Spa analysis

One way or another, the Belgian Grand Prix was quite a race. At half distance, it looked as though it would be yet another glorious Spa victory for Michael Schumacher. Not only that, but his title rivals were in disarray; Mika Hakkinen had thrown away the lead for the third time in two years, while McLaren had again botched David Coulthard's pit strategy and dropped him out of contention

Spa analysis

Instead, the fortunes of the leading contenders swapped around dramatically and it turned into a glory day for McLaren. Hakkinen showed for just about the first time that he can outrace Schumacher in wheel-to-wheel combat. The Ferrari ace suddenly looked vulnerable, and thanks to his aggressive defensive move, something of a bad loser.

Bridgestone brought two new wet tyres to this race: an intermediate with an unusual curvy pattern, and a 'heavy wet' for the sort of monsoon conditions we so often see at Spa (not to mention upcoming tracks such as Suzuka and Sepang).

There was no rain until Sunday morning, but because the warm-up was dragged out by an extra 22 minutes after Giancarlo Fisichella's shunt at Stavelot, it was dry enough by the end for some to try intermediates. Schumacher set an impressive time, but it was immediately apparent from others who'd run intermediates that they were good for only a handful of laps. There were similar reports about the longevity of the heavy wet, so the choice was narrowed down to the normal wet or the dry grooved tyre.

By the time 2pm came along on Sunday, it hadn't rained for some time, and on the grid it was obvious that the track would soon be dry. Intermediates would have been an ideal choice, but nobody wanted to use them. Everyone went to the grid with wets, except Pedro Diniz, who opted optimistically for dry grooved tyres.

In 1997, the safety car start at the Belgian GP played into Schumacher's hands. He made a bold decision to run Goodyear intermediates, which in normal circumstances would have been a huge risk. But, as the first three laps were run under controlled conditions, much of the water was dispersed, and when the field was unleashed he found himself with the ideal set-up. This time, he lost out due to being only fourth on the grid.

Most agreed that the safety car start was a sensible option, but the lack of spray around the rest of the track encouraged the FIA's Charlie Whiting to make an immediate decision that the safety car should come in after only one lap. So, effectively, we had a US-style rolling start as the cars began their second lap. The big difference was that in this case they were in single file rather than two-by-two.

This was a huge advantage for pole man Hakkinen, who was able to get the jump on everyone and take full advantage of a clear run into La Source. However, he was also the first man to attack the track at racing speed, and was thus the first to find out where the limits were.

As noted earlier, Schumacher was the big loser. In a normal start on a damp track, he probably had a good chance of muscling his way past Jenson Button, and possibly Jarno Trulli as well. As it was, it took him some time to get into second place.

Through laps two and three, he sat behind Button, who was in turn being held up by a surprisingly tardy Trulli. Indeed, as Trulli scrabbled around and tried to stay ahead, his time on lap 4 was a full 5s down on Hakkinen's. On that lap, Schumacher passed Button into the Bus Stop, and a few hundred metres later he dived past Trulli at La Source. But by then serious damage had been done to his chances. When they came past the pits at the end of lap 5, Hakkinen was 10.8s ahead. And this in conditions in which you'd expect the German to have a clear advantage.

By then, the pit stop sequence had been kicked off boldly by Jean Alesi. Initially, the dry tyre benchmark had been Diniz. He obviously didn't suffer on that first lap behind the safety car, but on the second lap - the first at racing speeds - he scared himself silly and dropped to last. Had the safety car stayed out for longer, he would have been well set. But anyone looking at his lap times for the first couple of laps would hardly have been convinced that dry tyres would soon be an option, so teams certainly weren't encouraging their drivers to think about coming in.

However, two factors have to be considered. Diniz is, shall we say, not as well equipped as some of his colleagues to get the most out of such a tricky situation. Secondly, he was so slow initially that the tyres lost temperature and were thus ineffective when the drying track began to work in his favour.

