Saturday Night Fever

A thrilling wet qualifying session at Spa produced a grid with a few surprises, but with dry weather expected for Sunday the form book is likely to be rewritten once again. Adam Cooper assesses all the options and asks Ross Brawn and Pat Symonds how Ferrari and Renault will fare

Saturday Night Fever

From early in the week the weather forecast suggested that Friday would mainly be dry, Saturday would be soggy, and race day would be OK once more. So far it's followed the plan, giving the teams a major headache in terms of how to run their weekends at a venue they haven't seen for two years.

It's a track where power and straightline speed play a huge role, so it was going to be interesting to see whether the recent 'handicapping' of certain teams by the strict wing flexibility test was going to have much effect. It's also a place where aero efficiency is critical.

The circuit was a little damp on Friday morning - drivers noted that the new surface seemed to be very grippy - and thereafter it was dry for the rest of the day. That allowed everyone to do their homework on dry tyre choice, and with rain expected for Saturday, there was more urgency than usual in terms of preparing for a dry race.

After the whitewash (redwash?) in Hungary it was a relief to see a bit of variety at the head of the field, with Kimi Raikkonen ahead of Jenson Button. Ferrari was up there of course, with Michael Schumacher third on the track he loves, but there was no obvious sign of the sort of domination we saw a couple of weeks ago. That reflects the fact that the Bridgestone run in Hungary was tailored specifically for that track.

Everyone was happy to get a full dry day in as Saturday was expected to be wet. And the Ardennes weather gods did not disappoint, as it was tipping down when the circuit woke up. The skies were grey, so grey in fact that as has happened in the past the medical helicopter became an issue, as it was not able to get into the hospital in Liege. The normal 9am start came and went, and after several delays the first 45-minute session was cancelled.

The cars finally took to the track at 10.45am, with a window of just 15 minutes in which the drivers could sample the track. It was no surprise when Schumacher was the first man out; it gave him the perfect opportunity to see what the track looked like before anyone had run on it, replicating exactly the conditions he'd face on his first qualifying run. Antonio Pizzonia and Gianmaria Bruni both went off, the latter's shunt at the top of Eau Rouge bringing out a red flag just as the scheduled 15 minutes were up.

The most anyone got in was six laps. Always a specialist at getting poles on damp tracks, Rubens Barrichello was on top and 0.8s quicker than Michael. But what really told the story was the fact that Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa were fourth and sixth for Sauber. Bridgestone weather? You bet.

That left a frantic two hours during which the teams could analyse data from the 15 minutes of wet running and improve their cars for qualifying. The problem was of course that conditions were changing all the time, with a fine drizzle falling for much of the break. But what really mattered was how the track would be between 2pm and 3pm.

Would it be better to be out early or late? In other words, would we see a repeat of Silverstone, where people messed around on their pre-qualifying laps so they'd be out early in the session that mattered? All teams have weather data of varying degrees of sophistication, but over the long Spa lap, anything was possible...

The other issue was set-up. Under parc ferme rules changes after qualifying are very limited. Thus there are things which teams would normally do to optimise the cars for very wet conditions which they would not be allowed to adjust back to dry spec before the race. And since the race is supposed to be dry, there was a lot to think about. What they can change back for Sunday is severely limited.

"It's basically the front wing, and differential strategies," said Ferrari's Ross Brawn. "You really go for a dry set-up, because round here, to have a wet set-up in the dry is a nightmare. You're just too slow. So you have to compromise. We're pretty happy with the compromise we made."

"It's really difficult to get the compromise," noted Renault's Pat Symonds. "I can't even really explain how you make those decisions. There's a little bit of intuition in it. It's very hard, but it's actually one of the attractions of the parc ferme system."

We've been waiting a while for rain to add spice to one-lap qualifying, and this time it did. There was more light drizzle throughout the first session, but it was never really enough to make the track better or worse. But what really caught the eye was a brilliant fastest time by Michael, the first man out, which remained unbeaten. Rubens and the Saubers lined up behind him, with only Kimi Raikkonen breaking the Bridgestone deadlock.

As the second session began there was again the lightest of drizzles. Around half way through, it stopped. The track dried just enough to make intermediates a possibility. Jarno Trulli was the first to gamble, and set a time that was to earn him pole. Fernando Alonso, David Coulthard and Juan Pablo Montoya followed suit; the first two set great times. But when the Colombian got out on the track the rain fell again, harder than at any time while the cars were running, and he was stuffed.

