Pat Symonds: A lost opportunity at Monza

The sudden arrival of Jacques Villeneuve in the camp has given Renault plenty to think about this week, but the fact remains that Monza was another example of points going astray, despite the car again appearing to be competitive. Adam Cooper spoke to engineering boss Pat Symonds about one of the most intriguing races of the season

Pat Symonds: A lost opportunity at Monza

Fernando Alonso led for Renault in both Spa and Monza, and yet both times his race ended in retirements. Italy was especially disappointing, for at one point the Spaniard looked well set to score his first victory of the season, and the second of his career. And yet victory went instead to Rubens Barrichello, who Fernando had surged past on only the fourth lap. Somehow the Ferrari man turned things around and led Michael Schumacher to a spectacular one-two.

It was a result that left Renault, BAR, Williams and McLaren wondering just what they have to do to beat Ferrari. They can't even do it when given a head start.

"It's massively frustrating," said Pat Symonds after the race. "At the point where Fernando was catching Rubens on lap 3 - and Michael by that time had spun -
you sort of think it's not going to be their day today is it? But it was. It's so impressive, you've got to take your hats off to them.

"It was never an easy race, but it wasn't that far off target. Obviously it's not something that you anticipate when you're preparing for the race, having a damp track like that..."

Symonds is known as one of the strategic gurus of the pitlane, so to him the rain on Sunday morning presented an interesting challenge. Like everyone else he had to consider every possible option, but inevitably everything depended on how quickly the track dried in the final hour before the start.

"Obviously one of the first things you're looking at is can you gain anything by starting in the T-car in the pitlane. Our forecast was that it would rain in the morning, but all the weather was later than we anticipated. On Saturday we thought it wasn't really going to affect us, and it would all be over by mid-morning. But it didn't' really stop until 12.30pm. I was sitting at the computer doing a few different plans...

"Even by the time the pitlane opened it was obvious that there was nothing radical to do, and then it was just the final decision of which tyre. It wasn't easy. Both the drivers were pushing more for intermediates, and I felt they'd last three laps, which was a pretty good estimate!"

In fact as the cars sat on the grid the sun was out, the temperature was up, and the wind was blowing. Perfect conditions to guarantee that dry tyres were the ideal option, something that all Michelin runners bar David Coulthard seemed to agree upon. It was slightly different for those on Bridgestone, for it's well known that dries take longer to come in. Rubens insisted later that his decision was a matter of safety, and surviving the first laps intact.

"It was the right decision to be on dry tyres, without a doubt. I think because everyone was more or less in the same boat, expect Rubens, it didn't have a significant effect on the outcome."

"The whole of Europe has had such a bad summer, but we haven't had a lot of wet running with wets this year in tests or races. So I wasn't totally sure where the Bridgestone intermediate sat relative to the Michelin. You can't think that way, you can't think, what have I got to avoid an accident on the first lap? Although Rubens won the race, it wasn't actually the best decision."

It looked great for a while, especially when Alonso surged past Barrichello into the lead. Although Button's BAR later took charge, the Spaniard was still up there, pushing hard, until he finally spun off.

"It was a typical Monza race. It was about the pitstops and what have you, and I think really all the pitstops went as planned, although Montoya seemed to lose out on the last one. There was nothing you could do to be clever.

"It was quite interesting with Fernando and Jenson. There seemed to be a bit of a different performance profile on the tyres. One minute I was thinking we were in trouble, and then it turned round again. They were both on soft tyres, but we'd selected different soft tyres. Just before Fernando went off, Jenson seemed to have slowed down quite a lot, and I was just starting to get worried about Barrichello. I knew he had to do another stop, and he was just moving close and close to that critical point."

This was the second race in succession that Alonso had ended up off the road, although last time he had oil on his tyres and couldn't do much about it. It's a measure of the respect in which he's held at Renault that his Monza mistake did not get a reaction along the lines of 'silly boy'; instead it was a case of 'nice try son, we know you're trying'. It was not the reaction that an error from his now former team mate might have elicited.

"Fernando had a go, and unfortunately it didn't come off. It's one of those things. It seems he just lost it on the entry to the lefthander of Ascari, and it was unrecoverable. It's frustrating, but if you can't handle that, you soon crack up in this game."

Jarno Trulli's ongoing problems perplexed the team, but his departure means that it's academic now anyway. However, Symonds admitted that Monza is not an easy circuit.

"It's not easy to drive a very light car on this circuit. It's a two-stop race and you've got variations in fuel load. The profile is that you go faster at the end of the stint. You've got this car that's quite nice, quite light, you're doing good lap times, and you fill it up with fuel, it never feels nice. That's something a driver has to get used to. It's not easy to drive any car here, I think."

Next stop is China, and it's anybody's guess as to who will have the upper hand there.

"I think it's going to be quite an interesting track. It's got some quite tricky corners, long corners that tighten up. I always think that's a nice feature. So it's going to be quite a tricky circuit for the drivers to get the hang of. In terms of the car, there's nothing very specific. It will be medium to high downforce, because the straight is 1.2kms, but there's a reasonably quick corner leading onto it, so it won't be necessary to pull loads of downforce off. Tyre wise we think it's around the Spa area. It'll be nice, I love new circuits."

The points might not be coming in, but at least the last few races have revealed that the car can be competitive pretty much anywhere.

"Exactly. That's the nice thing, you can go to any track, and you can clearly believe you can win the race."

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