MAL: Schuey made to work for win
Juan Pablo Montoya made sure that Michael Schumacher's 72nd win was no cakewalk. By Mark Hughes
The stand-out laps were those of Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld, respectively first, second and 15th on the grid. But there was one stand-out car: the Ferrari F2004, on pole by 0.7sec.
Through the high-speed direction changes - the impressive switchback of Turns 5/6 and the phenomenal downhill entry of 12/13 - its poise was breathtaking. To see it the first time was to believe you were witnessing an unfolding accident. Yet if the front end of the car on its new wide Bridgestones is planted in a way its predecessor's never was, its rear end is comfortably able to keep up.
Put a car like that in Schumacher's hands, stand back and watch the magic. He even impressed himself, describing it as "a mindblowing lap". On his out-lap he could feel how much grip the track had picked up since his first run, could feel that this was going to be spectacular. Stay calm nonetheless, keep that out-lap slow, slow, slow to prevent those tyres from overheating before they're needed on the hottest track surface you encounter all season: 51C at the time of Michael's slot, four from the end, though it had been 55C mid-session.
Fastest car down the straights, the best direction change, soft-compound Bridgestones translating it all to the track - Michael made routinely brilliant use of it all with a lap that left Formula 1 reeling. It didn't hurt that he was carrying a fuel load good for only nine laps, a tactic possibly driven by the speed of the Renaults in the first session. The last thing Ferrari needed was a Renault, with its dynamite standing-start performance, anywhere near its cars on the grid.
With this in mind, Ferrari could have done with Rubens Barrichello on the front row, but this he failed to do by 0.1sec. Despite higher grip levels, soft compounds can give a car a squirmy feel that Barrichello often finds uncomfortable - and so it was here. He opted for the hard, the car was less planted, Rubens less committed at places and too optimistic at the tricky Turn 14, with its marginal braking area and off-camber entry. Furthermore, his fuel load was 3kg heavier than Michael's, this all leaving him P3.
As it was, Ferrari needn't have worried. Both Renault drivers made critical errors when it mattered, Fernando Alonso going off into the gravel two corners from a probable front-row time, Jarno Trulli making a series of smaller gaffes on Turns 2, 12 and 15 that left him eighth. "He lost around 0.9sec with those," said Renault's Pat Symonds, "and could have been on the second row."
Such a set of circumstances should have put a Williams on the outside of the front row. Quick in the practices and consistent on long runs, neither of its drivers made clean laps, Ralf Schumacher's messier than Juan Pablo Montoya's. "We should have run the cars lighter in the first session," said chief operations engineer Sam Michael. "Then in the second session we would have run in the cooler conditions of the late afternoon. That might have been worth 0.2sec."
As it was, Montoya qualified fourth, Ralf Schumacher seventh, 0.2sec slower, each on fuel loads that represented a couple of tenths' deficit to Schuey's Ferrari. Factor in the cooler temperatures and Montoya's lap might have been just 0.6sec slower than Michael's rather than a second. At least a couple of those six tenths were down to Montoya's Turn 14 error.
All of which left the front row to be taken by Webber's Jaguar. It was a superb performance from both car and driver. On the same softer-option tyres as most of the other Michelin runners and a similar fuel load to the Williams, it was no fluke: "The car was terrific in sector two, and I just concentrated on keeping it clean on the slow stuff." That combined with the lower temperatures did the trick. "We've done a good job on getting the best from the car. The balance is just right and the tyres are working great."
McLaren's new front wing was reckoned to be giving as much as 0.3sec per lap improvement and the MP4/19 looked more competitive than in Australia, with Kimi Raikkonen putting together a good lap to go fifth, just 0.1sec behind Montoya. David Coulthard was 0.5sec and three places further back. The car was still down on straightline speed but enjoyed good traction out of the hairpins. "I'm happy with the handling," said Kimi. "I'm sure it's a step forward but it's difficult to say by how much."
"I think the relative gap is closer," said DC, "but I struggled more than Kimi with oversteer."
Jenson Button's BAR filled out the third row next to Raikkonen, but he was disappointed with that: "The car feels really good in the first two sectors, but by the final sector there was just too much oversteer. We're still not there on set-up." Takuma Sato was within 0.3sec of Button when he suffered an off, trying to keep his foot in at Turn 11. "I just hit a bump and couldn't catch it," he reported.
