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Reflections on the German GP

From a quick glance at the results in Germany, one would have to say that yes, Bridgestone have an advantage but not a huge one. Closer inspection reveals that Michelin have big problems when the weather is hot. All their teams suffered from graining on the tires and their races suffered as a result.

The list of fastest race laps shows this quite clearly. The sole Michelin interloper in the top seven cars was Raikkonen’s McLaren and his time was set in the first stint when the car was seriously light on fuel. Otherwise, it was Bridgestone all the way. Such was the superiority of Ferrari that they could go on cruise control for the majority of the race. And Toyota and Williams also showed how much the Bridgestone tires were helping.

The real surprise was Button’s performance in the Honda, however. Honda made much better use of the Michelins than did Renault and it took the brilliance of Raikkonen to keep Jenson off the podium. On this showing, Renault have cause to be worried, especially as Michelin are unlikely to come up with any miracles until after the Turkish GP.

Jenson Button

Jenson Button in the Honda RA106

So tires are the deciding factor in F1 yet again. I, for one, will not be sorry when there is only one tire manufacturer in the sport and everyone competes on a level playing field. There is a fine balance in F1 between the importance of the driver and the car – that is why there are two championships, the driver’s and the constructor’s. Competing tire companies interfere with that balance and skew results, often unfairly.

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German GP Qualifying

The qualifying sessions are becoming more entertaining than the races, judging by the French GP and today’s session at Hockenheim. The Ferraris were quick, just as we expected, but Alonso failed to provide a serious challenge to them. That was left to Kimi Raikkonen, who threw in a very quick lap to take pole position on his first set of new tires. It mattered not that later he went farming in the McLaren when trying to better his time – he had done enough already.

Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen

The Hondas bounced back from their run of bad form, Button taking fourth spot and Barrichello sixth. And the Toyotas were disappointing, only Ralf managing to make it to Q3 and then slotting in at eighth.

It’s all a bit confusing as regards tires. If the Bridgestones had retained their advantage, we would expect the Toyotas to have done better. The Ferraris look very strong, however, and Michael must be favorite for the race in spite of Raikkonen’s amazing lap. Kimi often makes the McLaren look better than it is, so it is easy to assume that his time was the product of genius alone, something that will be almost impossible for him to maintain throughout the race distance tomorrow.

Or will it? The speed of the Hondas suggests that Michelin are at least on a par with Bridgestone in Germany. And we should not forget that the removal of the mass dampers from the Ferraris and Renaults may have adversely affected their performance, especially in Alonso’s Renault. It is hard to think of anything else that could have caused the sudden loss of form from Renault.

So maybe we are seeing the reality of life without mass dampers and the McLarens are as good as they looked today. Pedro de la Rosa finished in ninth spot, which is not a bad effort after his earlier coming together with Ralf’s Toyota.

All of which is bad news for Alonso and good for Michael Schumacher. Even if Kimi proves equal to the task of winning the GP tomorrow, Michael should finish no lower than second while Fernando will have to work hard to bag a decent number of points. The Ferrari team have said that they need help from the other teams if Michael is to catch Alonso in the championship – a McLaren resurgence would be just what they need. If Renault weren’t sweating already, they should start now!

One final word for the guy who grabbed tenth position: David Coulthard. Once again he proved that experience counts and confirms himself as the best buy outside the trio of star drivers. If he can produce such good results in a Red Bull, how would he fare in a Renault or Ferrari?

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The Dampers Controversy

It seems I was premature in congratulating the FIA for dealing with Renault’s and Ferrari’s weighted dampers so quickly and efficiently (see my post The FIA Dampens Some Ardor). The Hockenheim stewards have thrown a spanner in the works by accepting them as legal when the Renault team presented their cars for scrutineering with the dampers still fitted.

So we have the interesting situation of stewards appointed by the FIA disagreeing with a ruling by the FIA. We can look forward to a storm of protest, argument and law suits as a result and the possibility of race results being changed once everything is decided finally. Ah, the glories of Formula One.

Scrutineering

A steward at scrutineering

Personally, I wonder what Renault were up to when they left the dubious dampers on their cars. Do they make such a performance difference that they were worth risking the ensuing fuss? And it is a risk; getting them past the stewards is one thing, but a later ruling that they are illegal could result in any points won in Germany by the Renaults being taken away. Surely it makes more sense to accept the FIA’s judgement, knowing that Ferrari will be without the tweak as well and therefore without any advantage it gives. At this stage, Renault would be better employed making sure that Alonso finishes no lower than second in the remaining races.

At least it seems that everyone is happy with the banning of BMW Sauber’s upright wings. The FIA’s reasoning that they interfere with the drivers’ vision seems a bit flimsy, given that all three BMW drivers maintain that they can see fine, thank you. Admittedly, their case is a bit weakened in that they were saying so long before the FIA made their ruling; they must have known that any objections would center on the restriction of the driver’s view of the road.

But we all know the real reason why the wings were outlawed: they are just plain ugly. Is this the first time the FIA have had to step in on a matter of aesthetics?

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Williams and Toyota

Williams have announced that they will have Toyota engines from next year. While this seems the best option available to them, it does make me wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. Teams rarely do well with engines from manufacturers that already run teams in F1. Such an arrangement works well for teams that are just starting out and pose no threat to the works outfit; but Williams have an outstanding record and are well capable of beating the Toyotas. How embarrassing will it be for the works team if Williams regularly finish ahead of them?

It may be that Toyota’s managers feel that any races won by their engines will be good publicity, regardless of which particular team achieves them. But, in that case, why risk one’s reputation as a chassis builder at all? It would make more sense to supply the engines to a reputable team in the same way that Mercedes does. That way you can always blame the chassis for poor race performances.

Is it possible that Toyota are tired of pouring money into their team without seeing race wins as a result? The deal with Williams could be a useful pointer for them, pitting their car designers against some of the best in the business and showing just how much more they have to learn. And, if it turns out that Williams builds a better car, they have an easy way to exit F1 without losing too much face – citing costs as the reason but continuing to supply engines. Or they could arrange a judicious merger à la BMW Sauber.

Toyota

Toyota in F1

Of course, this is all conjecture. But it does make a lot of sense, especially when you remember that Toyota’s recent competitiveness has been largely due to Bridgestone getting the jump on Michelin in the tire race. It’s not as if Toyota don’t know that. In fact, they would be best placed to understand exactly how much difference the tires have made. And they’re still not beating Renault…

It is my guess that the Toyota management have given their team one more year to come good. If they don’t, well, we could be looking at a Toyota-Williams in 2008.

And that might not be a bad thing. The problem with manufacturer teams in F1 is that they skew the whole business. They have to win within a certain time-frame for PR purposes and so they throw money around like water in the first few years. Then, when their bean counters have all had heart attacks, they realize that it’s costing too much and they get out. But not before they’ve upped the ante for everyone, forcing costs to spiral and the FIA to get their knickers in a knot.

The Cosworth and Mercedes strategy is far better for manufacturers. Supply the engines and blame the teams when you don’t win. And it will be even more to the point once Michelin have departed. You can hardly blame the tires when everyone’s on the same rubber!

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