Michael's perfect day...

Start, Spanish GP 2003

Start, Spanish GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

Michael Schumacher did not have a very good start to the season but the return to Europe has meant a return to the realities of Formula 1. Ferrari is still the team to beat. The Italian team introduced its new car in Barcelona and this is clearly a step forward from the hyper-successful F2002. But it was not an easy victory because despite the competitiveness of the new car the Ferrari cause was not much helped by inconsistent Bridgestone tires. The Michelins were better in the climatic conditions that prevailed on Sunday at the Circuit de Catalunya. The Renault chassis was also a bit better than the Ferrari but where Ferrari managed to get away with it, is that the engine is a lot stronger than the Renault V10 and that means that the overall package which Ferrari had was better than the Renault.

But not by much...

The tendency this year has been to write off Renault because of the engine problems but the units are reliable and they are light and they have punch coming out of the corners. The Renault chassis is remarkably efficient and so some of the lack of horsepower can be negated by the speed at which the cars come out of the corners and go down the straights. The Michelin tires have also helped a lot and with Fernando Alonso driving Renault has a good package.

But it is still not good enough.

"Our strategy was very good," said Renault's technical director Mike Gacoyne, "but it was not good enough to catch Michael..."

The best thing for Michael Schumacher at Barcelona was not that he won his 66th Grand Prix victory - pleasing though that may have been to him. The big thing was that McLaren went completely off the rails. Michael scored 10 points. Kimi Raikkonen got zero. Michael is now suddenly just four points behind Kimi in the World Championship and Alonso is only three behind Schumacher. And in the Constructors' Championship Ferrari is within three points of McLaren's total. We now await McLaren's new car in the hope that this will be a match for Ferrari. Renault may be good at some races and Williams might eventually sort out its car but right now Ferrari is looking very strong indeed.

It was a horrible day for McLaren with Raikkonen messing up in qualifying and being forced to start at the back of the grid. As he accelerated off at the start he found himself suddenly faced by the rear end of a Jaguar that was not going anywhere. The impact was inevitable and Kimi and Antonio Pizzonia were both out.

But if McLaren boss Ron Dennis was feeling pain, it would get much worse at the second corner where Jarno Trulli in the second Renault piled into the side of David Coulthard and bumped him into the gravel. David managed to get back on to the track and went round to the pits and had some new tires put on the car. Fortunately he lost little time as a Safety Car was out cleaning up the Raikkonen-Pizzonia mess and then he began to work his way through the field, hoping to pick up some points. And then on lap 18 an over-enthusiastic Jenson Button punted DC out of the race once and for all.

They say that teams make their own luck but sometimes you wonder. At the first corner the two Ferraris very nearly came to blows as Rubens Barrichello tried a very elegant overtaking manoeuvre on Michael Schumacher. Rubens had got off the line well and was right with Michael. Faster still off the line was Alonso but he found himself boxed up behind Rubens on the inside and Michael on the outside. Suddenly as cars were going toward the first corner Rubens swept dramatically to the left, and went past both Alonso and, as they both braked, Michael as well. Rubens seemed to be ahead as his car swept into the corner. This caught Michael a little by surprise and he found himself sliding out towards the other Ferrari. Rubens edged outwards to try to avoid Michael and he snagged the grass on the outside and lost momentum. Michael was ahead and Rubens had to scramble across the road to block an attack by Alonso. Behind them Trulli speared into Coulthard and suddenly there were cars going everywhere and a lot of the strategies were thrown into the air. A Safety Car was out and teams had to decide what to do. Several decided to switch from three-stop to two-stop strategies.

The leaders however stayed with what they had planned which was remarkably similar. The two Ferraris and the single remaining Renault were all running three stops with fairly even stints between them. The issue was whether or not the tires would be consistent enough at the end of the runs. Going for a two-stop was risky given the abrasive nature of the circuit. At the end of the first stint Michael was about four seconds ahead of Alonso but the Renault driver stopped two laps before the World Champion and won back a few vital seconds. This enabled him to get ahead of Barrichello.

In the second stint Michael edged away using traffic to his advantage when they started going through the backmarkers. Once the two men were in the clear Michael was again struggling to hold the gap. Alonso was six seconds down at the second stops. Again he made up a little time but then Michael began to pull away in the third stint until the tires faded again and Alonso moved back to within five seconds. The final stint would be the decider. As the track collected more and more rubber so the Bridgestones began to work better and Michael was able to go faster. By the middle of that final stint he took the gap up to nearly 10 seconds before allowing Alonso to close up in the final laps

"We had expected a very tough fight after seeing the Renault lap times on the first two days," Michael said afterwards. "That was how it turned out to be. My tires performed well at the beginning of each stint but towards the end their performance dropped off a bit."

Everyone at Ferrari was very discreet but the message was clear.

Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn put it nicely.

"We had a very tough race," he said. "This is a track where last year we had a significant tire advantage and I think we have some work to do to maintain that."

