stop and go for punting his team mate off!

Zonta's demise seemed to indicate that staying on dry tyres was a mistake after all, but by changing at this late stage DC had broken one of the cardinal rules of such situations - if you make a decision, stick with it. What he perhaps failed to realise was that while Hakkinen was gaining ground after his stop, he wasn't doing it at a very fast rate, and it was going to be a close run thing. By pitting, he effectively guaranteed that Hakkinen would finish ahead of him. Had he stayed out, he at least had the option to beat Mika, and he could also keep the pressure on Rubens, who was only 5s ahead.

On the other hand, he did what anyone chasing a title has to do - take the conservative route, and try to secure some points. Had he skated off the road, as he's done at Silverstone and the Nurburgring in the past, he would have looked pretty silly.

"I scared myself into coming in because I ran very wide at the hairpin on that lap and nearly went off," said David. "I thought am I realistically going to win this race? Is it better to go and get some solid points? Rubens was pulling away from me so he was obviously more comfortable with his car on slick tyres. Sometimes you just have to make a decision that's going to get you the points. Based on than that, I dived into the pits."

It was David's bad luck that just after he came in, the rain stopped in the stadium for a couple of laps. Furthermore, Frentzen began to drop back as he suffered electrical problems, so DC would have faced less pressure from behind.

David emerged from his stop in fifth, and immediately passed Salo for fourth. He then moved up to third when Frentzen retired at the start of lap 41. Rubens was thus now the only driver left on dries.

The Ferrari ace was not without worries of his own, and had a little moment on lap 38: "I misjudged a little bit the braking at the third chicane. At the end, when we finished the race, the rain got to the second chicane already. So I misjudged a little bit with my visor, and I flat spotted the left front. I couldn't see the track very well after that, and they said, 'No worries, Mika is still 10s behind, so you can take care of yourself."

With Coulthard now well back and Frentzen out, Rubens knew that he only had to worry about Hakkinen. The track was still very wet in the stadium, but the break in the weather gave Barrichello a little respite, and more importantly, made life difficult for the chasing Finn. The rest of the track was still quite dry, and his wet tyres were not enjoying it. Rubens had a clear 10s advantage with five laps to go. The sums were simple...

Around lap 42 the rain came back again, but it was too late for the advantage to swing towards Hakkinen. Indeed, he must have made a mistake on lap 43, for he lost 3s to Rubens, and it was effectively all over. In fact, he had basically given up and settled for second.

"When it became clear that I was second and Rubens was leading," said Mika, "I was quite cautious how hard I was pushing. The reason for that is because when you do have wet tyres, and the back of the track is nearly dry, I was all the time concerned that if you do push under acceleration, and you do a lot of wheelspin, you will damage the wet tyres so badly, there's no gain when you end up in the stadium area. And second thing is you can damage them so badly that they can blow up; if you remember my result here last year, I had a massive blow-up in the race, so I did not want that to happen again. Maybe if I'd pushed up to the maximum I doubt I could have caught Rubens."

This how the gap changed over those 10 crucial final laps:

Gap Barrichello to Hakkinen

Lap 35: Hakkinen pits for wets
Lap 36: 14.2s
Lap 37: 12.0s (Trulli gets stop and go while 6s behind Hakkinen)
Lap 38: 10.8s (Coulthard pits for wets, Zonta goes off)
Lap 39: 10.0s
Lap 40: 9.8s (Frentzen retires, rain eases off for two laps)
Lap 41: 9.5s
Lap 42: 9.6s
Lap 43: 12.2s
Lap 44: 11.5s
Lap 45: 7.4s (Rubens backs off through stadium)

Watching these numbers unfold lap-by-lap on the computer, Brawn and Jean Todt could barely believe their luck. Next door at McLaren, faces were equally perplexed. But the majority of the track remained dry enough to make grooves the better option; I saw Hakkinen's tyres being carted off at the end, and the rears were clearly blistered.

Circumstances played into his hands, and his car was clearly better suited than most to the wet, but at the end of the day Rubens did a remarkable job behind the wheel. It was a fantastic performance from a man who has so often starred in the wet (think of the poles he has stolen in the damp, and his drive to second at Monaco in 1997). But perhaps the most important thing is that like Eddie Irvine in the past, he found a little extra when Michael was out and he alone carried Ferrari's hopes. I'm sure that helped to give him the confidence to commit to staying out on dry tyres. Of course, he was also not hurt by the fact that he had Brawn's full attention on the radio, and did not have to face any compromises on when he was allowed to pit...

The race also brought up the old saga of team orders at McLaren. In addition to the confusion over who was allowed to pit first, Mika admitted that in the early laps he "...didn't have any rush to pull away, and I had some reasons why I didn't have to do that." When asked if there was an agreement not to fight with his team mate, he grinned 'Maybe!". One can safely assume therefore that Mika and David have again agreed to a deal whereby whoever leads at the first corner will not be challenged by the other guy - and poor DC had the misfortune to fluff his start from pole. While one can understand that McLaren finds itself in an awkward position, with the drivers fighting both each other and Ferrari, one wonders at what stage they might be allowed a little more freedom.

Of the other point scorers, Button put in a tremendous drive in the closing stages, helped by a good decision to go straight onto wets. Once again, he proved he is a real racer, and he continues to confound the sceptics. He just managed to overcome the still underrated Mika Salo, who made the top six yet again.

The Finn was probably grateful to still be on one piece; he had a miraculous escape when Alex Wurz's Benetton virtually stopped in front of him on the pit straight, and later he only just scraped through the Zonta/Villeneuve incident. Pedro de la Rosa was unlucky to tumble to sixth after such a strong showing throughout the weekend. But at least he did better than Trulli and Frentzen, who again came up empty handed.

And when will poor Zonta's fortunes change? After blowing his good grid position in Austria in the first corner crash, he effectively sealed his fate at BAR by colliding with his team mate. His decision to stay on dries was a brave one, and he was at least as quick as the three guys ahead until he slid off. However, the stop and go he was due would in any case have dropped him out of the points.

Finally, a word about a man who was perhaps even luckier than Rubens on Sunday. Jean Alesi was extremely fortunate that his first impact with the barrier was taken by the Prost's nosebox; he could so easily have struck with the already stripped left side of the chassis. Without the absorbing protection provided by the wheels, such a sideways hit could have had dire consequences - just think of what happened to Greg Moore at Fontana last year. And then while he was spinning one of the errant wheels bounced off the front of the chassis, missing Jean's head by mere feet. Exactly 20 years ago F2 racer Markus Hottinger died at Hockenheim when struck by a wheel...

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