Alesi didn't need to engage in any debate with his team about the opposition's lap times. Arguably only Michael Schumacher has such a finely honed judgement as Jean in such conditions, and at the end of lap 4 he announced he was coming in - whether the team was ready or not! The Prost team wasn't expecting him, so a scramble ensued before the crew confirmed they were ready.

Even as Alesi shot out of the pits, Diniz suddenly put in a lap time which was 5s quicker than his previous best, and faster than seven of the cars ahead. That and Alesi's decision to change should have set alarm bells ringing up and down the pitlane. Only Arrows and Minardi seemed to be paying attention...

On lap 5, just three more drivers came in - Alesi's team mate Nick Heidfeld (who has shown a willingness to make bold tyre choices in the past), plus Jos Verstappen and Marc Gene, who admittedly had very little to lose. But, as the race went into lap 6, those on the pit wall could hardly miss Alesi's stunning sector times, and suddenly the pit lane was full of scrambling crewmen and freshly warmed grooved tyres.

A further 10 cars came in on that lap, led by Schumacher's Ferrari. Significantly, Ferrari, BAR and Benetton all elected to bring both cars in at once. The good sense of this decision was emphasised when Alesi swept across the line to complete his first flying lap on dries in 2m02s - a full 3s quicker than any lap done by leader Hakkinen on wets.

Only one team had yet to have a pit stop: McLaren. On lap 7, Hakkinen finally came in, followed by the last remaining stragglers - Button, Irvine, Salo and Mazzacane. And that left just one driver stranded out on the track on wet tyres. As at Hockenheim, Coulthard found himself the last to make a crucial pit stop. Once again, McLaren had failed to bring both cars in on the same lap when the opportunity to do so was as clear as day. He finally came in on lap 8, a full 8m21s after Alesi had switched...

Lap 4: Alesi
Lap 5: Heidfeld/Verstappen/Gene
Lap 6: Michael/Ralf/Villeneuve/Frentzen/Barrichello/Herbert/Fisichella/Zonta/De la Rosa/Wurz
Lap 7: Hakkinen/Button/Irvine/Salo/Mazzacane
Lap 8: Coulthard

As we've seen, Ferrari, BAR and Benetton brought both their cars in at the same time. Benetton showed the pitfalls of such a move when Fisichella had a problem and Alexander Wurz was also delayed, but Ferrari and BAR got their second cars out with only 2-3s lost compared to a normal stop.

Of course, the closer the cars are on the track, the harder it is to service both on the same lap without having mechanics tripping up and tyres flying all over the place. But McLaren had more than enough time to take both cars on the same lap, if the inclination had been there. The following table shows how the gap between the drivers compared with the teams that did bring both cars in together:

McLaren (Hakkinen to Coulthard): 17s
Ferrari (Schumacher to Barrichello): 13s
BAR (Villeneuve to Zonta): 8s
Benetton (Fisichella to Wurz): 18s

One can only imagine what went through Coulthard's mind as he struggled around lap 8 on his deteriorating wets, watching Mika on dries pulling away from him. When he was finally able to pit, he dropped from third to ninth. The following table shows just how badly he suffered, and how Alesi and even the non-stop Diniz benefitted:

1. Hakkinen (1st)
2. M Schumacher (2nd)
3. R Schumacher (4th)
4. Alesi (15th)
5. Button (5th)
6. Villeneuve (6th)
7. Barrichello (8th)
8. Frentzen (7th)
9. Coulthard (3rd)
10. Diniz (21st)

Although he had only enjoyed one extra lap on dry tyres, Schumacher had cut Hakkinen's lead from 10.8s before the stops, to 7.0s immediately afterwards. He then started catching him. When Hakkinen tried to respond, he spun on an unlucky lap 13, losing exactly 10s.

