Race weekend review - San Marino 21 Apr 2003
So what did the San Marino Grand Prix really mean?
In comparison with the first three races of the 2003 season, that's an easier question to answer. This was the most straightforward of the four world championship qualifying rounds held so far.
It proved that Ferrari hasn't really been away, but that it had basically been unlucky. On a track on which the red cars have done a reasonable amount of testing, the 'old' Ferrari F2002 was still the class of the field. But, as expected, the revised McLaren Mercedes MP4/17D and the new (and further modified for Imola) BMW Williams FW25 are a lot closer. The top cars are also devastatingly reliable. But for Montoya's glitch with his refuelling rig during his second pit stop on lap 30, the top three teams would have taken the top six placings.
It was also interesting to see both Ferrari and BMW Williams make three-stop refuelling strategies work, though McLaren Mercedes also make a good job with just two stops.
"I think that goes to show that when you are fast you are fast, and you can make any strategy work," said one philosophical engineer in a midfield team which tried both strategies without success.
The race was, of course, a resounding success for Ferrari and the strongest affirmation possible of its inherent strength. It also confirmed that Bridgestone is as competitive as ever. What added poignancy was the death of Elisabeth Schumacher the previous evening. Michael and Ralf Schumacher elected to continue carrying a heavy professional and personal burden, when both were offered the option to withdraw by their respective teams, and conducted themselves with dignity. People did not need to hear words spoken to know who the world champion's 65th Grand Prix success would be dedicated to.
It was commonsense for Michael to cede the first corner to his brother and then to tail him for the first 16 laps, and in that time he will have received all the confirmation he needed that he held the high cards, as Rubens Barrichello and Juan Pablo Montoya struggled to stay with them. Ultimately the red cars did what was expected for them, and had Barrichello not suffered a sticking left front wheel during his final pit stop on lap 50 he might well have beaten Raikkonen to second place.
BMW Williams knows that the improvements it made to its cars prior to the meeting worked well and have provided a strong direction for future development, while McLaren Mercedes did exactly what it needed to do in a race that it couldn't win. A strong second place keeps Raikkonen on top of the Drivers' Championship, and the team's race strategy put its qualifying performance into its proper prespective.
The juggling of such strategy, and the ebb and flow of individual team's tyre advantage is a crucial part of modern Formula One.
Renault used two-stop strategy intelligently to bring Alonso home sixth, while BAR Honda was pleased to see Jenson Button bring his car home to the final point after losing Jacques Villeneuve's to a fire just after his first pit stop. After Mark Webber's qualifying performance Jaguar was disappointed when Pizzonia's R4 stalled on the line and the Australian's was slow away due to an undisclosed problem. He was fighting back strongly when a suspected driveshaft failure halted him.
As Schumacher moves within a point of Coulthard for second place, 14 adrift of leader Raikkonen, the battle between McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari is well and truly engaged for the constructors' honours with scores of 51 and 31 respectively.