The crystal ball brigade

Even as he comfortably led Michael Schumacher’s Benetton, Damon Hill suspected that he had lost the Monaco Grand Prix.

The Englishman was running a two-stop strategy, and therefore on a light fuel load from the start. That Schumacher was able to hang onto the Williams over the opening laps indicated that the German had either a similar gameplan, or total supremacy. As Hill pitted for his first stop and his rival continued, he knew the answer.

“I was pretty disillusioned at that stage,” Damon admitted later. “It’s a pretty hard race to do in any case, but when you can’t even make an impression on a guy who is running perhaps 25 litres more fuel, it’s harder still.”

His frustration was merely compounded by the fact that he had sat on pole by some eight-tenths of a second and, after the rostrum ceremony he gave vent to his feelings, claiming: “We got it horribly wrong. I’m pretty cheesed off. It has happened before, and we’re making it too easy for Michael.”

But did Williams really get things so wrong by opting for two stops?

At a premium anywhere in Formula One, overtaking is nigh-on impossible at Monaco. Surely it wouldn’t require a brain surgeon to work out that, starting ahead of the field, the best strategy would be to run a one-stop race?

“There are two ways of looking at the traffic argument,” accepts Williams’ Chief Designer Adrian Newey, part of the committee which calls the shots when it comes to pit strategy. “One is to say that if you are on light fuel it’s easier to overtake backmarkers because you are on light fuel and fresh tyres; the other way of looking at it is to say, ‘Well, okay, with heavier fuel and older tyres it’s more difficult to lap backmarkers, but you haven’t got to get past so many.’ It’s a pretty fine balance.”

Given the tight confines of the street circuit a one-stop plan still looked the better bet. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that conventional thinking had been rather disturbed by Benetton’s victory at the Principality the previous year, when it had flown in the face of opinion by adopting a two-stop plan! Twelve months on, Williams eventually opted to follow suit only after abandoning its one-stop intentions on race morning.

“Yes, we did make an error,” concedes Newey. “Obviously it’s easy for the crystal ball brigade to say so now, but you must also remember that we had a pretty poor warm-up (the car’s balance had deserted it and that influenced our decision.”

After Monaco the team discovered that a faulty differential probably had accounted for the change in the FW17’s handling and, consequently, the team’s strategy.

Once it realised Benetton held the initiative, could Williams not have reacted?

“You can be flexible up to a point,” acknowledges Newey, “but, generally speaking, once the race has started you are committed. Obviously you can’t go less stops, because you will run out of fuel. You can go more but there would have to be a pretty strong reason for doing so because, if you’ve decided for one stop but opt to go two, you’ve penalised yourself pretty heavily in the first third of the race by lumbering around with a lot of extra fuel.”

Another factor which played into Benetton’s hands was the tyre situation. Whilst it brought in new moulds for the front tyres this season, Goodyear saw no need for wholesale change under the new rules.

“If you watched Gerhard Berger sliding around it was like turning the clock back, and I expected us to be struggling on tyre wear,” admits Goodyear’s Tony Shakespeare. “I would have expected that to have negated any saving on wear because of the engines having less power this year. But, through a combination of factors, tyres seemed to last well in Monaco and performed for as long as required.”

Any benefit Hill gained from fresh rubber was therefore minimised, allied to which Schumacher’s style was noticeably smoother than that of many other drivers.

Patrick Head, Williams’ Technical Director, insists that his team lost the race through lack of pace, rather than its pit stop strategy. That notwithstanding, the refuelling scenario ensured a frustrating race, not only for Hill, but for many TV viewers.

“Quite often we’ve been in the position, particularly last year, where there might be quite a good scrap going on for the lead, but the battle would be destroyed by the fuel stops,” opines Newey.

“Planning the stops is still something of a black art. Anybody who says otherwise is being unrealistic, because one of the big imponderables is backmarkers. Its very difficult to write a computer programme which will properly simulate them! If you ban refuelling you will still have tyre stops, but then you are able to be flexible in the race. I have to say, overall, that I don’t think fuel stops do anything positive for the show.”