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F1 insider: McLaren pays up

2010-06-13 11:33

Dieter Rencken

McLaren tested the letter of F1’s laws yet again, when Lewis Hamilton ran out of fuel as he qualified in pole position for Sunday’s Canadian GP. Dieter Rencken was track-side and offers an in-depth analysis of the implications. 

Although the dawn of Saturday’s qualifying revealed an overcast and wet Montreal, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was bone dry by the time the first GP cars ventured out of the pit lane.

What a beautiful sight to behold: here a Williams-Cosworth, there a Ferrari, then another Ferrari followed by a McLaren; next up a March, with a Penske trailing in the orange car’s draft as the dark blue Wolf bearing the legend ‘Jody Scheckter’ on its flanks dices with Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell 006 and a JPS-liveried Lotus.

Dreaming; do I need to wake up and smell the coffee? Nope – before contemporary F1 cars hit the track for the hour-long P3 session it was the turn of the cars entered for Montreal’s Historic Grand Prix Championship round. The series has some seriously wonderful (and expensive) machinery, with 29 of the most evocative seventies and eighties GP cars bringing back memories of days when sex was as safe as houses and motor racing fraught with danger.

Sobering it was, though, to reflect on the history of the sport: over 120 teams have entered F1 in its 60-year existence; 10% of that figure still being business. Then consider that three of the 12 teams currently on the grid are in their debut seasons (the team known as Lotus shares zilch with the original, bar the name), and you gain an idea of the life expectancy of F1 teams. In fact, just Ferrari, McLaren and Williams are older than 20 years, and last-named is the only outfit still controlled by its founder.

The statistically greatest driver in the history of F1 was out-paced by his younger team mate - again.

Schumacher fails - again

But, all that is the past, and P3 is very much about the present, so no surprise to see Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber set the pace (McLaren/Red Bull Racing respectively) in the final times practice session, with the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso right up their chuffs. M Schumacher posts fourth in the first Mercedes (N Rosberg was 18th in the second), with SebVet fifth fastest in the second RBR and F Massa 12th for Ferrari.

It was, though, a scratchy session, so no surprise when it proved no reliable indicator of form, for, come the white knuckle hour at 13:00 local, the leading pair blazed ahead to lock out the front row (in the same order), Schumacher failed to make the final cut as Rosberg went through to grid tenth, while Vettel rose to third.  

“We simply did not have the balance or grip and overall we had a lot of problems with braking and handling,” explained a crestfallen Michael, who won this race no less than seven times between 1994 and 2004. “It’s difficult to understand the reasons at the moment but we will look deeply into it now, and find a good strategy for the race tomorrow.”

There was, though, no such scalp scratching at McLaren, where Hamilton cut it that fine that he was ordered to ‘kill’ his engine and freewheel on his ‘in’ lap in order to ensure the obligatory two litres of fuel (for sampling) remained in the tank after his final qualifying lap.

Hamilton's muscle power pole

Eventually Lewis was reduced to pushing the car, at which point he cadged a lift with the Medical Car as marshals wheeled the silent car home. He was fined R80 000 for exceeding the maximum time allowed to return to the pits, leading teams to suggest it was the cheapest pole position in the history of F1, a charge McLaren Racing boss Martin Whitmarsh vehemently denied.

“We complied with the regulations,” he said. “We didn't set out to do this, and it is not Lewis' fault. A mistake was made, and we had a choice. We could have got back to the garage but having done so we would have been short of fuel for the sample, so we chose the decision that the regulations require us to provide the sample. We felt that was the dominant requirement rather than the FIA memo, which isn't a regulation and just talks about the lap time to come back.”

Still, it left a bitter taste, and the FIA will surely move to close the loophole. Lewis was, however, ecstatic regardless of method, which proved how quickly teams need to think on their feet.    

“At the end of my fastest lap, it was such a fantastic feeling crossing the line – the team came on the radio through Turn Two and told me I’d got pole,” beamed the 2007 winner somewhat emotionally after breaking Red Bull’s run of eight pole positions, including the 2009 finale in Abu Dhabi.

“I knew it was a good lap – but when they told me it was the best lap, it brought back memories of my previous times here. It was exactly the same ecstatic feeling as when I took my very first pole position here in 2007.”

Not only does he start from pole, but also on the ‘clean’ side of what is still a ‘dirty’ track after not seeing F1 action for two years and curtailed running in the three practice sessions as teams preserved their rubber stocks for what is likely to prove an abrasive race.

Hamilton's pole position 'dry run' cost him a neat $10 000 fine...

McLaren's impeccable staff effort

However, Lewis could not have set the time without a superhuman effort from his mechanics, who totally replaced both right-hand corners on his MP4-25A in double-quick time after the driver grazed the Turn 4 wall during P3. “I saw them at work today like I have never seen before. It was just like watching an orchestra, amazing. They did such a fantastic job,” the 2008 champion complimented.  

Webber seemed satisfied with his afternoon’s work, and if the Australian was disappointed at not gaining his fourth pole on the trot (and fifth of the season in eight qualifying sessions), he hid it pretty well – or just plain failed to mask his confidence. As it turned, the latter applied: he – and Vettel – were on prime (harder) tyres, rather than ‘softs’ as was Hamilton.

