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'F1 season not over'

2005-04-26 07:30

Egmont Sippel

As it turned out, Schumacher won the title in the 11th race of the season, in Hungary. In the process, Ferrari made a mockery of Head's vast knowledge, wisdom and insight, gathered over a quarter of a century at the cutting edge of F1.

It wasn't the first time that they have done so, the Schu and the Scu (Scuderia Ferrari meaning "Team Ferrari"). Many were the times - and incidents - in which this particular combination has made a mockery of the sport, both on and off the track. And not always in the honourable sense of the word.

But on Sunday they were firing on all cylinders, and flat out, in as glorious an exhibition of a comeback drive as one could ever hope to see.

In fact, Sunday's dynamite performance was reminiscent of Schumacher's three other great comeback shows (at Spa in 1995, Spain in 1996 and Hungary in 1998, last year's drive through the field at Monza after having spun on lap 1 not being included here, as Barrichello matched Michael lap for lap on that occasion).

Great comeback drives

Even at Spa '95, Schumacher's progress through the field from 16th on the grid was advanced via the early retirement of five of the top seven cars.

That part of the equation is forgotten nowadays, unlike the part where Michael on slicks out-braked Damon Hill on wets, on a damp surface. Spain '96 was another magnificent exhibition of skill and car control in torrential rain - but again Michael had a distinct advantage in having picked a full wet weather set-up, the only driver to have done so.

And in Hungary '98 Michael went onto "Maximum Attack" (Mika Hakkinen's favourite expression) and won - ironically because Hakkinen's McLaren failed the front running Finn.

Come to think of it: Many of Schumacher's triumphs could be attributed to McLaren failures.

If Hakkinen's car had held together in Oz and Brazil 2000, Mika would have been a triple champion by the time Monza had rolled by. And if Raikkonen's engine had not expired at the Nurburgring in 2003, Kimi would have been crowned as the youngest F1 champion ever, in 2003.

By now, the Kimster is too old for that accolade, of course. Alonso though, still has a chance to become the youngest champion ever - even if his chances seem slim after the Schu's and Scu's devastating comeback.

Bear in mind that Michael can henceforth gain hand over fist if the two Ferrari's finish first and second, and a McLaren third. That's five points per race, or a mere six races, disregarding the possibility of an Alonso DNF. And we've got 15 races to go.

So, a car as fast as the Ferrari just has to win the title, not so?

Yes, on the surface of it. On Sunday, Michael was trailing Alonso by more than half a minute when the train of cars behind Jarno Trulli's slow-running Toyota started to pit, at one third of the race's 62-lap distance.

That Schumacher jumped from 10th place during this pit stop window, to 3rd is not the impressive part; the cars behind Trulli ran so closely together, that Schumacher was always due to vault them all together.

But that Michael succeeded in wiping out a deficit of more than half a minute by the time he had rejoined the race after his last stop, 12 laps from the chequered flag, is simply staggering - for it means that the Ferrari had made up more than 30 seconds in less than half the race distance.

Simple calculus therefore tells us that the F2005 would have trounced the Renault by more than a minute, had Schumacher not made an elementary mistake in qualifying. And this after having spent half a dozen laps behind Button's BAR, costing Schumacher a further 9 or 10 secs!

Ominous. For all of this adds up to a F2005 that's actually been, on average, more than a second per lap quicker than the R25. Which all bodes ill for the rest of the season, of course, for those who fancy F1 as a sporting spectacle.

In fact, Schumacher's drive on Sunday looked like the beginning of another white wash, as bad as we had it in 2002 and 2004.

All over bar the shouting?

Is it all over then, bar the shouting - Alonso's huge lead of 18 points over Trulli and 26 over Schumacher notwithstanding?

Not necessarily so. Trulli won't bother Alonso too much, but Schumacher will for the rest of the season, and so might Raikkonen and even Button. In the process though, Raikkonen might also give Schumacher something to think about.

Remember, that the Finn's McLaren was comfortably the fastest car in qualifying - or rather, in Sunday morning's second session (Q2), with half a second of daylight between Kimi and the Renault. That might have been due to a lighter fuel load, of course, for on Saturday afternoon's empty tanks the gap was a mere 0.003 secs.

So, could the McLaren and Renault then in actual fact then be equally fast?

Again it's difficult to say. Alonso and Raikkonen certainly ran under similar conditions, both on Saturday and Sunday. And both had to take care of an engine that had already been subjected to Bahrain's cruel heat.

