EUROPEAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Bridgestone's rubber Ring
Formula 1 teams like to leave race meetings with something positive to say about their performance. There are times when that involves a lot of imagination and public relations "spin". But at the Nurburgring almost everyone had a good hard luck story. For Michael Schumacher it was an almost perfect weekend. That may seem mysterious for those used to seeing F1 teams chipping away for years to make up a difference but these days it seems there is so much performance in the tyres that it really can make a huge difference. There are some who still feel that there are flexible wings and things but no-one seems able to prove the point although calculations can hint that there are some decidedly non-linear things happening with F1 aerodynamics these days.
It was interesting to note that this weekend the top speeds of Ferraris and Renaults were broadly similar. People seem to have stopped talking about illegality and are now merely establishing what is allowed and what is not allowed. Thus we may see other teams making notable improvements in the races ahead. That will be good for two reasons: it will clear the air and will make for a lot better racing.
Not that we had anything to complain about in Germany. The fight between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher was suitably thrilling with the Spaniard ahead from the start but being hounded by the Ferrari. It was not clear until the second pit stops what the outcome was going to be.
In the early part of the race it was clear that Alonso and Schumacher were running the same basic strategy. On Saturday Alonso had said he was surprised to be on pole and everyone thought he was sandbagging but as Sunday afternoon wore on it became more and more obvious that Alonso had surprised himself with his speed. To begin with Fernando was comfortable, controlling the pace and looking after his equipment, but he soon began to find that he was lacking grip.
"It's difficult to understand how we were on pole," he said. "And today we saw the normal picture. We need something more to win these days. It was just a question of when he would come past me. We need to improve a little bit in all areas of the car."
Schumacher said that he thought that he might be able to get ahead of Alonso at the first stops but it proved to be a vain hope.
"I pushed too hard in Turn Six and almost lost it," Michael admitted.
He was also rather lucky that he has a compliant team mate because at the start it was Felipe Massa who made the best start of the men at the front and was alongside Michael when they got to the corner. Michael was on the inside and so Massa backed off but with someone from another team it might have been a different story. The first corner did provide a little fraticide on this occasion as David Coulthard came steaming down to the first corner and found himself wanting the same bit of tarmac as Ralf Schumacher. The result, if one looked very closely was that DC gave Ralf a little bonk and that sent the Toyota into the rear of Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso. The sting in this tale, however, was that as Liuzzi went out of control the car spun back across the road and went straight into Coulthard's path. The damage to the Toro Rosso was a mangled front wing (thanks to DC) and a punctured right rear tyres (thanks to Ralf). Tonio tried to bring the car home and spun and so a Safety Car was sent out to brush the Toro Rosso away into the nearest skip. While this was happening, DC was retiring with mangled bits on his car.
After the race restarted the attention was on Fernando and Michael and the others were not really part of the show.
We lost Webber on lap 13 and there was much disappointment at Williams. The car was loaded full of fuel after the penalty in qualifying and Mark had made a terrific start to go from 19th on the grid to 12th at the end of the first lap. He was going comfortably along when the hydraulics failed him. He would have gone to lap 34 and the team reckoned that he might have been fifth by the end of the race, which would have been a good result from such a lowly starting position. Evidence of the Bridgestone performance, so they said.
Alonso stopped first, on lap 17, and Schumacher did just one lap more but his little moment meant that when he came out of the pits Alonso was ahead of him still. A few laps later Michael made another mistake and went wide in Turn 11 and dropped a second and a half. After a few laps getting things back together again Michael went on the attack again and the race entered its decisive phase. Alonso saw Michael coming and knew that he was in trouble. He stopped on lap 38 but Michael went on to 41 and in that period he turned a 1.22sec disadvantage into a six second lead with a series of laps in the low 1m32s.
When Michael came in Raikkonen was leading for three laps (he had led at the first stops as well) but when the stops were done he was still fourth behind Felipe Massa and although he pushed hard in the final laps, there was nothing he could do about the little Brazilian in the Ferrari. Felipe was delighted, of course, as this was his first F1 podium and his most solid performance for the team to date. He was happy.
Alonso said he was happy enough because eight points in the bag meant that he remained13 points ahead of Schumacher in the World Championship.
Raikkonen was happy because he felt that the McLaren-Mercedes was much closer than before.
"The overall performance of the car was not as I would have liked," he said, "but this is a definite improvement."
The top four were more than a minute ahead of the fifth-placed Rubens Barrichello, who led home Giancarlo Fisichella and Nico Rosberg while there was a 15secs gap back to the final points scorer Jacques Villeneuve. There was hope for all the teams involved.
Even Toyota had some positive things to talk about as Ralf Schumacher had gone pretty well and was heading for points when his engine failed.
"It was not only the two Ferraris that were quick," said Bridgestone's Hisao Suganuma. "It was shame that Mark Webber did not finish as he could well have finished in the top six."
For Honda there was a little more pain but Button was still fifth when his engine broke. He would probably have finished fifth in the race despite the car being rather difficult to handle. Still, there was hope not least because Fernando Alonso paid the team a decent compliment when he said that there were four teams in the running for wins. Clearly the Spaniard thinks more of Honda's efforts than the critics up in the press room.
There was not much to be cheerful about at Red Bull but then they have a pile of money and big plans so they are happy enough while for MF1 and Super Aguri things can only get better.
That was a thought that entered Alonso's head as well.
"If Michelin are stronger than Bridgestone in the next two races," he said, "then I think we will see different results."
That may be. Whatever the case, however, we are expecting to see a good race.
That seems to be the vogue these days.
And that cannot be a bad thing...