Monaco GP: Race Analysis

While last weekend's race did not produce a classic battle at the front, there was more than enough to talk about. Unfortunately McLaren's early problems robbed of us of what was poised to be a classic confrontation.

Monaco GP: Race Analysis

Even Michael Schumacher can't truthfully say whether he would have won the race on merit had the two silver cars run the distance; there was a good chance that he would have been beaten into second, and it was equally possible that he would have been third. But McLaren handed victory to him on a plate.

Nevertheless he still had to keep it out of the wall, and helped by what appears to be a return to Ferrari's normal high standard of reliability, he didn't put a foot wrong.

It goes without saying that qualifying is everything at Monaco, and for once, Michael got it wrong. Traffic forced him to abort his first run, but that gave him a spare lap that he was able to use right at the end with a two-lap final run. However, he clipped the barrier at Portier, commentating later that it appeared to have moved and made the track narrower! Heinz-Harald Frentzen spun at the same spot, but oddly enough Michael was the only driver to actually damage his car during the casino of qualifying. And who would have put money on that?

Second anywhere else is still OK, but since this was Monaco, it appeared to be a disaster. Luca di Montezemolo was apparently so annoyed that he headed back to Italy rather than stay for the race...

Michael's thunder was stolen by David Coulthard, who deserved full credit for a fine achievement under enormous pressure. He clanged the barrier in an earlier practice session, losing crucial track time, which made his effort even more impressive. And beating his team mate in their mutual home town has probably done wonders for his stature within the team.

Austria had shown how much further McLaren could run on the fuel. As at the A1-Ring, there is only one obvious strategy; fill the thing to the brim on the grid and go as far as possible. Two stops have been tried before at Monaco, most famously by Damon Hill, who started from pole in 1995. A much heavier Schumacher sat behind him, and Damon didn't open up the gap he needed...

With due respect to Damon, if anyone can make two stops work, it's Michael. Ferrari reckoned it to be 10s quicker over the race, but starting second, with no guarantee of leading from the start, it wasn't worth the risk.

If David stayed in front, he just had to keep going, and hope that he had a clear run through the traffic once Michael pitted. In turn Schumacher's only real chance of sneaking ahead would be to pit at a time when he was guaranteed an empty track which would allow him to run flat out before DC stopped. And then there was Hakkinen to consider.

But Michael was also concerned about his brother. Ferrari was sure that the Williams could also run long, and there was a suspicion that the Michelin tyres might prove stronger over that long first stint. If Ralf could stay in touch with the Ferraris and McLarens, he could be a threat.

Tyres were a major talking point. As has become the norm, a lot of people used old fronts in qualifying, but the big question was just how old they should be. Ferrari and McLaren both admitted that the issue was not entirely clear cut, and it also seemed that wear rates on race day, over a stint of 60 or more laps, would be heavy.

When all the sums were done, Schumacher opted to use two sets of new Bridgestones all-round for the race. He was able to take advantage of the rule that says drivers can have 28 tyres rather than seven sets for Saturday and Sunday. He didn't have enough rears left, because through practice and qualifying his fronts had done a lot of miles while the rears were changed more often. So he was able to effectively 'swap' unused fronts and get some spanking new rears...

"We wanted to make sure we had good tyres for the end of the first stint," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "I think starting on used tyres would have been a little difficult - Rubens had a set that were very lightly scrubbed, but no more than that."

Michelin's Monaco tyre was deemed too conservative. The company recommended that its drivers start on well-scrubbed fronts, and lightly-used 'qualifying' rears. There were even suggestions by some teams that it might be advantageous to not change tyres at the stops, or perhaps change only the rears.

Patrick Head admitted before the race that this had been considered, and Pierre Dupasquier admitted it was possible, but he wasn't too keen on the idea. On the grid the Frenchman also speculated that some of the Bridgestone runners would start with very old, almost grooveless fronts. Funnily enough the front tyres on the Williams of Michelin pacesetter Ralf Schumacher looked very secondhand before the start...

Ferrari's main concern was obviously how to get Michael in front of David. It's hard but by no means impossible to get the jump on the poleman and lead into the funnel at Ste Devote, and indeed Michael did just that to Mika Hakkinen two years ago. This time the issue was of course complicated by launch control, and Ferrari was still a little nervous after the problems in Austria, where the grid proved grippier than the pit lane surface on which the system had been tuned.