It is tempting then, to conclude that the Silver Arrows and Silver Diamond has a similar kind of pace over one lap, and that Raikkonen was therefore lighter on Sunday morning and also in the GP's first stint. Lap times bear this out, incidentally, in that Raikkonen was on average about 0.4 secs per lap quicker than Alonso over the first eight laps.

But a break down of how Kimi accumulated his advantage tells a different story. The Finn pulled two seconds out on the first lap, where after it increased in increments of about a tenth per lap.

This leaves an advantage over the race distance of about 8 seconds, including two seconds gained on the first lap.

That's to say, if Kimi's Michelin tyres (which was of a different compound to Alonso's) had worn out equally badly - which it might not have done, as the Woking cars protect their rears better than any other Michelin runner on the grid. So well, in fact, that McLaren has hitherto struggled to put enough energy through the rubber.

The other failing had been excessive understeer in slow corners, again pulling the car straight and working the rears too lightly, compounding the problem of not heating the tyres enough to generate sufficient grip and traction for a fast lap out of the box.

That problem seems to have been addressed, at least to an extent. So, let's stretch the McLaren's potential advantage on a track like Imola to 20 or 30 secs over Renault - which still leaves it half a minute slower than a Ferrari in clean air.

Factors to remember for Spain

Or not? Here are some factors that might change the picture. Alonso, for instance, after having sustained damage to his engine in Bahrain's heat, ran with a severely detuned V10.

So badly was the engine damaged, that Renault considered changing it at Imola, notwithstanding a penalty of 10 grid slots. In the end Viry-Chatillon's engineers opted rather to limit the stresses on the mill, firstly by limiting Alonso's mileage in practice and secondly by capping the revs at a low ceiling.

Not being able to find the ideal set-up then, and not being able to push anywhere as hard as he would have liked to, Alonso nevertheless manage to squeeze victory out of his Renault. And that with the older version of the RS25 V10, the first engine to have achieved the feat of winning back-to-back under the new rule.

The updated RS25 (which debuted in Fisichella's car at Imola) is no more powerful, but lighter and easier to drive.

This must serve as some kind of encouragement for the future.

The second crucial point is that Bridgestone is back - or was, at least at Imola (as we predicted they would be, in our previous installment). In considerably cooler climates, the Japanese rubber simply hit the sweet spot, especially on race day when the temperature dropped quite considerably.

So well did the tyre last, in fact, that the F2005 was only three-quarters of a second slower at the start of its second stint, on full tanks, than it was at the end of its first stint on empty tanks - suggesting that well-used Bridgestones were actually quicker, at Imola, than brand new ones.And more: Precisely at the point where the Bridgestones picked up, the Michelins started to fade away.

Notwithstanding Schumacher then being slower in qualifying on empty tanks than the McLaren and Renault, to the tune of 0.4 secs - admittedly also on a slightly slower track, having run earlier than the other two - the Ferrari boasted a huge middle to end race advantage on Sunday, mostly, one would have to conclude, because of Alonso's detuned V10 and Bridgestone rubber. Which was precisely the opposite to Bahrain, where the Michelins got better and better and the Bridgestone worse and worse.

So let's engage then, in an interesting little mathematical exercise, by swopping tyre performance around. This would have added three-tenths of a second per lap to Renault's pace and negated three-tenths from Ferrari's - which would have halved the Renault deficit in one foul swoop.

Assuming that Alonso ran at least six-tenths a lap slower than he could have had with a brand new engine, the gap is not have nearly as vast as Imola seemed to suggest.

And it is possible that the McLaren might even be faster than the Renault. Which leaves us with this tantilising thought: If Michelin gets it right for Barcelona, and Bridgestone gets it wrong, we might be in for a huge tussle at the front, especially now that BAR has sorted out their problem of front wing stall (whereby air dams up over the front wing, instead of flowing freely on to the side pods and rear wing. And no air flow, no wing pressure and no speed through corners!)

If the F2005 wins, it will be victorious in the first race that the car was initially slated to compete in, restoring - in a way - the proud Maranellian record of having won first time out with a new car, for the last six years.

But with Raikkonen and Alonso on new engines, versus Schumacher and Button on old ones, it could just get a little bit more interesting, especially if Michelin comes to the party.

It might look silly then, at this point, but Patrick Head could be closer this year than he was way back in 2002, with a statement like the one he so infamously made on the Bahrain grid.

This championship is not over yet, especially if the other teams decide to waive their self-imposed testing limitations, with Ferrari so openly ignoring them.

  • Egmont Sippel is the motoring editor of Rapport newspaper

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