Decoded, the message was clear: we did not have a tire advantage...

It was to a surprise to some extent to see the Renault team so competitive and one has to wonder if perhaps the team will be in a position to win races this year if the conditions fall in their favor and Michelin deliver the goods.

Behind the top three - and a long way behind - came the fourth placed Williams-BMW of Juan Pablo Montoya. The team had qualified badly and had been planning for a three-stop strategy but the Safety Car convinced the engineers that it was worth risking a switch to a two-stop strategy. And that was what happened. The first stops were around the same moment as the three-stoppers and there was no real hint that the cars were going to go for a long middle stint (because obviously they had qualified with heavy fuel loads). When the other cars started stopping for a second time the two Williams-BMWs stayed out. They were close enough to the front for Ralf Schumacher to get in Michael's way but it did not last long. Ralf was really struggling with his tires by then and Michael made quick work of his brother. Behind Michael was Alonso and he struggled a little more to pass Ralf but achieved the move nonetheless after a few laps.

As that was happening Montoya was having similar trouble with Barrichello.

It was then that Ralf made his big mistake and went off across a sandtrap. He went straight for the pits and was soon on his way. Montoya followed but it quickly became clear that Ralf's adventure had hurt the car. Montoya overtook him and he fell back towards the best of the rest, led on this occasion by Cristiano da Matta's Toyota. In the closing laps he tried everything to find a way past the Williams and Ralf's troubles extended to the cooling system which had also been damaged by his little excursion. The BMW was overheating but Ralf made it home.

For Da Matta there was some disappointment but at the same time he had scored his first World Championship points so he was not unhappy.

"It is one of the first clean races we have had this season," he said. "And it feels good to score points for the first time. We really deserved fifth place today but I just couldn't get past Ralf. My brake pedal was going a bit soft from about half distance so I just couldn't push hard enough."

Da Matta's team mate Olivier Panis lost a lot of time in the second corner incident and so was down at the back of the field. He was on a two-stop strategy like the Williams-BMWs and by the middle of the race had hauled the car up to sixth. He was looking good for points when his gearbox broke.

Mark Webber had a similar tale of woe as Panis on the first lap. He found himself looking at Trulli-Coulthard incident with nowhere to go except off the circuit and so off he went. He was at the back when the Safety Car came out. Once the race was restarted he and Coulthard worked their way through the small fry and he was up to eighth by the time he stopped. He took on a big tank of gas and set off again but from then on he had a quiet race as most of those with the same level of car had gone. He finished seventh after a lonely second half. But scoring some points for Jaguar was his aim and he was happy.

Poor Pizzonia had had a rough weekend and Sunday was not much better although secretly it seems he knew that his drive was saved. His launch control system failed again at the start and Raikkonen drove into the back of him. The Jaguar team cannot blame him for that.

Two laps down at the end but still in the points was Ralph Firman in his Jordan. He had done a very solid job after his early pit stop when the team decided to change strategy. He drove strongly all afternoon and even overtook Fisichella at one point when Giancarlo was nice enough to get out off the way for the leaders. Ralph was delayed by about seven seconds at his second stop by a wheel nut problem but it did not make much difference because he was a long way behind Webber.

Fisichella was on a two-stop strategy and was up to seventh in the middle of the race but his refueling machine failed and then when the team switched to the other rig too much fuel was pumped into the car. Then a barge board broke and so Fisichella struggled at the tail of the field until his misery was ended with an engine failure. It was a miserable day for him. Towards the end of the race Firman came under pressure from Button (who was still going) but that assault faded in the final laps as Jenson began losing gears. The crash with Coulthard had lost Button a lot of time with a damaged front wing and a punctured front left tire, but he did well towards the end and finished ninth. It was not a classic day for BAR as Villeneuve did not last long. He had started the race on a two-stop strategy and was running seventh when a small fire in the back of the car caused the engine to switch itself off. Game over.

There were other tales of woe, notably at Sauber which was another team to switch strategies at the start when the Safety Car came out. This meant that both cars were at the back but they moved up as the three-stoppers fell away and were running eighth and ninth before their stops. Frentzen's race ended soon afterwards when a front suspension broke as he went over a kerb. Heidfeld's hope of a point were spoiled later when he was running ninth and was given a drive-through penalty for ignoring blue flags. He did not know that Da Matta was a lap ahead and complained that there were no blue flags. When the team told him to get out of the way he did so immediately but the penalty came soon afterwards and dropped him behind Button.

Down at the back as usual were the two Minardis. They were at least reliable. On the first lap Wilson had done a fantastic job to miss Pizzonia and then get through the carnage to run as high as ninth place although he was holding people up. He slipped back but was still eighth when he pitted but that dropped him back to 15th. Verstappen opted for a three-stop race because his car was eating tires and it proved to be the wrong thing to do. He finished in 12th a long way behind his team mate.

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