MAY 23, 2005
MONACO GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Gold for silver
The secret of the Monte Carlo racing circuit is to have a good chassis. It is about having the right amount of downforce so that the rear tyres do not get ruined in a race. It is not about engines. There is a certain amount of extra input from the driver, which can make time, but the dominant factor is the car. And thus it was interesting to see what happened in this year's Grand Prix. It was a corking race after a rather dull period in the early laps. From the start the race had been dominated by Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren-Mercedes. And it was domination in the true sense of the word, the Finn edging away from the chasers while at the same time being careful to keep the tyres in the best possible shape. The McLarens were on the softer tyres available to the team and Raikkonen did a 42 lap stint. On lap 24 however Christijan Albers spun at Mirabeau and set off a chain reaction: David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher arrived on the scene unsighted and DC tried to go left to avoid the Minardi. Michael ran into the back of the Red Bull. Coulthard suffered rear wing and suspension damage and Michael lost his front wing. Also involved were the two Saubers with Jacques Villeneuve swerving left and managing to stop before hitting the tyres and Felipe Massa going up the escape road, doing a U-turn and coming back out to work his way though what was by that point a right royal traffic jam.
The Safety Car was put on stand-by and then deployed. The problem for Raikkonen was that when he was working his way through the harbour section of the circuit, it was not clear whether the race would be neutralised or not and so it was difficult to know whether or not to pit. It seems that there was a certain amount of confusion on the radio as the team tried to figure out what to do. By the time the decision was made Kimi had passed the pitlane entry and was setting off on his next lap. About six seconds behind him his chasers had a few extra moments to make a decision and the result was that the two Renaults and two Williams went into the pits. There were inevitable delays for Giancarlo Fisichella, the second car to come in and he lost out to both Williams drivers and both Saubers. The Williams team did a great job and so as the cars lined up behind the Safety Car the two cars were refuelled and ready to go with only Raikkonen, Trulli and Alonso ahead of them on the road. It looked at that as though McLaren had blown the advantage and that the race would fall into Alonso's lap but after the restart Raikkonen was told he needed a gap and he made it. In the space of 10 laps Kimi took 30secs from Alonso and that was all he needed. On lap 42 he pitted and came out ahead and then cruised to the flag. Michael Schumacher set the fastest lap of the race but Raikkonen would have gone faster if he had needed to. Or to put it another way, the McLaren is the best car out there. The fact that Juan Pablo Montoya was able to drive from the back to fifth place was a further indication of the potential of the car and a further illustration that if Montoya wants to be taken seriously he needs to start delivering the goods on a more regular basis. Starting at the back was his own fault and it cost the team points.
The other point which Monaco proved is that the Williams is a good chassis. At a track where the engine is not so important the team did well. The Achilles Heel again was the traction-control strategy which meant that at the start Mark Webber's third position on the grid was transformed into fifth and that meant that both Webber and Nick Heidfeld were then stuck behind Jarno Trulli until he stopped on lap 39, the Toyota driver tumbling down the order because the team had not taken advantage of the pit stop opportunity. By that time Webber and Heidfeld were right up with the fading Renault of Fernando Alonso.
The dominant car at the start of the year appears to be slipping. Fernando struggled in Spain and he struggled again in Monaco. And this was worse because the team was using harder tyres than the opposition (Renault's hard tyres it should be noted are softer than McLaren's hard tyres). The problem was that by about half distance the two Renaults were in deep trouble.
"We knew that rear tyre wear might be a problem on our car," said Pat Symonds. "but it exceeded even our most pessimistic predictions. We must analyse why we suffered so much with rear tyre wear where our competitors did not."
Getting the two Williamses past Alonso was not the work of a moment and there was an element of bad luck for Mark Webber. He had led the charge all weekend and was battling with Alonso. The two Williamses did have to pit again and having the slowing Alonso ahead of them meant that there was a danger that they would lose out on positions to those behind, as Fisichella was only 20 secs in arrears. The team decided to risk bringing in Heidfeld in the hope that the car would get out ahead of the second Renault. It worked well and so the team immediately called in Webber. The problem was that, even with slick pit stops, the extra lap that Webber spent behind Alonso cost him the place to Heidfeld. Nick then attacked Alonso and pulled off a lovely move on lap 72, slicing neatly ahead at the chicane. He then pulled away quickly while Webber tried to pull the same move on Alonso. Fernando was trying to stop that happening and so it was a bit more difficult for Webber. He tried once and ran over a small portion on the chicane. Alonso went off too and, one might argue, gained an advantage from the move. A lap later Webber did it again and the two men stumbled into the corner in similar disarray but this time Webber came out ahead.