Now the question was whether the quality of the Bridgestone wets would make up for increasingly slippery track. Incredibly they almost did, for Michael missed pole by just 0.072s. Since his team-mate was almost 2 secs slower after a mistake at the new chicane it's fair to say that there was also a lot of input from the World Champion into a stunning performance.

In the past Jarno has had some bad luck with rain in qualifying, and he deserved a break this time.

"We got the luck, and we used it," said Symonds. "Having said that, weren't Ferrari impressive at the end there? It worked out very nicely for us. Our tyre was fantastic for the conditions, and we used it well. We were gambling a little bit, because we hadn't had the time this morning to see where the crossover point was, so we had to deduce it from sketchy data. We did put Jarno out on the intermediate right at the end this morning, but it was red-flagged, so there wasn't even a sector time to look at."

Having lost out in the lottery, Ross Brawn was pretty philosophical about it all.

"The track was getting drier and drier, and I think our strategy of trying to be the last ones out looked pretty rosy. Then that shower came, and it all reversed. That's the risk that you take in these conditions. You know what it's like round here, it's very patchy, so you can't judge. But it seemed a sensible guess to assume that it might get a bit drier towards the end. I don't think Trulli picked his qualifying position on the basis that they thought they were going to have a dry window in the middle! I think they both did a fantastic job. It's a shame that Rubens lost it on the last chicane."

The forecast for dry weather for Sunday still holds good, so we're in the strange position of having a grid formed in the wet for a race in the dry - with data gathered on Friday providing the only real clue for the teams as to how it will all work out.

With their usual super starts there's clearly a very good chance that the Renaults will be first and second by the first corner. But what then? On Friday Alonso and Trulli were sixth and 17th in the morning, and ninth and 16th in the afternoon. Not much to get excited about there, and they were also well down through the speedtraps. Despite those figures, Symonds is adamant that the car looks strong for Sunday.

"We're on the hard tyre, which I'm pretty happy with. I'm not sure what the Bridgestone is like over a distance, and I've got to be pretty confident for tomorrow. But can we beat Ferrari? Well, can anyone beat Ferrari? I think our dry potential is very good. I didn't think Friday looked too bad, myself, although we were down a little bit on straightline speed from where we wanted to be.

"You can overtake here, but we didn't go to a particularly high downforce level for the wet. We were concentrating much more on tomorrow. So I think our straightline speed was pretty good today."

Although Sunday will be dry it's worth having a look at the qualifying speedtraps in case they provide any clues as to race speeds, specifically in terms of what downforce people ran in the wet. But Pat sounds a note of caution.

"You have to look at S1 [before Les Combes]. It's very nicely placed for the dry to give a maximum speed, but for the wet, it's right on the braking area. If you look at the S1 speeds from the wet sessions you can see someone looking very fast, but it might mean that they're on high downforce and they're braking late. It can be exactly the opposite of what it might appear..."

With that in mind, here are those very figures, recorded at the spot where the infamous Hakkinen/Schumacher pass happened a few years back:


Alonso looks pretty handily placed. But does pole man Trulli's low speed mean that he was actually on low downforce and thus braked a little earlier than some of the others - right at the speed trap? Or does it mean he ran loads of downforce and is stuffed for tomorrow? All will be revealed....

Meanwhile Brawn confirms that the Italian team is expecting a dry race: 'It may be a bit damp in the morning, but it should be dry. It'll be a very green track, of course. Rubens has got a very good car for tomorrow, and so has Michael. I think we should see quite a good race.'

Interestingly he thinks that the Renaults showed their true dry form on Friday, and rather contradicts Symonds' optimism.

"I hope so. They didn't seem to have particularly good straightline speed. It looks like they left quite a lot of downforce on the cars, so we should be in with a chance of asserting ourselves at the beginning of the race and running our own race. Raikkonen is quite a long way back - he's the one that perhaps you would think would be the strongest challenge."

So will all the passing action happen around the first stops? Perhaps not.

"I think you can overtake here. I don't know what happened with Trulli, but his straightline speed didn't seem good on that run. In the dry we have a reasonable margin on straightline speed over them, and if we have that, then I think we might be able to do something in the first sector. We'll see what happens..."

Of the rest, David Coulthard could be a bit of a dark horse, especially if he makes a good start, while from 12th and 15th the BAR guys will struggle to make use of the good form they showed in the dry on Friday. Williams has had a nightmare weekend so far, and the team has very little data about the new engine covers which were shipped in Friday night and have yet to do a dry lap of any circuit. Finally, those Saubers have to be a good bet for a large helping of points from fifth and eighth. Fisi is always pretty good round here...

Q & A with Renault's Pat Symonds
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