US GP race analysis

Yet again rain influenced a Grand Prix in what has been a very soggy 2000 season. And yet again Michael Schumacher proved to be the master when conditions were damp, although ultimately he had to rely on the demise of his title rival in order to guarantee victory

US GP race analysis

Finding the right set-up for the Indianapolis track was not the work of the moment, and simulations provided a sound base, all the teams soon found themselves trimming off downforce after practice began on Friday. Despite the massive straight, the infield was where time could be lost and found, and on Bridgestone's extra hard tyres it was very hard to generate mechanical grip.

On race day the situation was complicated by the arrival of rain. The track had been damp on Saturday morning, and again for the warm-up, so the drivers did at least have some experience. Heavy rain between the warm-up and the race soaked it further, but it had stopped by the time the cars set off on their final reconnaissance laps at 12.30pm.

Everyone had already learned that while the oval dried quickly, the infield was quite the opposite. Team members standing on what appeared to be a perfectly dry grid had to take the word of the drivers that it was still very wet on the rest of the track. And since it was very cold, with no sign of the sun breaking through, there was no chance of the situation changing between the last exploratory laps at around 12.45pm, and the actual start 15 minutes later.

For those on the front half of the grid, wets were the only option, and the big question mark concerned to what degree they moved back towards dry settings, since no further rain was expected. As a general rule most people planned to run less downforce in the race than in qualifying anyway, to facilitate overtaking.

"In the end we decided to go for a set-up which we thought was appropriate for the conditions after I had been out and seen everything," said Michael Schumacher. "It was more for dry, yes. I mean, it was clear for us. The weather forecast was more for dry than for rain. We went more to the dry side."

Starting back in 19th place only Johnny Herbert opted to start on dry tyres. Johnny's instincts have been correct before, and from that position he really had nothing to lose, especially if a first corner incident brought out a safety car and allowed him to stay with the pack.

The grid had been moved back a row so that pole man Schumacher was less likely to be affected by wheelspin on the line of bricks, which would have been just a few feet in front of his nose. But in the end all eyes were on David Coulthard alongside him; the Scot's jumped start was hard to miss. Some thought this might have been a deliberate ploy, either to ensure that he got to the front first, or to trick Michael into going early too...

But while anything is possible in F1 these days, a premeditated plot doesn't ring true. McLaren could hardly afford to sacrifice DC's race by guaranteeing him a penalty; it would have been far more logical to see how the first lap unfolded and then decide how he could assist Mika Hakkinen's title challenge.

However, what must have concerned Ron Dennis was that this was the second time DC has had an expensive problem at the start, following his stall in Montreal. The Scot has done a brilliant job at times this year, but he's still letting himself down at critical points. This time he also made the cardinal sin of going and then slowing - if you're going to go, jump it properly and don't brake! However, he still managed to beat Michael away.

The world and his dog could see that David had jumped the start, but what was strange on this occasion was that it took so long for the penalty to be confirmed. One presumes that the stewards wanted to be absolutely sure that he had not stopped completely, and they also had to deal with Giancarlo Fisichella, but still this was an unusual and very critical delay. Until the penalty was announced David was very much involved in the action.

It is very clear from the lap times that DC was told after a couple of laps to slow down, hold up Schumacher, and allow Mika to get back on the German's tail. While anything seems to go in terms of team strategy these days, the fact that this went on while David was in that pre-penalty limbo was particularly annoying for Michael. The degree to which David was playing with him can be seen from the following table, which shows DC's slowing lap times and the sudden shrinkage of Michael's advantage over Hakkinen in third:

Lap 1: 1m28.734s/0.838s
Lap 2: 1m23.341s/1.370s
Lap 3: 1m24.021s/1.828s
Lap 4: 1m25.156s/2.326s
Lap 5: 1m26.980s/1.011s
Lap 6: 1m27.065s/0.945s

One can understand Michael's frustration at this point, which is why he appeared to take a big risk in getting past Coulthard.

"We warned him," said Ross Brawn. "For a while it wasn't a problem, because David was keeping a good pace, but I think the team realised what was happening they slowed David up dramatically, and then it got a little bit difficult. But F1 is a team sport, and within limits that sort of thing is part of the game."

Later Michael complained that DC had nearly run him off the road, which while understandable was a little unfair. David might not have made it easy but he certainly had a chance to do the dirty and nudge the German into a spin, and he didn't take it.

Michael got through on lap 7, and at the end of the same lap McLaren brought Hakkinen in for dry tyres. He wasn't the first, but this was still an early stop. The difference in strategies was amazing; usually the stops in similar circumstances are spread over three or four laps, but in this case the 'window' was an incredible 14 laps; indeed some 19m23s elapsed between the first and last stops for dries...

