23 April 2006

2006 San Marino GP

Today was a relatively hot day at Imola compared to the gloom and cold of last year's race. The track temprature a somewhat blistering 43 centigrade. The battle for qualifying yesterday ended up with a mixed set of results which kept everyone guessing on strategy. Fernando Alonso was uncharacteristically slow but nevertheless started the race in fifth. Michael scored what looked to have unbeatable pace. Obviously, there were varying fuel loads between the teams. The conventional wisdom was that Fernando was carrying a heavier load than the others and perhaps so were the McLarens. The Hondas were to most people's minds running a lighter load.

Another significant factor was Ferrari's tyre usage in qualifying. Drivers are allowed up to 7 sets per race weekend and Michael had used all of them save a single set to start the race with. This was to prove very costly to Michael during the race.

At the start Fernando made up a place by taking Barrichello going into the first chicane. Kimi Raikkonen was perhaps the biggest loser at the start dropping to tenth behind Mark Webber. As soon as the race started though the safety car came out after Christian Albers rolled his Midland on the exit of the Villeneuve chicane after being punted by Yuji Ide in the Super Aguri.

At the restart, one would have expected Michael's Ferrari to sprint away from everyone. He was quick but his pace was not as quick as one would expect. Overall, he was pulling away to the tune of about 0.2 seconds from the chasing pack of Jenson Button, Filipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Everytime Michael set a fastest lap all his three pursuers would peg his time. Things at this stage was looking good for both Button and especially Alonso. If the Spaniard was carrying a heavier load he was looking great.

On a circuit that is notoriously difficult to overtake, strategy is everything. Fernando Alonso on a heavier fuel load was keeping Michael quite nicely in check. After 11 laps, the gap between the two was only 6.8 seconds. The running order completely unchanged save for the retirements of Jarno Trulli and Yuji Ide. Behind the first four Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and Juan Montoya were running in close company but being dropped by the leading quartet.

On lap 15 Rubens Barrichello is the first one in confirming the light Honda fuel load. A lap later his teammate comes in. This left Michael Schumacher 8 seconds ahead of Massa in the second Ferrari who had Fernando Alonso close behind him. And this was the time that Filipe Massa discovered what it means to be Michael Schumacher's teammate. From lapping in the 1m 25s bracket, now Filipe Massa now lapped in the 1m 27s, proof if any was needed that Ferrari team orders and tactics were coming into play. Obviously Ross Brawn was very worried about Alonso's continued presence and Michael's inability to drop him at a quicker rate. Once again, the lack of overtaking opportunities in Imola tells and there was very little Fernando could do but wait.

On lap 20 Massa pits in and sets Alonso free. At this stage Michael had pulled out a 13.5 second lead ahead of the Spaniard thanks to Massa's excellent effort of bending over for the German. A lap later Michael pits in and it was game on for Alonso. Set free Alonso began a series of low 1m 25s laps culminating in a fastest lap of 1m 24.589 seconds on lap 24. But Michael at this stage on his second set of tyres was pegging him with low 1m 25s laps with a much heavier fuel.

On lap 26 Fernando comes into the pits. He leaves the pits and comes out in second ahead of Button, Massa and Montoya and some 11.2 seconds behind Michael. But then something strange happened. Michael was slowing down. After the initial 1m 25s laps his pace was slowing and at best was managing 1m 26s. Meanwhile Alonso was lapping in the high 1m 24s and low 1m 25s bracket and catching the Ferrari at a little over a second a lap. This was turning out to be a reversal of last year's race. Michael's second set of tyres was a worn pair carried over from qualifying. It turns out that having absolutely brand new tyres is essential on this circuit. Fernando had it, Michael didn't. Fernando's strange lack of pace in qualifying was a strategic move then. The team sacrificing his qualifying performance for stonking race pace.

