ITALIAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT

A walk in the park?

Juan Pablo Montoya, Italian GP 2005

Juan Pablo Montoya, Italian GP 2005 

 © The Cahier Archive

There is no doubt that some readers will have been less than happy on Saturday night when they saw a qualifying report of just a few words. Serious race fans like to have copious quantities of fascinating facts about what happened to each and every car in each and every session. The problem these days is that Formula 1 qualifying is about as useful as a cricket bat in a squash court. It tells you a little about the capabilities of a player but it does not give you the full story and thus can be very misleading, particularly if people are setting out to give the wrong impression. And thus it was at Monza that there did not seem to be much point in trying to explain what was happening because some of the performances seemed misleading and it seemed a better idea to wait and watch and then explain everything back-to-front.

Agatha Christie novels do not begin with the denouement and thus it is with F1 in 2005. Evidence must be collected before the Poirots of the Press Pack can declare whodunnit.

But, first things first. To set the scene: Monza is a race track where magic often happens, usually to Ferraris and rarely to anyone else. It is a place which is super-quick and, as a result, delays tend to mean serious loss of position because the F1 field runs around the place like a high-speed train. A pit stop is a slow thing and so strategically-speaking it is best to go further than the opposition.

So, logically-speaking there is very little to be gained from trying to run strategies which involve more stops than are necessary. Such things are risky and involve the need for super-human starts and cars that are quick on their tyres. And if the car is not fast at Monza there is no hiding place because the faults are exposed for all to see. You can go quickly down the straights if you wish by taking off downforce but that means you slip-slide in the corners and your tyres turn to gloop. What you need is good power and good handling and one thing that usually happens at tracks like that is that cars find the level at which they can compete so the grids are neat and tidy, unless the drivers have been careless.

But what has logic got to do with it. In modern F1 image is to a large extent reality. If cars are high up on the grid, few people analyse why they are not quick in the races. And that means that some teams can make themselves look good if there is a new sponsor that needs smooching, an investor who needs convincing or home fans who want something to get excited about.

In such circumstances, there are teams which will go for glory rather than substance and, alas, Ferrari and BAR fell into this category at Monza. Both teams ran their cars light in qualifying and made all the right optimistic noises about the race. And then along came the race and the performance did not live up to the promise and the teams then talk in mysterious terms about how they cannot understand what went wrong.

It is not that difficult really. If you run light at Monza with a slow car you will end up at the back even if for a few laps early in the race you will look half-decent.

Ferrari talked about sixth and seventh on the grid as being "a pretty faithful assessment of the situation". When you think about it that expression means nothing because it depends on who makes an assessment. It is an accurate assessment of performance if you know that the car has enough gas onboard to go for a dozen laps. If you don't know that, it is highly misleading.

By the end of the race, of course, there is no hiding place but everyone rushes off and does not bother too much about what was true or false 24 hours earlier. They are wrapping chips in the newspapers written about qualifying.

We knew that the McLaren would be fearsomely fast and so it was. Montoya made a good start and was gone. Alonso tried to chase, held on for a while, but we knew that if he could do that, the chances were that he could not go as far as the McLaren. In those important early laps Raikkonen, who had started 11th after taking a 10-place hit after an engine change before qualifying, could do nothing at all. He had more fuel onboard than the average tanker and so avoided trouble and tried to find a way to pass a lightweight Villeneuve (the car not the driver).

Villeneuve pitted after 14 laps and after that Raikkonen lit the blue touch-paper in his cockpit and held on as the rocket ship rocketed. Within nine laps he was second, passing a few and watching the others pulling out of his way as they went in for fuel. He had closed right up to Montoya before his pit stop on lap 25. Or to put it another way: Raikkonen took pole position by two-tenths carrying a huge amount more fuel than his rivals. In other words he was a very quick driver in a very quick car. Kimi was going for a one-stop strategy and the number-crunchers had it all worked out so that he would get to second and then Montoya would do the right thing (a personal decision rather than team orders) and Raikkonen would get maximum points and Alonso would be third. The gap in the Drivers' Championship would close a little and McLaren would be well-placed in the Constructors' race.

