Spanish Grand Prix Analysis

Has McLaren suddenly found a tactical edge on Ferrari? Adam Cooper looks back at how the team won the Spanish GP

Spanish Grand Prix Analysis

For the second successive Grand Prix McLaren silenced the critics by getting the strategy right and beating Ferrari. The Italian team certainly had its fair share of bad luck, but then so did McLaren in the opening races of the season.

What the past few weeks have proved is that when the leading teams are so evenly matched it seems to be easier to win from behind. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher have something of a history of blowing it when they qualify on pole, perhaps because when McLaren is beaten during qualifying, the team puts that little bit more effort into working out how to win. If you're on pole, there's so much more to lose...

Mika Hakkinen sat behind Schumacher like an athlete waiting on the shoulder of the leader in a 4 x 400 metres relay final, waiting to pounce at the right time - in other words, the pit-stops.

Both men made average starts, and they were lucky not to lose out to the flying Ralf Schumacher at the first corner, but luckily everyone played the game and gave each other room. It's been a pretty clean year in that respect and I wouldn't bet on that record continuing through Nurburgring, Monaco and Montreal.

Michael put in his fastest lap of the race on lap 2, which is unusual these days (Hakkinen's was on lap 26). His lead grew to 3.099s by lap 5, and got as high as 3.430s on lap 10. We know now that Mika started with a very heavy fuel load, but in any case he would not have gained very much by sitting right on Michael's tail for the first third of the race. As the first stint went on, Michael's harder tyres seem to wear quicker and Hakkinen closed the gap little by little. The gap was 2.493s on lap 15, and 1.390s on lap 22, just before Michael came into the pits. Traffic certainly didn't help Michael's cause.

"To claw back from what was over a three-second gap to almost nothing was a particularly good achievement," said Ron Dennis, "and it put Michael under pressure."

That pressure was reflected by the pit drama that sent poor Nigel Stepney sprawling. Quite simply the lollipop man who waves the car out was a little too quick - and by the time he realised his mistake Michael was on his way. However, the incident didn't slow Michael's progress. When Hakkinen stopped three laps later, he came out of the pits still behind However, it did leave Ferrari feeling rather nervous of what might happen with their substitute refueller, Andrea Voccari, despite a pretty good first stop with Barrichello.

Ron Dennis and his guys were only too aware of that, and they knew that the pressure would be on Ferrari at the second Schumacher stop. Mika did his bit on the track, too, sticking right with Michael. Immediately after the first stop he was a second behind, but he then he brought the gap down and kept it at 0.4-0.6s. On lap 40 it was 0.548s, and next time around they came storming into the pits together. That's exactly what McLaren wanted, and it's the advantage of being the chaser. Here, the strategy was not to stay out and try and pass by getting in a few blinding laps on low fuel, but to do it with quicker pit work.

The order in last year's constructors' championship determines who gets which garage. Ferrari is first and McLaren second, and at Barcelona - as at Silverstone - the 'posh' end is at the pit entry. Which meant Mika was in front and able to dive out and block Michael should they leave at the same time. In fact, he didn't need to, for as McLaren had hoped, Ferrari's substitute fumbled the hose. We'll never know what would have happened, but Mika's stop was quick and Dennis is sure that the Finn would have made it out first in any case.

McLaren's strategy was geared around this quick second stop. Mika had a relatively short first stop (approximately 7.3s for fuel). What Ferrari couldn't know was how much was still in the car when he came in, both then and when he stopped the second time. The second stop lasted just 6.7s, and when you convert those figures into kilos of fuel it confirms that the car must have been very heavy at the start. All in all, it was a job well done.

What is not entirely clear is why Michael was the only driver to choose the medium rather than the soft tyre - apart from the Arrows guys, who had terminal understeer on the softs. He obviously preferred the feel of the car, and he got pole with them, but he certainly didn't seem to have any kind of an advantage on race day.

After the first three races it seemed that McLaren had the edge in qualifying and Ferrari the better tactics (and luck) on race day, but that isn't valid after Silverstone and Barcelona. It's worth noting that for the past two years Nurburgring has played a key role in deciding the outcome of the championship in the favour of Mika Hakkinen. The race is at the front end of the season this time, but it could again mark a turning point if McLaren comes out on top.

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