Lap 2: Button (forced to pit early with nose damage and puncture)
Lap3: -
Lap 4: Alesi
Lap 5: Heidfeld
Lap 6: Barrichello, Salo, Fisichella
Lap 7: Hakkinen, Ralf, Zonta, Verstappen, Irvine, Wurz
Lap 8: Villeneuve, de la Rosa, Gene
Lap 9: Coulthard
Lap 10: -
Lap 11: -
Lap 12: Diniz, Trulli
Lap 13: -
Lap 14: Frentzen, Mazzacane
Lap 15: -
Lap 16: Michael

So who got it right? Initially of course most eyes were on Herbert. At first his choice looked disastrous; he was last and behind Mazzacane by 6s on lap 1, 12s on lap 2, 14s on lap 3, and 16s on lap 4. At that point his times started to get into the dry ballpark, at least compared with the guys near the back. The problem was that by running slow slowly his dries were well off the optimum operating temperature, and it was going to take time for them to provide him with any advantage over those still on wets.

The man everyone began to watch was Button, who had to pit anyway on lap 2 after his off. His times were getting better but were still not brilliant when Alesi and Heidfeld - both noted for bold tyre strategies this year - became the first drivers to make a planned decision to come in.

But on laps 6 and 7 Button was very quick, which is what prompted the mad rush into the pits. But what confused this issue slightly was that at this stage Coulthard had slowed to block Michael, so Button's times, while quicker than those in the midfield, were actually not earth shattering. When Michael had a clear track, his times improved considerably, as did those of HHF, who had got up to second as everyone pitted.

So now we had a peculiar situation where of the serious contenders only Michael and Frentzen were still on dries, and everyone else had switched, some of them clearly panicked into it by the slow times set by the frontrunners while DC and Michael were dicing. On wets Michael continued to be the fastest man on the track, so he stayed out and took full advantage.

Meanwhile Herbert's dry tyres had finally come in and were working well. In contrast many drivers really struggled after changing, because they found it hard to generate temperature with the hard compound dries. Barrichello was the most notable sufferer. The high recommended pressures certainly had an effect and made it harder to build temperature - because the tyres flex less - so it could be that others struggled less because they were running lower pressures than Bridgestone wanted them to...

"I had the balance of the car deteriorating quite quickly," said Rubens of his early stop. "The track was drying out and I had more and more oversteer. The car was getting loose the whole time; and at that time I just thought that the slicks would be the way. And, of course, I forgot at that time that Bridgestone brought a very hard compound to cope with the banking and I just realised when I went out again that it was quite difficult. When I came in I was doing 1m24s and I went out doing 1m27s, which was too bad. But I took the decision and the team allowed me to, and I was lucky that they put a lot of fuel in the car and I could do ten laps, get the temperature in the tyre and concentrate again on finishing as high as I could."

Michael's crew was keeping a close eye on the opposition's times, but perhaps not close enough. A lot of the quick guys on dries were mired in traffic, so could not realise their full potential. The most notable victim was Hakkinen, who spent several laps scratching his head behind Gaston Mazzacane. It was obviously wet off line, but it was hard to believe that this was the very same Mika Hakkinen who so decisively dived past Schumacher at Spa. A little adrenaline obviously goes a long way...

While this made for good TV, and the Argentinian had every right to defend his place, it proved very expensive for Hakkinen - when Gaston finally pitted at the end of lap 14 Mika's lap time improved by 4.1s!

Traffic had obscured the true picture. As early as lap 12 Ralf Schumacher became the first man to break into the 1m22s bracket, and on lap 13 Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine and Marc Gene followed suit, and a lap after that just about everyone was as quick or quicker than Michael; the message got through and he finally pitted. Over his last two laps he effectively lost 5-6s. Still, it was a lot less than he had gained by staying out.

"Initially we were still pulling time on Mika," said Brawn. "At that stage there was no point in coming in. As soon as Mika got clear and we saw what sort of lap times he was doing we had to come in as quick as we could. Maybe it was a touch too late, but whilst we were still getting time out of Mika, it looked fine."

"It was a strange condition, different to Spa," said Michael. "The circuit took a long time to dry out and that meant that you had to stay out with your rain tyres fairly long with having quite a big part of the circuit almost dry, which meant that you got blisters on your tyres. But then the infield was still so wet that, as you saw with Rubens going out so early with dry tyres, you were too slow. So we were just waiting for the situation when it was right."

The most fascinating aspect of the race was what happened immediately after his stop:

Lap 15: 43.5s
Lap 16: 16.3s (Michael enters pits, and crosses timing line as he exits)
Lap 17: 10.9s
Lap 18: 9.7s
Lap 19: 8.1s
Lap 20: 7.2s
Lap 21: 7.5s
Lap 22: 5.5s
Lap 23: 5.0s
Lap 24: 4.1s
Lap 25: Hakkinen blows up

Clearly Mika had the edge on Michael at this stage. Like Rubens, Schumacher had trouble getting his tyres up to temperature, although he said later that he was 'taking it easy' to save the tyres. Either excuse explains much of that early time loss, but after 10 laps on dries he should have been OK.