But it did not quite work out like that because something went wrong with Kimi's left rear tyre and he had to pit. As a result he tumbled back to 12th and so had to do the whole process all over again. He did that well but the tyre problem had cost him five points.

"It is a pity that the result does not reflect our performance," he mumbled.

All of this played into Montoya's hands but in the closing laps he too ran into tyres troubles. With a few laps to go he was nine seconds clear at the front. The car began behaving like a greased pig on rollerskates and Alonso began closing in. The TV cameras (which missed much of the action) did spot the fact that the left rear tyre of the McLaren was coming apart. Montoya said that he did not even consider the possibility that the tyre might fail and throw him into a wall at 200mph, while McLaren said that there was no question of safety. Be that as it may, as Montoya set off on his last lap he did wonder what might happen when he braked

"I braked and I didn't want it to happen," he said, "I was lucky enough that it didn't. Looking at the tyre, as far as the rubber goes, there is nothing left but the casing but everything held up pretty well."

The Renaults came through second and third which was not a surprise at all. It was all the team could have hoped for and even perhaps a little fortunate because of Raikkonen's problem and because Fisichella, who screwed up in qualifying, was able to take advantage of four cars which had looked good in qualifying but which never delivered the goods.

The BARs and the Ferraris had started up front but soon it became clear that all were running light. Schumacher pitted on lap 13 he went from seventh to 14th. Barrichello plummeted from fifth to 12th. Takuma Sato and Jenson Button went into the pits after 16 and 17 laps respectively and spent the rest of the afternoon fighting with Ferrari in the midfield. The two Ferraris finished 10th and 12th and in terms of fastest laps Rubens was 12th fastest and Michael 13th fastest. So sixth and seventh on the grid did not look at all like a faithful assessment of the situation. BAR-Honda, which is having a miserable season, qualified third and fourth on the Monza grid. The team press release spoke of "a superb performance" things were anything but superb with Button eighth and Takuma Sato losing time with a refuelling mess which dumped him back too far to care.

Toyota have been accused of playing such games in the past but this time the cars were good. Jarno Trulli always qualifies well and he did so again with fifth on the grid while Ralf Schumacher's ninth was pretty much what one would expect. They ran sensible strategies and ended up fifth and sixth, picking up points for Toyota and lifting the team to within seven points of Ferrari in the Constructors' title. Ralf did mess up at one point and go off in the Lesmos (as did his brother) but it made no difference.

In qualifying Williams had Mark Webber 13th and Pizzonia 15th, the latter doing a good job having been drafted in on Saturday morning when Nick Heidfeld decided that he was not fit to do the job because of a testing shunt the previous week. Webber's unlucky star followed him all weekend and in the first corner he was the victim of David Coulthard snagging the back of Fisichella. The Red Bull driver lifted and "Bang". Webber was caught unawares and ran into the back of the Red Bull. Further back Narain Karthikeyan was assaulted from behind by Christijan Albers. But the cars were all sent on their way and they all finished. It was an unlucky day for Barrichello, who suffered a tyre problem (a Bridgestone one!) and had to make an extra pit stop. Without that he would have beaten Schumacher. On the first lap he gave Michael a decent chop in the Lesmos to explain that since he is soon leaving the team he is not going to be Mr. Nice Guy any longer.

Pizzonia was seventh after a great run for Williams and Jenson Button was eighth. Felipe Massa took ninth for Sauber but ought to have been behind Michael Schumacher had the World Champion not flown off the road in the last few laps (an incident which was completely missed by the TV cameras).

The rest trailed home (all of them) to provide only the second serious occasion in F1 history in which every car that started a race finished as well. The anoraks will say that the same happened at Indianapolis this year but I'm afraid I have trouble taking a six car race seriously. The only previous occasion was Holland in 1961.

The major problem was that with only 60,000 people watching it was hardly a great day for F1.

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