MAY 9, 2005
SPANISH GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
A sunny day for McLaren
A while ago the Ferrari press officer told members of the Formula 1 media that the team judged its popularity by the number of Ferrari flags in the grandstands at races. It may not be a hugely scientific way of doing things but it seemed to work. Even before the race, therefore, the people at Ferrari must have been rather depressed because the red hats and flags were dotted about like poppy petals in a sea of light blue. Renault blue. The 115,900 spectators all seemed to be wearing blue.
At the end of the day, however, the Alonso fans went home disappointed. Fernando had been beaten fairly and squarely by McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen had shown in Imola that he could do it but the car broke down under him. In Barcelona there were no mistakes. Kimi did the job and he did it well and now we have a name other than Renault written in the list of 2005 winners. Before too long we will see Ferrari there too and perhaps even Toyota and it would not surprise if BAR-Honda too did not come back from its little holiday and trounce everyone, just to prove a point.
We have a great F1 season ahead, so long as the teams and the FIA can stay away from one another's throats.
McLaren's victory was not really a surprise because we have seen hints of it for some time. The car was obviously quick but the current system of qualifying penalizes the weak and rewards the strong and so those who break down start the next race with a disadvantage because the track usually gets better in the course of the qualifying sessions.
At the start Raikkonen took the lead in the drag race down to the first corner. Fernando Alonso was moving faster than Mark Webber, the Williams seemingly slower as it went up through the gears (one suspects that the software needs a little improvement) and the end result of it all was that Raikkonen went into the first corner ahead followed by Alonso. Ralf Schumacher dived down the outside and squeezed and squeezed until Webber decided there would be a collision if he did not give way. In a flash it was done and the order was set: Raikkonen, Alonso, Ralf Schumacher and Webber.
The race did not last much longer because back on the grid the two Minardis had both failed to take off when the lights went out. This created a chicane through the cars behind (not many admittedly) had to thread. For Nick Heidfeld it was an eye-opening moment.
"That was very close," he said. "That cost me a bit of time."
The idea of the whole field arriving at full speed and trying to go through the Minardi Chicane was rather too worrying and the Safety Car was despatched and the race neutralised.
"I don't know exactly what happened," said Patrick Friesacher later. "I just let out the clutch and the engine shut down."
It was the same story for Christijan Albers, suggesting that some nasty little gremlin was running around inside the software.
The restart was swift enough and Raikkonen judged it perfectly and went off to start building a suitable lead. There followed an impressive series of fastest laps, 13 in 17 laps. It was Imola all over again but this time the McLaren did not break down.
"I was pushing really hard until the first pit stop," Kimi explained. "Then I saw how big the gap actually was."
After that Raikkonen pushed only as much as he needed to do, to ensure that the car was not stressed too much.
"I could have gone a lot quicker if I had needed to," he said.
Down at McLaren there was plenty of celebrating when eventually the car crossed the line. It has been a long time coming but McLaren is a serious force again.
"A tremendous race," said team boss Ron Dennis. "His only problem was to find the discipline to actually slow down once he had established a significant lead."
Things were no so easy for Juan Pablo Montoya, making his comeback in the second car. The Colombian was seventh on the grid and was jumped on the first lap by Michael Schumacher. The restart saw Juan Pablo get his own back and then he ran seventh and even managed a high-speed spin (without leaving the road or hitting anything) which lost him four seconds but still left Schumacher behind him.
When finally he pitted on lap 29, he was third and he rejoined fifth. The problem was that he came and went without any fuel going into the car.
"An electrical problem activated the safety system on the fuel rig," explained Dennis.
This cost Montoya what would probably have been a podium finish. The cars were quick, the tyres were good. And the rest were beaten.
Renault never really looked like a threat. Alonso was clearly missing the edge that he has enjoyed in recent races and in fact Giancarlo Fisichella looked stronger in the race until the car suddenly lost front downforce and Giancarlo dived into the pits for a new nose, the "tray section" under the nose, apparently, having been broken. This dropped him back to 11th but he charged at the end and was fifth at the finish having overpowered the struggling Webber in the closing laps.
Fisichella was frustrated again.
"I think I could have been second," he said.
Alonso's lack of pace was traced to a left rear tyre which was blistering and so his goal was clearly to get as many points as possible. And second place was a good job.
"The crowd was hoping for a win," he said, "but on the slowing down lap I could see that they were still happy and very excited. I have had five podiums in five races and we are in a good place for qualifying in Monaco."
Renault's Pat Symonds, a man who seems to have a clear view about things, was open in his praise for McLaren.
"They simply out-paced us today," he said.
Down at Ferrari, the trouncing delivered must have been very painful after the startling pace that we saw from Michael Schumacher in Imola. We wanted to see a repeat performance in Barcelona and see how the cars would go against the Renaults and McLarens in a straight fight. But it did not happen. Michael Schumacher went very quickly towards the end of his long first stint (he pitted on lap 32) but then on lap 44 he had a left rear puncture when running third. Two laps later the left front went the same way. Michael drove around and parked it.
Some of Michael's greatest drives have come from similar situations of adversity. So why did the car get parked?
There was no suggestion that the punctures had been caused by external penetrations. The official Ferrari explanation was a nasty outbreak of technical wooliness with everyone talking about a mysterious "loss of air" on the left hand tyres of the car. The tyres on the left are the ones that work hardest in Barcelona. Could it be, we wondered, that the tyres were failing because they had been driven beyond their limits? Rubens Barrichello, Jordan and Minardi had no such problems but then the cars were not driven anywhere near as quickly as Michael had been driving.
Michelin hinted at the explanation.
"When we selected compounds for the Circuit de Catalunya, the weather forecast suggested that conditions would be cloudy and quite cool but it has been a beautiful sunny day," said Pierre Dupasquier after the race. "This placed extra demands on tyres that would have had to cope with significant loads even in normal circumstances."
Ferrari and Bridgestone obviously do not like talking about failure but really, what is wrong with saying that the tyres were good as long as they lasted?
Michael's retirement was a monster blow to his World Championship ambitions because Alonso now has 44 points to Michael's 10. With 14 races to go, anything is possible but Alonso needs to retire a lot and Michael needs to be winning and with so many competitive cars at the moment, that is not going to be easy. Particularly as the only logical explanation for Ferrari's up and down performance in recent weeks is temperature and we are heading into the summer.
There is really no point in saying that Michael would have been on the podium if he had finished because he did not finish and thus the glory was left to Toyota with Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher chasing each other to the line for third. Trulli is now second in the World Championship and Toyota is within striking distance of Renault because the cars have been so reliable and the drivers have stayed out of trouble. If this goes on there will come a day when Toyota will win a race.
"We still have a long way to go," said team boss Tsutomu Tomita. "We just have to keep pushing."
The same could be said of Williams. Webber did his best but the strategy had called for a good first lap and the drag race down to the first corner had screwed him up because he was stuck behind Ralf Schumacher. The team decided to change strategy, abandoning the three-stop strategy and going for an early stop with a long middle stint. The load of fuel did not help the tyres and by the end of the race they were vibrating badly and Webber could do nothing under attack from Fisichella. He finished sixth which is disappointing. The drivers have been taking the blame a little too much this year and there is a ground swell of opinion that the problem may lie more in the software and perhaps even in the horsepower being pumped out by the Munich V10. One thing is certain there is a lot of friction these days between the people who build the front half of the cars and those who build the bit at the back. Nick Heidfeld drove from 17th on the grid to 10th but the built-in disadvantage of the engine change on Friday ruined his weekend.
Red Bull, Sauber, Jordan and Minardi all performed without anything to write home about.