"We probably underestimated how long it took for the tyres to come in," explained Brawn. "It took him three or four laps to feel comfortable with the car. Hakkinen was catching quite hard, and then Michael picked it up a bit. But we had quite a lot of fuel on at that stage. I'm not sure about Hakkinen."

Alas, we were robbed of what might have been a magnificent duel. We'll never know what would have happened if (or when?) Mika got onto Michael's tail, or how their respective pit strategies would have panned out. Ron Dennis was certainly confident that his man would have had the advantage.

Michael, however, was also confident: "I took it very easy in the beginning not to destroy my tyres too early. That was, I think, my big key for the result in the end because even though Hakkinen stopped anyway, we were in front. With the strategies we applied, I think we could have stayed there. I knew we were very heavy in this moment. I knew I was fast enough on the straight because I saw that before. So even though he would have come close to me maybe, I don't think he would have really had a chance to overtake me; but we'll never find out."

After Mika's demise, it was all over at the front, with Michael's spin on lap 69 - which cost him just 10s - the only real excitement. As with his trip down the Ste Devote escape road while leading at Monaco in 1997, he survived what could have been a very costly moment.

"It wasn't the kerb itself, I was really a bit too far inside and I touched the grass. Honestly, I wasn't going really flat out. I was really cruising and just make sure nothing goes wrong; and you lose a bit of concentration. I mean, you just drive around like you do with the road car and in this moment when it went, I wasn't prepared to catch it and it went. I was obviously a little bit concerned for that; but some people asked me to make a bit of a show this weekend. I hope that was good enough!"

"We got a wake-up call that we didn't need," joked Brawn. "But he drove perfectly in quite difficult conditions. The few laps with Coulthard could have ended in tears, but he managed to stay out of trouble there."

Having dropped well down after his early stop for dries, Barrichello fought back, eventually getting past Frentzen for second by staying out for an extra three laps after the German pitted. When HHF came in, the Ferrari crew was also ready and waiting, but to Jordan's evident dismay it was a clever 'phantom' stop and they dashed back into the garage...

"To be honest, I was praying that he would come to the pits because it was quite difficult to overtake his car," said Rubens. "He chose to go fast on the straight and he was struggling a little bit on the infield, but there was no way to overtake him there. So I was praying that he could come to the pits. When I saw him going, I saw my chance. Those three laps were where the car was working fantastically and I pushed as hard as I could."

Frentzen has not always driven with his head this year, but this time he did a near faultless job and his podium was well-deserved; the fact that he only set the sixth fastest lap suggests that this was a result achieved through being consistent in all conditions.

"I was struggling in the infield of the track," explained HHF. "I was quite competitive on the straight, pretty fast on the straight. We took the downforce off, but I was really struggling in the infield. In the end, Jacques was coming up very quickly as well and I had really no moment to relax. I had to go flat out until the end of the race. I have to say I had to push really, squeeze every tenth out of the car."

The other star of the race was Villeneuve, who once again showed spectacular form, but messed up twice. He was ahead of Barrichello and less than 1s behind Frentzen when he had his early spin on lap 40; that cost him 7s, and ultimately second place or at the very least third.

"I didn't know which way the car was going," said Rubens, "and he kept on the throttle. I really had to go wide because I just thought I would hit him. One corner before, Ross came on the radio saying, 'Coulthard is coming very fast behind you. Is there a way to get by Villeneuve?' And then he spun in front of me. I said, 'Is that enough?'. And it was actually quite funny at that time."

Later Jacques fought back in great style, but once again he lost his marbles in front of his North American fans; just as we've seen at Montreal in the past, he made a kamikaze move when his usual cool approach might have made dividends.

"I had to make sure I made the last bit of the track and the last corner properly," said Frentzen, "because even on low downforce level, the guy behind you has got a chance to go into your tow and come close enough. But the overtaking manoeuvre from Jacques was, I think, pretty -- too much optimistic in this respect. He just went for it. He said all or nothing, probably; and he went for it and had really no chance to make that corner, the first turn."

Coulthard could only salvage fifth, and the sight of him being passed and then led by Gene was a strange one. While he ultimately set the fastest lap, it was by no means an impressive day for the Scot.

The F1 teams can also take great satisfaction from the fact that despite the heavy demands put on engines, both by the long spell at full throttle and the threat of oil starvation caused by the forces on the banking, the race produced only a handful of failures. As it turned out, one could prove top be very expensive.

The overall verdict then was that it was an interesting race, although not a great one, and impartial fans were probably disappointed by the margin of Schumacher's win. If only Charlie Whiting had found a reason to send out the safety car...

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