Lap after lap Michael lost time and by lap 35 Fernando Alonso was right behind him after they both lapped a Red Bull. At this stage, you would have wagered that Fernando Alonso stood a fantastic chance to win the race. As was the case last year, despite having a quicker car, overtaking is impossible on this circuit. Some might complain that its narrow but then so is Suzuka and look what happened there last year. No, the problem really is the start stop point and squirt nature of the track nowadays after the chicanes introduced after Ayrton Senna's fatal accident here 12 years ago. The only real place to have a go is into the Tosa hairpin but the approach to that corner is preceeded by another slow chicane, the Villeneuve. It just becomes a drag race from chicane to chicane and then thats when the narrowness of the track exacerbates the problem.

Still, everyone expected Fernando Alonso to be pitting in later and one would have expected him to leapfrog Michael Schumacher at the next stop. But the Renault team had different ideas. Inexplicably and perhaps simply stupidly, they decided to switch their strategy and pit in before Michael Schumacher. It happened at a time when the Ferrari crew were readying a pitstop for Filipe Massa. The Renault crew jumped into action. Perhaps seeing all the Renault activity, Michael sped up at that very lap when Fernando Alonso came in.

On lap 41 Michael Schumacher did a 1m 27.380 which was quicker considering he was in the 1m 28s the laps before. On Alonso's pit lap he suddenly did a 1m 26.873s. It was easy for Ross Brawn then to simply call Michael Schumacher in on the very next lap. Fernando would have to do a mammoth out lap to get ahead of Michael. He didn't manage that and Michael came in and out back in the lead ahead of Fernando.

At this stage, one sensed it was all over for Fernando. After all, he was behind Michael for the better part of 7 laps and couldn't do anything about it. One sensed then that Renault had simply thrown away this race with a rash and silly decision. They blinked first and paid the price. Fernando Alonso would not be taking any risks given his championship lead and losing only a couple of points to Michael should the status quo remain the same. Odds were that Fernando would simply give up. This he did but not before having a few looks at the inside of the Ferrari. But a couple of mistakes a couple of laps from the end signalled rear end grip problems for Fernando. Better to simply collect points today. And quite smartly too in contrast to the crew on his pitwall.

Behind the enthralling battle for the lead we had Juan Pablo Montoya cruising up to Filipe Massa after a solid run in the team spare car. Montoya in fact led the race briefly when the leading pair made their stops. He came in on lap 45 and emerged ahead of Filipe Massa. In the end the Colombian manages the final podium spot ahead of Filipe, who came under pressure from a late charge from Kimi Raikkonen. Kimi ran behind Mark Webber for much of the race but managed to get ahead of the Australian in the Williams after the second round of stops.

One person who could also have played a part in the battle for the lead was Jenson Button who spent the first part of the race keeping the German honest. Whilst Fernando and Michael were battling it out in front and slowing each other down after the first stops, Button was in fact catching the leading pair. By the time of his second stop Jenson was in fact 14 seconds behind and still catching. However, his second stop was a complete disaster. It looked like a mistake by the lollipop man prematurely giving the Briton the green light to go. When he did, the mechanics still had the fuel hose in the car. As Jenson sped off, he tore off the fuel hose but luckily the fuel flow had already stopped. Otherwise that could have been a very sinister pyrotechnic display. In the end though Jenson had to fight hard against a charging Giancarlo Fisichella who was otherwise having an uneventful race.

At least Jenson Button had some pace this weekend but his teammate Rubens Barrichello once again faded very badly and from third on the grid at the start finished a lowly tenth, some 78 seconds behind the leader.

In fact, no one could live with the pace of the leading duo of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso. However, you can safely say that Fernando was the quicker of the two today by a country mile. A pity then that the strategy did not work out.

Ferrari may have won today but it is clear they still have a lot of work to do if they are going to win consistently every weekend. Fernando as ever, plays his game very well. Risking little and looking at the longer term picture that is the world championship. The Nurburgring is next and it will be another interesting picture over there in a couple of weeks. If Ferrari do well again there and take the win then the championship is well and truly open. However, one would not bet against Fernando and Renault doing well there. And don't forget the McLarens at what is essentially a home track for Mercedes.

written by Eddie Azman, Pitstop Editorial Team


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