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F1: Renault v Merc - luck or not?

2005-12-09 11:38

Egmont Sippel

So, Adrian Newey at last did what he already wanted to do a couple of years ago: Jump ship from McLaren to Jaguar. Or, in the team's new guise, Red Bull.

Now, there's a lot to be said for a good designer, let alone a top guy like Newey. In fact, Red Bull team manager Christian Horner and team owner Dieter Mateschitz rate a guy like Newey as a bigger catch than Schumacher himself.

And they're right, of course. Any notions of Schumacher omnipotence that might have been developed over the last five years among novices to the F1 game, have been blown into the weeds this year.

If Schumacher could not win in a Ferrari, he simply would not have been able to win in a Minardi either. That much is obvious, of course - but to some, it was a theory that could only be dispelled in practice.

Short memories

People have short memories, though. In the early 1970's, Margaret Court used to be one of the two best female tennis players in the world. Some thought Court might have been as good as the best male player in the world, her Aussie compatriot Rod Laver.

Then Court played Bobby Riggs, a 55-year old ?self-styled male chauvinist pig' fond of wearing his ?Men's Liberation' T-shirt. Riggs had won Wimbledon in 1939, but by the time he played Court another top female player, Rosy Casals, described him as "an old man who walks like a duck" that couldn't even "see or hear".

Riggs played Court on Mother's Day 1973. Court lost.

Now, if she could not beat Riggs, she clearly was not in Laver's class.

Riggs immediately challenged the other great female player of the era, Billy Jean King, a woman's libber of note. Bobby and Billy clashed in September 1973 in the Houston Astrodome.

"The Battle of the Sexes" got prime-time TV coverage and drew the largest ever audience for a tennis match, with 50 million people tuning in.

Riggs entered the stadium on a carriage pulled by women, but lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 to the wily King.

And suddenly the strongest women's player in the world was as good as Laver again, because she had beaten an out of shape 55-year old joker.

Importance of tyres

Rest assured though, that Michael Schumacher did not have a horrible year because he drove so badly - just as he did not have five wonderful years leading up to 2005 because he drove so much better than anybody else.

A bit better than Barrichello, yes. But no better than Hakkinen in 2000, nor any better than Raikkonen in 2003 and 2004.

His car made the real difference.

Now, in Michael's championship years, McLaren had Newey.

Who then, was the more valuable of the two?

Who's to say? Barrichello could have won in the Ferrari as well, which renders Schumacher's claim rather null and void, because it means that Newey's cars weren't beaten so much by Michael, as by Rory Byrne's genius.

Yet Ferrari were nowhere this year. Okay, with Aldo Costa taking over as chief designer it was not entirely Byrne's car.

But with the South African still keeping an eye on design, one can scarcely imagine that his signature at the end of the project would have made enough of a difference.

Rubber trouble

Luca Montezemolo pointed the finger at rubber. In 2005, he moaned, F1 had descended into ?a championship for tyres'.

Well, Luca, just as it had been since 2001. Or actually, even 2000 - when the championship swung Maranello's way at Monza, because Bridgestone had ignored the compound requested by McLaren, and only brought Ferrari's favourite.

Since then, Japanese rubber has clearly been the most crucial differentiating performance factor between Maranello and the rest, super cars by Byrne notwithstanding.

Until this year, of course, when Michelin produced the better tyre for long runs on a hard and durable compound.

But not to worry, dear Luca, your good friend Max Mosley has quickly realised the error of his ways, so next year it's back to a (tyre) format that suits Ferrari best!

So, the real star of the show over the last couple years might well have been Hisao Suganama. His rubber bagged Ferrari five driver's titles and six constructor's titles.

This year though, the titles were going to go to one of two Michelin runners. So, if rubber didn't make the difference, what did - seeing that Alonso and Raikkonen are pretty equal in terms of speed, courage and consistency, with both making exceptionally few mistakes for racers of their age?

Engine reliability and records: Merc vs Renault

Had to be reliability, not so - and particularly in this case engine reliability.

Raikkonen took four grid penalties of 10 slots each (France, Silverstone, Monza and Japan) and had two retirements due to mechanical failure: drive-shaft (Imola) and engine (Germany), both of them when he was in the lead and well on his way to win.

In a perfect season, Alonso suffered none of these woes.

So people tend to say that Alonso was lucky and Raikkonen unlucky.

And Kimi was. The guy in the cockpit does not build engines, and in modern F1 - firstly with a soft limiter, and thereafter a hard limiter - a driver cannot break engines any more.

Even Takumo Sato's ailments last year when he retired a couple of times with engine failure, was due to a radically new light-weight piston tested by Honda in Sato's car.

So the Kimster was indeed unlucky.

But could one call McLaren or Mercedes ?unlucky' when their engines expire? Again and again?

Title tally

Let's look at it this way: In 13 years of F1 participation, since 1993, Mercedes has won three titles: two driver's (1998/99), and one constructor's (1998). In the same period Renault bagged 11 titles: five driver's and six constructor's.

But it gets worse (for Mercedes), for Renault also won both titles in the year before Merc entered F1, making it 13 Silver Diamond titles. And this in only 10 years of F1 competition, for the French did not even compete from 1998-2001!

Renault, furthermore, started their comeback in 2002 with a radical 111-degree V10. So severe were the vibrational problems that the team perpetually had to detune the engine by as much as 60-75 kW, just to get to the end of races, to acquire some experience and data.

Jean-Jacques His, however, was just getting on top of the problem when F1 changed to a one-engine-per-weekend regulation for 2004. Viry-Chatillon swiftly brought an end to wide-angled development and reverted back to the old 72-degree block from the glory years in the mid-90s.

And in its second year of development, this particular mill - now geared to run at F1 speeds over two full race weekends - won two titles!

Spectacular success with old architecture

Two titles then, in two years, for the 72-degree block.

None for Mercedes' 90-degree block in the last six years.

None for BMW's 90-degree block in the last six years.

None for Honda's 90-degree block in the last six years.

And none for Toyota's 90-degree block in the last four years.

So, what gives one the idea that 90 degrees is the optimal architecture, in any case?

And Renault hits the jackpot with a less-than-ideal V-angle!

Why? Well, time and money were constraints in making the late change from 111 degrees, and the 72-degree block was ready at hand.

Smaller budget

So, here's another remarkable feature of the Renault F1 project: It is run on about two-thirds of the bigger teams' budgets.

That's one reason why they lost design kingpin Mike Gascoigne to Toyota - whereafter predictions followed thick and fast that the R25 (this year's Renault) would not cut the ice.

But it did. It thawed the Iceman, at least - and more.

For Renault won the titles, firstly, because of clear thinking, especially in interpreting the needs of modern F1 - and not only in terms of reliability, but also with a weight bias over the rear of the car for better starts (which is just about the only place where any passing takes place) and better traction (which is crucial to stay ahead of a faster car, as Alonso did to Schumacher at Imola).

Renault also won because of clever strategies, especially in surreptitiously placing cars in certain positions on the grid, via fuel loads in quali.

They also did it via clever tactics, racing cars at different speeds. And meagre fuel consumption often put them in a position to race for a lap or two longer on a similar fuel load to that of others.

But yes, mostly Renault won courtesy of an indestructible mill, ancient V-architecture notwithstanding.

Kimi as a driver was indeed unlucky.

But Benz, as a powerhouse?

You reap what you sow. Renault didn't win because they were lucky. They won because they produced a very smart car.

And because they evidently built better V10 engines over the last 13 years than Merc did.


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