Cristiano da Matta filled out the top 10 (see right). Of the rest, in descending order, the Sauber drivers were on the same tenth but made similar mistakes in the tricky final sector, Christian Klien continued to find his way cautiously in the second Jag, Olivier Panis went the wrong way on set-up, Nick Heidfeld did a superb lap in the Jordan but even so was almost a second slower than the Toyota ahead of him, and Gianmaria Bruni was 0.7sec quicker than Minardi team-mate Zsolt Baumgartner. Giorgio Pantano was behind them both in the second Jordan - he took to the T-car after sitting out the first session due to a gearbox problem.
They'd been promising rain all weekend and, with the race five minutes away and the cars lined up on the grid, it finally began to fall. Great big warm tropical dollops of the stuff, but critically not all that many dollops, and only on selected parts of the track. It couldn't have been worse news for Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. If it was going to rain, it needed to do so properly as far as they were concerned. It needed the heavens to open and it needed to be Bridgestone rain. But spitting rain only at selected corners? That doesn't demand wet-weather tyres - that's Michelin rain, not Bridgestone. Mark Webber on the front row and Juan Pablo Montoya on the second could sniff the scent of opportunity in the jungle air.
Yet 56 laps later there was Schumacher jumping higher on the top step of the podium than he has for a long time. If only Webber had got off the line well this might have been an even better race than it turned out to be. As it was it had tension, a few moments where it threatened to come alive, and it was much more of a contest than Melbourne.
With an impeccable drive, Montoya kept Schuey honest, but really needed to have got in front of the Ferrari when conditions favoured him in the damp early stages. He arrived on the Ferrari's tail maybe one lap too late to be able to do that. Thereafter the rain tailed off and Schumacher eased himself clear, immaculately balancing the requirements of his tyres with the need to keep out of reach of the Williams for the rest of the afternoon.
"Those early laps were so tricky," related the reigning champion. "The track was dry on some corners but damp on others. I nearly lost it on the warm-up lap. I was lucky to get away with it. In the lead in these conditions you have no point of reference. You have to commit to a corner without knowing the grip in advance. You think you have your braking point and suddenly you find the grip's not there."
All the while the white car in his mirrors was looming bigger, ever-bigger, with a very real grip advantage. It's a scene that's been played out several times over the years. A damp track with dry-weather tyres and the Michelin is all over the Bridgestone.
"It suggests that Bridgestone is still running a harder compound than our Michelins," said Williams operations chief Sam Michael. "The two tyres are still very different in their patterns of performance."
It's to do with the distinction between chemical grip (where the rubber bonds to the track's surface at a molecular level) and mechanical grip (the ability of the tyre's structure to withstand the forces). Softer compounds tend to offer more chemical grip - and that pays dividends in the rain. Mechanical grip - Bridgestone's forte - is not so important with the lower loads that the rain brings.
So as Schumacher trod gingerly, unable to make use of a lighter fuel load, Montoya was monstering him. Early on the second lap JPM had slipped past the other Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello - on a harder compound than his team-mate and therefore really struggling in the damp - as the Brazilian locked up and ran wide. Before the lap was out Montoya was on Schuey's gearbox. He sniffed a passing opportunity early in the third lap but backed out of it, confident a less marginal chance would present itself. It never did. He would rue not seizing that moment.
If Webber's Jaguar hadn't bogged down horribly at the start, Montoya wouldn't have had to swerve around it and lose momentum - and that might have got him onto the champion's tail immediately and in front soon after. Then we would have had a race, as the grip came back to Schumacher but Montoya held the positional advantage. Then again, Montoya might have been behind Webber. And here's an image to conjure with: Webber might have been the one to take the lead from Schumacher.
Instead, the Jaguar was down among the scrapping midfield by the first corner. "The revs just died and the anti-stall even kicked in," said a crestfallen Webber later.
Further back, Christian Klien's sister car had done exactly the same. No-one in the team was saying exactly what had gone wrong, but Webber allowed: "We need to tell the engineers what we need from the system and they need to tell us what they need from us."