Practice starts aren't allowed from the end of the tight Monaco pitlane, but the FIA wisely introduced a new procedure and allowed practice starts on the grid after the chequered flag in each practice session. So drivers could do one on Thursday morning, one on Thursday afternoon, one on Saturday morning, and one after the Sunday warm-up. Ferrari had the added bonus of going to Fiorano to play around on Friday, a day off for everybody else...

It made for fascinating viewing, not least because drivers had to decide where to do them. If they chose a particular grid spot they would clean the track, lay some rubber down (even with launch control monitoring wheelspin) and thus make it easier for Sunday. But which spot to chose?

At the first attempt Ferrari told Michael to find pole (as if he needed any asking), but he thought it was on the left and thus arrived at the second spot! Pole proved a popular choice for a lot of people, but by Sunday morning of course everyone knew where they were supposed to be. Most of the drivers at the front found their actual spots, except Coulthard, who appeared to see his too late and did his somewhere in the middle of the front row!

McLaren had no obvious problems during these sessions, and interestingly after one of his formation laps before the race DC stopped in his pit and tried a practice start from there - despite the proximity of hangers-on and mechanics pushing wheels and bits and bobs to the grid.

For the fourth time this year, McLaren had a problem at the start. Mika Hakkinen has stalled at the start proper in both Brazil and Austria, and on both occasions he has made a mistake, in the first instance with the clutch, and the second the operation of the complex traction control system.

Coulthard's problems in Spain and Monaco have been at the start of the final parade lap, and both times he has been innocent victim of the software not reacting as it should to a certain set of circumstances.

In Spain Adrian Newey described it thus: "It's a situation that perhaps we hadn't properly rehearsed. Something happened which we hadn't properly envisaged, which caused the problem. David did something slightly differently, but I have to say that the system probably should have coped with it, so there's no point in allocating blame."

The problem in Monaco was similar, but not the same, according to Ron Dennis: "It was nothing to do with David. The system is complex. A set of parameters manifested themselves at the start, and because the system was not able to accommodate those parameters, it turned off the engine."

"As is always the case when the computer sees a set of conditions that it doesn't expect to see, then it will turn the engine off, because it's failsafe. And that's what occurred."

Ron would never criticise a member of his own team in public, but surprisingly there was just a hint that he's annoyed with the ongoing problems: "It was a repeat performance of Barcelona, save for the fact that the actual cause was different. And that's pretty frustrating, because the engineers responsible for that trawled through all the various parameters to try to avoid it happening again. So I'm sure they'll be pretty uncomfortable..."

He also admitted what is by now glaringly obvious; the McLaren system is not only difficult for the drivers to operate (although Hakkinen had no problems in Monaco), it is unnecessarily complex and sensitive.

With Coulthard out of the way, Schumacher was effectively starting from pole. On the left, and in other words exactly where he mistakenly thought it was on Thursday! The launch control worked well this time, so he was able to stay ahead of Hakkinen.

"Obviously we were relieved to have one of them out of the way," said Ross Brawn, "although we knew we'd have a long, hard race. Launch control worked very well, although we think our side of the grid was not as grippy as the other side, from the practice starts we've done. So the system worked very well."

He pushed hard for a few laps, and then eased off - to save crucial fuel - when he realised that he was not getting away from the Finn. In Michael's terms backing off is hard to spot with the naked eye, but it's true that the gap to Hakkinen went as high as 2.6s on lap 5, and then fell to just 1.0s on lap 12.

Ross explained what was happening: "With Mika pushing, we were just deciding whether to conserve our tyres and fuel and then try and build a gap later, or try and build a gap then. They were sort of jousting, weren't they? One would push and the other one would push. They were trying to judge who could go the quickest, because they both started on new tyres that took a while to settle down. And then Mika dropped out."

From the outside it looked as thought Hakkinen had the upper hand, because he had that priceless fuel mileage advantage up his sleeve. If he sat behind Michael he just had to wait for the Ferrari to pit, sprint for as many laps as he had available, and then hope he'd done enough. But on the very lap after he'd cut the gap to a second, Mika slowed dramatically, and came into the pits. After an exploratory lap, he was back in for good.

Ron Dennis explained his problem: "Mika radioed in and went through a series of things that the car was doing, and we really don't know exactly what was causing it. The symptoms made us think that he'd suffered some suspension damage, and that's why we stopped. We could see nothing wrong with the suspension, and that's why we rejoined the race. But it was clear that something was wrong, and there was really no point in risking car or driver in those circumstances."