Hakkinen said: "Things were looking good, and I was nearly flat-out, not at the maximum, but just finding the limits of the car. At the exit of the second sector when I turned in my rear tyre touched the kerb or white paint or whatever, and obviously I just lost the back end. There's nothing you can do. I didn't expect it to happen, and it was in exactly the same place that Fisichella went off (in the warm-up). The car stayed on the track, it didn't go off, and I didn't stall. It was just something terrible, you know - my God! I didn't feel very happy at that time."

His tyres wouldn't have benefited much from the excursion, and thereafter Schumacher continued to open up his lead on the chastened Finn.

Lap 8: + 7.0s
Lap 9: + 6.2s
Lap 10: + 5.1s
Lap 11: + 4.3s
Lap 12: + 4.6s
Lap 13: Mika spins
Lap 14: - 6.1s
Lap 15: - 6.5s
Lap 16: - 7.6s
Lap 17: - 8.8s
Lap 18: - 9.9s
Lap 19: - 10.3s
Lap 20: - 10.3s
Lap 21: - 11.5s
Lap 22: Michael pits

Coming exactly halfway through the race, this pit stop seemed surprisingly early for Schumacher, and it helped to explain his superior pace in that stint. Hakkinen didn't come in until lap 27, proving that he was carrying at least five extra laps of fuel compared with Michael. Meanwhile, Ferrari left Schumacher with a 22-lap stint to the flag, which was obviously going to be tough on the tyres. This must have played a part in the complex equation that changed the pattern of the race.

Schumacher, who had taken on some fuel on his initial change to dries, was locked into this mid-race stop. Afterwards, Ferrari's Ross Brawn admitted that the team had landed itself with what, ultimately, was not the ideal strategy. But, at the time, it had seemed the right choice:

"If we'd stopped any later (than lap 22), we would have run out of fuel!" said Brawn. "If we knew on lap 6 that we would be leading the race, then maybe we'd do things differently. We were attacking at that stage, and then later when we had a 10s lead, we needed to look at things a bit differently."

Schumacher's stop took 11.1s, so he lost some valuable seconds. But, despite his very heavy fuel load, he lost virtually no time on the track to Hakkinen before the Finn came in for his stop on lap 27. When the World Champion emerged, he obviously had the same load as Michael, as both planned to run to the flag. But he had tyres that had to run five fewer laps.

Hakkinen was now 5.8s behind, compared with 11.5s before the stops (most of that was gained in the pits and on his out lap). But the whole complexion of the race had changed; instead of dropping back again, Hakkinen was charging.

"He was flying towards me, being so much faster that nothing would have helped," said Schumacher. "The only thing I knew was that he was a lot faster on straightline speed, and I would say Eau Rouge and the first part of the circuit."

By lap 30, the gap was 3.5s. By lap 35, it was 1.1s. Schumacher was going out of his way to drive the Ferrari through any puddles he could find, to keep his tyres cool. By lap 37, Hakkinen was right on his tail and had seven laps in which to find a way past. After finding his way blocked on lap 40, he did in style on the next lap.

Hakkinen was faster through Eau Rouge than Schumacher on lap 41 and closed in on Schumacher. Ahead lay Zonta's BAR, and the Brazilian spotted the Ferrari closing fast, then diving to his left. Hakkinen then burst to Zonta's right and squeezed his McLaren between the BAR and the treacherous grass verge. Startled by this double attack, Zonta lifted off, giving space for Hakkinen and Schumacher to prepare for the turn-in to Les Combes. Carrying more momentum from his double tow, Hakkinen emerged just in front, jinking left in front of Zonta to claim the line into the right-hand esse. It was daredevil stuff and send McLaren's Ron Dennis into eulogies of praise. This move and Schumacher's earlier blocking move will be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks.

But the question is where did Hakkinen find the pace that allowed him to catch Schumacher? The Ferrari driver's constant attempts to cool his tyres in any available puddles suggested that he was in tyre trouble, but that doesn't seem to have been the case.