Because Jaguar is trying to respond to Renault's huge startline advantage it appears to be running risky start strategies, daring to use fewer revs and less clutch slip. When it works it can work well, but more often it doesn't, and occasionally it's disastrous. This was one of those times.
So Schumacher took off into a clear lead from Barrichello, Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen (who'd spun on the warm-up lap but then quickly got going again).
Talking of Renault's starts, BAR technical director Geoff Willis had earlier pondered: "I wonder if maybe they spend more time with the clutch fully engaged with the engine pulling from very low revs and maybe others are forced by their engine characteristics to start with slightly higher revs and spend more time with the driver feeding the clutch out."
Whatever, the blue cars took off like rockets, as usual. From the fourth row Jarno Trulli immediately passed Ralf Schumacher's Williams, banged wheels with Jenson Button's BAR even before they were in the braking area and briefly sneaked ahead of Raikkonen too before losing out to the McLaren on the exit of Turn 2 as he ran off line. Team-mate Fernando Alonso, starting from the back after spinning away his qualifying lap, passed seven cars down to the first turn like they were in slow-mo, then was repassed by the furious Webber into the corner itself. The pair of them picked off the likes of Nick Heidfeld and the two Toyotas on the first lap and completed it in ninth and 10th.
On his hard tyres, Barrichello was struggling badly on the first lap and dropped two seconds to his team-mate. "My tyre choice didn't pay off," he explained. "They lost temperature and I lost places."
Maybe it didn't pay off for him, but it did for Schumacher. The queue of grippy Michelin cars stacked behind Barrichello was a crucial point in securing Schuey's victory. That one lap Rubens managed to delay Montoya almost certainly prevented the Williams taking the lead in the brief window when conditions favoured it.
After his clash with Trulli, Button was concerned he may have damaged the BAR and was treating the first lap cautiously, coming by behind the Renault in sixth, just ahead of David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Webber and Alonso.
Trailing Montoya past Barrichello a couple of corners later was Raikkonen, and into the third lap Button was looking for a way by the second Ferrari too.
A lap later and Webber was lining up Ralf for ninth, bravely going past around the outside of the fast Turn 5, but having to surrender again into 6 before finally nipping inside the damp Turn 8, banging wheels with the Williams, forcing it briefly on the grass and allowing Alonso past as well. A lap later, Alonso did Webber into Turn 1.
At the front, Schuey was now easing away. Montoya hung on as best he could. The rain had stopped by the third lap and a couple of laps after that the formerly damp turns 4, 7, 8, 9 and 11 were virtually dry, the water quickly turning to vapour on a track of 42C. That's mighty hot, but critically was still 10C cooler than what had been forecast when tyre selections had been made. There's evidence to suggest this took the Michelins out of their ideal operating band, and at the same time helped the softer-option Bridgestone from suffering the graining-induced drop-off it had displayed during the practices.
The first stint of what had become a three-stop race didn't last long. Schuey came in on lap nine, having pulled out 4.5sec over Montoya, who kept going in the lead for another three laps. Schumacher extended his advantage handily, his in and out-laps around two seconds quicker than Montoya's.
Behind Raikkonen, Button exited the pits just ahead of Trulli, but the Italian showed plenty of fight and bounced over the Turn 3 kerbs to retake the place. Both, though, had jumped the struggling Barrichello.
Next were Coulthard, Alonso (who just failed to jump DC at the stops) and Ralf Schumacher. The latter had retaliated against Webber and in doing so had cut the Jaguar's right-rear tyre with his front-wing endplate, sending the Australian to the pits. The red mist descended, Webber released the pitlane limiter too early, went over the limit and was brought in for a stop-go penalty. The contact with the Williams had damaged the Jaguar's diffuser, bringing big oversteer, a blistered rear tyre and eventually a long spin into retirement for the hero of qualifying.
Having timed the refuelling of Schumacher's Ferrari, the Williams crew put in enough to get its man to the same point for stop two - lap 26. "We'd been surprised how early Michael had stopped," related Sam Michael. So encouraged, Williams was now eager to see what could be done on the same fuel load as the Ferrari.
Montoya took almost two seconds out of the leader on lap 14, then 0.5sec, 0.5sec, 0.1sec and 0.2sec to get within 3.3sec of his rival. "Michael was looking after his tyres," explained Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn, "but I thought Montoya was getting a bit too close for comfort and I asked Michael to respond, which he did."