Mika was adamant that he had not had a brush with the scenery, and one Mercedes source suggested that power steering was the suspected culprit.

With 65 laps still to run Michael was now 7s ahead of team mate Rubens Barrichello. He'd asked to be informed of his brother's progress, and since Ralf was now 20s behind, the Williams was effectively out the picture. All he had to do was avoid the sort of concentration error that stopped Ayrton Senna in the 1988 Monaco GP. He took the gap to Rubens up to 15-17s, and held it there until pitting on lap 55.

Rubens stayed out until lap 60, but even that didn't give a true indication of how far Ferrari could have run, because sources suggest the Brazilian could have gone a little further. But the real story was that Coulthard was able to go for an impressive 65 laps, proving once again that McLaren has a clear advantage.

DC's economy drive was certainly helped by the spell he spent behind Enrique Bernoldi, lapping some way off his potential pace. I'll go into the rights and wrongs of that saga later in the week, but it's worth crunching the numbers here. The irony is that despite all the fuss made by an understandably aggrieved McLaren camp, David would not have done better than fifth place even if the Brazilian had let him through.

Still last
Passes Burti, who slowed with a broken wing
0.183s behind Marques
Passes Marques. 2.884s behind Verstappen
1.623s behind Verstappen
0.631s behind Verstappen
0.580s behind Verstappen
0.405s behind Bernoldi, who had been passed by Verstappen.

So for the first time DC had Bernoldi in his sights. By this time he was already 34.1s behind leader Schumacher, and 13.1s behind Jacques Villeneuve, the man who eventually finished ahead of him in fourth.

Now let's suppose that on the very first lap he saw David in his mirrors, Enrique bottled out and let David though. These are the guys Coulthard would then have had to pass just to get within striking distance of Villeneuve:

(Pitted lap 42)
(Pitted lap 47)
(Pitted lap 49)
(Retired lap 19)
(Retired lap 49)
(Pitted lap 15)
(Pitted lap 12)
(Pitted lap 51)
(Retired lap 43)

As you can see, several of these guys eliminated themselves from the equation fairly early on. But can you really imagine that those who went further, such as Button, Frentzen, Alesi and Fisichella, would have moved out of the way?

For a while Bernoldi stayed in touch with Jos, but he had a problem that forced him to switch to a conservative fuel map, and thus he lost a little speed. And yet still David could not get past. Between laps 8 and 25 the gap between DC and Michael grew from 34.1s to 78.8s. Then Michael lapped him, and any chance of getting a serious helping of points was obviously gone.

Enrique was helped to a degree by his weight advantage; he was carrying fuel for just 43 laps, while DC was eventually able to go to 65. But Bernoldi didn't have the straightline advantage that is often ascribed to Arrows, since DC beat him in all the official speed traps.

When Bernoldi finally pitted on lap 43, he and DC had been lapped by everybody down to Villeneuve, who was at that stage running fifth. DC's times improved by around 3s, and he soon unlapped himself from Jacques.

12th (Bernoldi pits)
11th (Verstappen pits)
10th (Fisichella crashes)
9th (Passes Alonso!)
7th (Button pits and Frentzen crashes)
6th (Ralf retires)
David pits and maintains sixth.
5th (Alesi pits with puncture)

There is no officially published gap, but by my calculations David was still 59s behind Jacques at the flag. But whatever way you do the sums, there's no way that he would have done better than fifth, and it would only have been sixth had Alesi not had an extra pit stop with a late puncture.

At the end of the day David the right thing. It might not have looked very good, but he didn't panic and didn't damage his nose (as happened in Spain), and came home with two crucial points. But that didn't give much cheer to the beleagured team.

The fallout of the Bernoldi/Coulthard incident will soon be forgotten, but the most lasting legacy of this race concerns the tyres. Afterwards both Pierre Dupasquier and his opposite number from Bridgestone were invited to see race director Charlie Whiting, who made it clear that the state of some tyres - with no visible groove left - was not acceptable. Ralf Schumacher's rears, which had run 57 laps, were particularly bad. Since he had not finished, there was no need to take sanctions.

"I saw Irvine's tyres after his pit stop, and there weren't many grooves left in them," said Brawn. "I think the situations been made clear by the FIA, that you've got to race on grooved tyres. I think if you start with tyres like that, you're asking for problems. You have to make sure that the tyres have a reasonable distinct groove in them."

This particular story will run and run...

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