He took off after Heidfeld but there was no way he was going to get back to second. And so Mark Webber got his first podium and seemed rather disappointed.
"I was lucky that the engineers decided to take a risk and pit earlier," said the German."
"It is not a bad day for the team today," said Webber doing the right thing. "Both of us on the podium is a fantastic effort for BMW and Williams, considering the start of the season hasn't been easy. We set very hard goals on ourselves and we have come here, I did a lot of testing last week with Antonio (Pizzonia), I think we picked the right tyre, together with Michelin, a lot of other people were obviously kidding themselves in the race what they could probably run so luckily we have made the right decision."
A Williams 2-3 then and some food for thought for the people at BMW in Munich. If Monaco is a chassis circuit and the cars did well, is Williams really the problem at the moment? Could it be that there might be some element of fault in some of the work that BMW has been doing with engine development and software strategies. And is switching to Sauber really such a brilliant idea?
The less said the better about the Sauber debacle at Monaco this year. The cars had looked rather good in qualifying outrunning the Ferraris (which perhaps might have had something to do with tyres) and it looked that Felipe Massa and Jacques Villeneuve were both going to be in the points and then on lap 62 Villeneuve decided to try to pass Massa at Ste Devote. The Brazilian was struggling with his tyres.
"I tried something that did not work," said Villeneuve.
Massa was clever enough to realise that if he acted normally Jacques was going to hit him and so he got out of the way and went up the escape road and let Villeneuve have his accident. Which he duly did. The atmosphere down at Sauber was somewhat frosty after the race.
"We had a perfect strategy for the race today," said Peter Sauber. "And some very good pit work brought us to a very strong position after the first incident that brought out the Safety Car. The incident with Jacques cost us five valuable championship points that would have enabled us to close the gap on our direct competitor Red Bull. What happened today is the most depressing thing that a team can experience."
Down Ferrari way there was frustration once again and we hear a little tension as well. The tyres have been blamed a lot this year but there was one thing which just did not stack up in qualifying. The gap from Ferrari to Minardi was only two and half seconds a lap. It was not the huge margin that we are used to seeing. And one must begin to ask questions about whether the Ferrari chassis is all that it is cracked up to be.
Yes, Michael Schumacher did set the fastest lap of the race, in the high 1m15s, which was faster than Michael had managed in low-fuel qualifying on Saturday. Obviously when the tyres are working well the car is quick but one must remember that Raikkonen never really needed to push later on when he might have gone quicker. The two men both set their fastest laps at the same time. The difference was that Michael had a lot of fuel at the time - he was then 16 laps into a 34 lap stint - while Kimi was just about to pit. The only conclusion one can draw is that the tyres work best when the Ferrari has a heavy fuel load. When they work the tyres are sensationally quick. Or to put it another way: there is an argument that there is probably something not right with the car.
There were problems of another nature after the race when Barrichello made his thoughts known to Michael about a last lap manoeuvre at the chicane. It seems that Rubens was none too happy that Michael risked everything and forced Rubens to be a team player and back off to avoid an accident. Barrichello, it seems, is getting a bit fed up with being a team player and not getting anything back from his team mate.
Toyota had a less exciting day with Trulli losing out because of a wrong strategy call when the Safety Car came out. That dropped him into the pack and left him stuck behind the fading Fisichella. He pulled a move on lap 64 and bumped ahead of the Renault but then made a mistake almost immediately and lost several places. Trulli pitted and ended the day 10th. Ralf Schumacher on the other hand charged from the back to sixth without overtaking anyone other than small fry and those in trouble. It was Toyota's worst performance since Australia and the team has lost second place in the Constructors' Championship to McLaren.
Red Bull Racing was unlucky in that Coulthard was taken out when Schumacher ran into the back of him while Liuzzi was another man to suffer from not pitting when the Safety Car was out (because Coulthard was in the pits). That dropped him from eighth to 12th but in the closing stages his rear tyres were shot and on lap 60 he glanced the barriers at the exit of the tunnel and damaged the rear suspension.
Jordan managed to get Monteiro home 13th while Narain Karthikeyan glanced a wall and damaged the hydraulic system. Minardi's hopes of a big result were hurt with Albers's spin and then Friesacher's crash at the chicane. Albers did make it to the end in 14th place.