"I was cooling down the tyres a little bit and just optimising the situation," said Schumacher. "If you look at our tyres they look pretty much the same, but for me it was slightly better every time I did it. But then you have the risk that you have a dirty tyre when you go for braking, so it's a bit of a combination."

"The tyres were quite good until the end," said Brawn. "There wasn't really a problem. He was being cautious: there was no harm in doing that, so that's why he was doing it."

What it comes down to is that the McLaren was simply the faster car by the time conditions had stabilised. Had it been dry from the start, and everyone had gone to the grid on optimum settings, the chances are that Schumacher would have been a lot further behind at the finish.

"Despite the fact that we've won this race quite often, historically we've always been a bit weak around Spa," said Brawn. "Last year, Eddie (Irvine) wasn't a match for the McLarens. It didn't look too bad in the end, so on the other circuits that are coming up, we should be able to race.

"They were obviously just a little bit quicker here. Anything we can do to improve our car will obviously be a benefit to us. There's nothing specific we're looking to fix; we just need to get a little bit more power, a little bit more downforce, a little less drag. All those things will help."

Of course, in a wet/dry race everything depends on set-up. Everyone started with some kind of compromise for the wet, and their subsequent race performance was determined by to what degree they had added downforce and softened the settings, and secondly, how much they were able to adjust the car back towards dry spec in the stops.

"We were more prepared for the dry," said Schumacher. "Not fully, not 100%, but I'd say at least 80-90%."

At both stops, the Ferrari mechanics adjusted his front wing, removing downforce. At Hakkinen's first stop, downforce was reduced when a 'Gurney' strip was removed from the top of the McLaren's rear wing, while a crew member standing at the front left of the cockpit appeared to make a suspension adjustment.

McLaren's Ron Dennis and Adrian Newey both admitted that a crucial change was made at the second stop, but neither was prepared to elaborate. It doesn't appear to have been aerodynamic - the wings weren't touched - but again somebody appeared to be busy on the left side of the cockpit. It could also be that Hakkinen was given tyres with different pressures.

"We changed the car in the last stop," said Dennis. "We were able to see from the telemetry exactly what its problem was, he didn't have to tell us, and we were able to make adjustments. And as you could see it corrected the imbalance, and Mika was able to push."

The fight at the front overshadowed a fine effort from Ralf Schumacher that ultimately earned the German third place. He was helped by Coulthard's late pit stop, but he beat everyone else fair and square, including Rubens Barrichello. This was a much more impressive third than the one he achieved in Melbourne, and he did it after team-mate Button has stolen his thunder in qualifying. What a shame Frank can't run Ralf, Jenson and Juan Pablo Montoya next year...

Coulthard eventually recovered to fourth, and he would certainly have been third had McLaren not left him out for so long. What we don't know is to what degree he would have been able to reel in Hakkinen in the first half of the race: remember that he was 17s behind when the pit stops started, and Hakkinen lost 10s with his spin and then began dropping away from Schumacher. Perhaps Coulthard would have been able to catch him.

It wasn't as much a question of the time he lost by pitting late, but the track position, as he was stuck behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan after his first pit stop and remained there for the first half of the race. Indeed, he only got past when they came in together for their second pit stop. After leapfrogging the German, his team boss couldn't resist taking a pop at Jordan:

"We felt that we were able to overtake Frentzen in the pits," said Dennis, "and we got it right. Our guys just outperformed them in the pitlane. A bit less pop and rock and roll and a bit more practice on pit stops, and they might benefit."

Dennis admitted that pitting both cars together would have been a good idea, but tried to play down the damage it caused: "The way things worked out, instead of wringing their hands and saying 'Oh, goodness, we made a mistake, we should have done a sequential stop with Mika,' the guys just concentrated on the job and got a fourth place out of it. I think the best they could have got is third."

It's true that Coulthard probably lost only a point; but of greater importance is that once again the team showed that despite all the protestations about equal treatment, in practice McLaren finds it very hard to give both drivers a fighting chance...

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