Prancing horse on its toes in Indiana

Michael Schumacher, United States GP 2006

Michael Schumacher, United States GP 2006 

 © The Cahier Archive

A year ago Michael Schumacher dominated the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. There were only five other cars in the race and the crowds quite rightly got rather uppity about that. But the crowds were back this year and so was Michael and judging by the performance of the Ferraris in qualifying the fact that the rest of the field will (hopefully) be there tomorrow will be rather irrelevant. This one, ladies and gentlemen, is in the bag.

The big question is why. Ferrari has been struggling to keep up with Renault in recent races, allowing Fernando Alonso to win a string of victories. In Canada a week ago Michael Schumacher was really scrambling and very lucky to finish second. The car was only good enough for fifth but Lady Luck intervened on Michael's behalf and a Safety Car gave him back 30secs that had been lost. And then Kimi Raikkonen slid off and Michael was second.

A few days later in Indianapolis, it was a completely different story. Renault's confidence was shaken as the Ferrari-Bridgestone package humbled the Renault on its Michelins. It would be obvious to suggest that the French tyre company came back to Indiana with a package that was a lot more conservative than last year. In 2005 Michelin screwed up by taking too many risks. This year, it seems, the company screwed up by taking too few. That is a nice theory but there was something in it that did not ring quite true: The top 10 qualifying run-off still featured seven Michelin runners and if the success was just down to tyres one would have expected to have seen Toyotas, Williamses and even perhaps a Red Bull or a Toro Rosso in the final run-off. That did not happen.

One might speculate that the answer to Ferrari's performance was provided by MF1 Racing which hads it best qualifying of the year with the two Midlands 14th and 15th on the grid. The theory is this. The cars that raced at Indianapolis last year came to the Speedway this year with a huge advantage, based on the data collected during the 2005 race. Think back and recall that the Michelin runners did not do much running in qualifying last year and did only one infamous parade lap on race day. Thus preparation for the 2005 race was likely to be hobbled from lack of available data. The Ferraris were way ahead of where one would have expected to see them; the Midlands were the same. Logically, therefore, the Toro Rossos should also have been up there because they (as Minardi) were racing as well last year.

And there it was: Scott Speed 13th on the grid. His best showing for a while and a performance that put him ahead of both Red Bulls. One would have expected Tonio Liuzzi to have gone even faster but the Italian had some seriuous understeer in the first session, ran over a kerb and broke something at the front of the car which meant that he never got a quick run and so ended up 21st.

There is no question about the qualifying result in Indianapolis being about fuel loads. Renault already knows that barring a miracle on Sunday they are beaten. The best that Fernando Alonso can hope for is second place. And even that will be tough from fifth on the grid, particularly if he gets stuck behind a Honda in the early laps.

The Honda's did surprisingly well this time but they went well enough as well in Canada and the drivers seemed to be pretty happy to be fourth and seventh with Rubens Barrichello again outrunning Jenson Button.

"The car is good at the moment," said Button. "After Canada we haven't really changed it much. There's a few set-up things we've done. We're trying a lot of different things with the set-up, and we've found a good direction."

The speed of the car bodes well for the races coming up where downforce is not as important as it has been in the early part of the year. The Honda has struggled with downforce up to now but seems quite good where downforce is not needed.

The only Bridgestone user other than the two Ferraris to make it into the top 10 was Ralf Schumacher's Toyota, another surprise given the shocking race that Ralf had in Canada. Up in Montreal Jarno Trulli had pulled off an astonishing performance in qualifying (with the same fuel load as Kimi Raikkonen) but in Indianapolis it was the other way round. Trulli failed to make it through Q1 but Ralf scuttled through to line up eighth on the grid. It was not the sensation of Trulli in Canada but it was not bad for a man who has twice ended up in Methodist Hospital in the last two visits to Indy.

The BMW Saubers were also both in the top 10 but in the final Q3 session Heidfeld pulled off and parked his car with some kind of mechanical trouble and Jacques Villeneuve was sixth, a good effort.

There were problems for McLaren with Kimi Raikkonen getting into the top 10 run-off in qualifying but only being able to do a time that was 2.3secs off the pace. That may be because the team decided to run with a big fuel load but that theory is really clutching at straws because when the cars were running light in Q2 Juan Pablo Montoya failed to get into the top 10 which indicated that the car was just not fast. The same was true for Williams which has done well at high downforce tracks to date. Mark Webber ended up 12th while Nico Rosberg could not get out of Q1 because the car had no grip.

The crowd will be big tomorrow at Indianapolis and one can only hope that the shop will be good as well but with Ferrari so far ahead in qualifying it is ahrd to imagine that it will be a classic event.

But watch out for the weather. That may play a part as storms are expected in Indiana...