If a week is a long time in politics a month is an age in Formula One. Since we last met on this page we’ve had three more Michael Schumacher victories, and Ferrari now has exactly twice the number of constructors’ points as its closest challenger. A new qualifying system has been agreed — and then voted down. Ralf Schumacher has been lucky to escape with his life in an accident-strewn United States GP. And Max Mosley has decided to retire early as president of the FIA — because he finds the F1 Commission meetings so boring.
By the time you read this we’ll have had the British Grand Prix, which may or may not bring yet another Michael Schumacher victory. If it does it will, almost unbelievably, be his 80th F1 win. Even if it doesn’t, confirmation of his seventh world championship, and his fifth on the trot, is now surely just a formality.
But all three of these wins were good to watch, because in each case Michael had to work tremendously hard. For none of them did he start from pole, and in Canada he was sixth on the grid. Michael is at a stage in his extraordinary career when easy wins don’t satisfy him: but he’s still hugely motivated by tough challenges, and when he conquers them his boyish delight is plain to see. The French win was especially pleasing for him, because he really does see himself as part of the Ferrari team effort, and this was a team victory par excellence. It’s worth examining in some detail how Ferrari set about it, because in many ways it is a perfect example of how modem F1 races are won — by plotting with computer models off the track as well as brilliant driving on it.
Fernando Alonso’s Renault was going to be difficult to beat at Magny-Cours. The Spaniard was on pole; Renaults are faster than any other car off the start, and their Michelins were expected to work well. So Michael, Ross Brawn and Ferrari strategist Luca Baldisserri devised alternative race strategies, one involving three stops, the other no fewer than four. The pitlane at Magny-Cours is short, feeding off a slow corner, so — although the speed limit is a meagre 80kph — stops are less costly than at most circuits.
On Saturday afternoon, in the shiny hush of the Ferrari motorhome, Baldisseni’s computer chumed away, plotting lap times, fuel weights, tyre wear against forecast track temperature, and the effect of traffic. It emerged that a fourth stop would be a risk: but a risk that, if Schumacher wasn’t clear of the Renaults by his second stop, could be worth taking. In a pitstop, getting the tyres changed occupies a finite amount of time, assuming everything goes to plan — as it always seems to do at Ferrari these days. It is the amount of fuel put in which dictates how long the car is stationary. And, of course, lap times are affected by fuel weight: so, to a degree, is tyre wear. So the plan would be to short-fuel Michael at his third stop and get him out again in front of Alonso’s Renault, in a car which — being lighter — would be faster. That was when Michael would have to do his bit, and string together a stream of perfect laps, each to the standard of a banzai qualifier. Being Michael, he did exactly that. The gap to Alonso widened just enough to give him the cushion needed for the fourth stop for fuel to get him to the flag.
Sitting impassively on the pitwall, directing operations like a military general and talking constantly to Michael over the radio, Ross Brawn didn’t actually take the decision to implement the four-stop strategy until after the second stop. But part of the risk had to be taken earlier in the weekend. The surface at Magny-Cours is billiard-table smooth, and Michelin knows better than anyone how to produce a tyre that suits its unusual characteristics. Bridgestone responded by offering Ferrari a softer tyre which would have a shorter life but would offer more grip.
Modem F1 regulations demand, of course, that tyre choices have to be made before qualifying. Set-up has to remain unchanged, with the cars held in parc fermé between qualifying and the race. So during Friday’s practice Ferrari carefully evaluated the softer tyre, also using softer rear suspension to allow it to work at its optimum, and decided to go with it for the race. Had they stuck with the three-stop strategy, of course, Schumacher’s F2004 would have been handling less well towards the end of each stint, when the tyres were near the end of their life. That might have given Alonso enough advantage to take the race. So they hedged their bets and adopted the harder tyre and set-up for Rubens Barrichello.
In fact, it was here that the only thing went wrong in Ferrari’s usually seamless organisation. Barrichello’s car developed a hydraulic leak in first qualifying, which meant he had to be first out for qualifying proper, and on a greener track he could only earn 10th place on the grid. But he rose to the occasion with one of his best races, driving hard up the field to snatch a podium by catching Jarno Trulli napping on the final corner.
After the race, Alonso was clearly bemused by finishing second in a GP which he had driven without error in a car which seemed to be the fastest. It was a perfect example of Ferrari’s absolute determination to win, whatever the circumstances served up by each different contest. Ironically, this subtle strategic victory called to mind a defeat suffered by Ferrari 46 years ago at the hands of Rob Walker, Alf Francis and Stirling Moss, when Moss went the entire distance in Argentina in the little Cooper on threadbare tyres. Alf brought new tyres out onto the pit counter to fool Ferrari into thinking that Moss was going to stop.
If Magny-Cours showed us an example of the best of F1’s modem times, Indianapolis a fortnight earlier showed us something more sinister. A typical first-lap, first-comer pile-up brought out the safety car and left shards of carbonfibre on the circuit. Almost certainly as a result of this, Alonso punctured a tyre and had a big accident on lap nine. He was unhurt. A lap later, Ralf Schumacher was less lucky. He also picked up debris, either from the first accident or the second. His left-rear Michelin deflated as he was coining through the banked final turn at perhaps 180mph. The Williams went backwards into the concrete wall, and in the first impact Ralf momentarily sustained 78g. His car came to rest on the pit straight, with the driver not moving inside the cockpit. The safety car was deployed again and, with the race still on, the accident and emergency car took lmin 39sec to get to the stricken driver, and the medical car over 3min. For several laps the field filed past the wreckage behind the safety car while Ralf was being extricated, no doubt running through more shards of carbonfibre. Then we were treated to the bizarre sight of an ambulance, with Ralf inside, driving round the track on its way to the medical centre — and being overtaken by the pace car and its following queue.
In times past, with a driver badly hurt and with his condition unclear, the race would have been stopped without question. If doing so might have improved his chances of recovery by one percent, the red flag would have come out And that would have allowed potentially dangerous debris to be properly cleaned from the track surface, so it would have stayed out until that job was done.
But that was before television became the overpowering force that it is in today’s F1. TV bosses hate delay: they like to stick to their schedules. This is all the more true with an American race, when Europe’s live coverage happens in the evening, with big audiences at stake. The United States Grand Prix was already delaying Sunday night’s episode of Coronation Street, and no doubt its equivalent in Germany and France and Turkey and everywhere else. So there is tremendous pressure on the organising body to keep the race running. Fortunately, almost every driver in the US GP took advantage of the safety car period and pitted for fuel and fresh rubber — although Jenson Button, for one, did not The BAR might have picked up a puncture also, and when the race went back to full speed he could have had an accident similar to Ralf’s, or worse.
There has been much discussion and recrimination about how long it took to get aid to Ralf Schumacher after his accident But the real question is, why wasn’t the race stopped? If a soap opera is delayed by 20 minutes and the chance of saving a life is thereby increased, that surely has to be what I believe is now colloquially termed a no-brainer.