“Today is a very good day for me; I am very happy. It was a good fight as I predicted yesterday for the front row. McLaren were expected to be strong here and it turned out to be the case”. Then came the reason for Mark’s grin: “Lewis did a very good lap for pole, obviously with a different compound. Everyone is free to choose what tyre they want for qualifying and that’s the grid that we have today, so to be on the front row with a tyre that I think is going to be for us a little bit more stable, and we will just see how the race unfolds.”

Before the session some folk suggested the soft option would last no more than three laps, but by the end of the hour that had increased to ten. Lewis was obviously banking on a Safety Car during the opening laps, hoping to make a stop without losing too many positions. What chance?

According to various bookies, the odds are about even, so the gamble may pay off; if not, Red Bull’s pair are ready to pounce, as Vettel, who failed to get in a clean lap until the end, made clear: “I’m happy both Mark and I made it to these positions with what is, from my point of view, the right tyre. Yesterday’s practice showed that the soft tyre is quite difficult to last for more than a couple of laps.”

Alonso believes the abrasive nature of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will open up the opportunity to tactically dominate the race for teams lacking in outright pace.

Alonso philosophical

Fernando Alonso, also on ‘softs’, lost third by fifteen thousandths of a second at the very end of the 60-minute session, but was philosophical as he spoke of a race which “for the first time this season will feature a confrontation between different strategy options, with two of the top five cars choosing to start on the hard tyres.”

“It will be a very long and tough race and it will be vital to maintain concentration throughout, because on this track a moment’s distraction can carry a heavy penalty,” the top Ferrari driver (and winner here in 2006) added.

Lining up fifth is Hamilton’s team-mate Jenson Button, who, too, chose the soft option. His style is, though, less aggressive than Hamilton’s, so Jens should be able to eke out an additional lap or two before peeling off into the pits – Safety Car, of course, permitting.

“Overall, I think it’s going to be a good race – both fascinating and fun – and strategy will be very important: it will be all about tyre management, so going flat-out every lap might not be the quickest way to get to the end of the race in the shortest possible time,” reckoned the reigning champion.

Realistically speaking, though, the winner will come from this quintet, but F1 is, above all else, a sport, and sport is, by its very nature, an unpredictable pastime – just ask the English football team for proof...

Too many variables face the field on race day, making prediction an impossible task.

For starters, Turn 1, a kinky left feeding into a right-hander, is notorious for its ‘funnelling’ effect, particularly during the opening laps. Here cars usually have a magnetic attraction for each – although quite how, given their predominantly carbon-fibre composition, remains unexplained – which, in turn, generally leads to Safety Car periods. Thus somebody usually bolts through from the nether reaches of the grid to the sharp end, and correct strategy permitting, bags a podium.

Tonio Liuzi, starting a surprise sixth for Force India, and Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari seem likely suspects for such moves, although Renault’s Robert Kubica (in eighth) is an opportunist if ever contemporary F1 had one.

Then there is the question of tyre wear: the best case scenario has cars stopping twice within ten laps – unless the prime option was selected for qualifying, in which case 60 laps need be run before a switch to softs for the final ten or so laps to comply with rules which demand both compounds be raced on. Can primes deliver 60 consecutive laps? Only, say pundits, if enough laps are run under a Safety Car, during which wear is minimal. Thus, back to square one...

Mercedes team boss Norbert Haug predicts third lap tyre changes. However the strategies pan out, expect the unexpected.

Climatic conjecture

If that is not enough, opinions are split on the weather: rain was forecast on Saturday – and duly happened, although not while the F1 cars were running. Then, the sun was not supposed to make an appearance, but it defied predictions by bathing the track in warmth during late afternoon.

So, what should be made of predictions of rain on race day? Locals shrug their shoulders when canvassed, although team personnel are adamant it can’t be discounted. Ask them, though, if it will fall during that vital 12:00 (18:00 SAST) and 14:00 (20:00 SAST) window, and their eyes glaze over.

Finally, the track is notoriously hard on engines, brakes and transmissions, while its layout, minimal run-offs and walls tax drivers to the limit in wet or dry – all of which is superb recipe for spectacular racing, even if the teams don’t always see it that way.

Thus we have the makings of an extremely difficult race to call, probably the most complicated of all to predict bar Singapore – which has similar characteristics due to it being a semi-permanent circuit in parts, with low grip levels which ‘rubber in’ as the weekend progresses. On that basis even bookies have a tough time, with odds on a Hamilton victory (from pole) being 2,5:1 and Vettel (third) 5:1. Kubica, from eighth? 80:1.

That should provide sufficient motivation to get dinner done and dusted well before 18:00 SAST to catch the opening lap. Whatever else happens, don’t forget Webber and Vettel have agreed to disagree over their 300 km/h coming together in Turkey, while Hamilton is still a win behind Button in the to-date stakes. That said, Massa remains the only driver from the top three to be winless this season while Kubica was the last winner at this circuit – so take your pick.

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