By the time lap 26 came Schuey was over eight seconds to the good, with Raikkonen still a distant third and working hard to fend off Trulli and Button. Schumacher again made up a big chunk of time over Montoya on the in and out-laps (a total of 3.6sec), but again Montoya came back at the Ferrari hard. His first flying lap was a stunner, and would remain the fastest of the race, 0.6sec quicker than Schuey's best. Again the same pattern: Montoya following up with laps 1.4sec quicker than Michael, then 0.6sec, 0.8sec and 0.1sec to get within 5.5sec before the German got the hammer down once more and pulled away.
Ralf's BMW blew without warning on lap 27, just short of his planned second stop. He was more than a minute behind his team-mate by this time. His race had been compromised badly by his qualifying position, and front-wing endplate damage from the Webber incident meant he was down on straightline speed. At no stage had he posed a threat to Alonso and Coulthard ahead of him. Given what Montoya was doing in the same car, it was a very disappointing showing.
Just on the verge of his second stop, Alonso's team had decided to switch him to a two-stop strategy, having become frustrated at being stuck behind Coulthard. Ironically, on his in-lap Alonso finally managed to find a way by the McLaren. With hindsight it would have been better to have kept him on three stops. As it was, saddled with a fuel load initially in excess of 90kg, he lost a lot of time and finished the race 15 seconds behind Coulthard.
Trulli's race went south at around the same time. He was brought in early on lap 20 in an attempt to spring him past Raikkonen and into third. But this and the earlier short-fuelling that got him past Barrichello obliged the team to put in a lot of fuel for a third stint of 20 laps. Ultimately this meant he was leapfrogged by Button and Barrichello. Neither of the Renaults had shown their customary sparkle, both increasingly plagued by understeer as their front tyres grained.
Trulli's fade left Button with a clean run to Raikkonen, and though he put the Finn under some pressure he was handed third on a plate when the McLaren's lap-25 stop went wrong with a sticking fuel nozzle. Raikkonen later retired from fourth on lap 40, smoke pouring from the back of the McLaren for a second successive race. The team cited a gearbox failure.
Schumacher and Montoya made their final stops at this time. JPM had got to within four seconds of the Ferrari, Schuey made up a second on the in-lap, Montoya clawed a quarter of that back on the out-lap. He then got a bad break, losing three seconds lapping Felipe Massa's Sauber - "Yeah, the blue Ferrari," JPM snorted. But worse was to come on the next lap when he encountered Barrichello, yet to make his final stop and running a temporary second. Montoya felt he was deliberately held up. Barrichello claimed it was all a misunderstanding while trying to lap Zsolt Baumgartner. Whatever, for two laps Rubens lapped an average of 1.4sec per lap slower than his previous pace before stopping, extinguishing any hope Montoya had of denying Schuey his 72nd victory.
Now all attention switched to Button in third, running 10 seconds ahead of Barrichello, but being caught at one second per lap with 10 to go. All wasn't well with the engine, the oil readings looking very worrying. "I had to slow down through Turn 10 because we had problems," said Button. "Each lap they were saying, 'Slower' and I'm saying, 'I can't go much slower.'"
Backing off and pressing buttons madly it was a pressure situation, with the red car bearing down fast. Two years ago Button lost the chance of his first podium here on the last lap. Was it going to happen again? Four laps from the end, team-mate Takuma Sato's engine blew without warning, losing him eighth and a point. But Button's held on - to the team's great relief - and that first podium was his after a very long wait. In the weighing area Michael Schumacher congratulated him, then asked who he was!
Barrichello, Trulli, Coulthard, Alonso and Massa were the remaining points scorers, the latter lucky not to take himself and Schuey out of the race when at the beginning of his final stint he simply ran out of arm strength on the grip of new tyres through the fast Turn 5, ran across the grass, cut out Turn 6 and rejoined just in front of the Ferrari, which was obliged to swerve. He had at least driven throughout ahead of team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, who finished three places back, the Saubers split by Cristiano da Matta's Toyota and Klien's Jaguar.
Two races, two Schuey victories, but at least in this one he'd known there was someone else there. "In the moments we needed to be quick we were just quick enough," he said. "It was pressure all the way."
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