Race weekend review - who'll stop Williams? 04 Aug 2003
If there was ever any doubt that the combination of Williams and Michelin poses the greatest threat to Michael Schumacher's hopes of winning a record sixth world championship crown in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya dissected it with surgical precision at Hockenheim.
Schumacher himself met with misfortune, when his left rear Bridgestone tyre punctured with only four laps to go and he came away with only two points instead of eight, but equally he was lucky in the first place that at least two rivals who would most likely have beaten him - Ralf Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen - were eliminated at the start.
Tyres were the story of the race. Montoya had sufficient advantage in practice that Williams was able to consider a three-stop strategy. This does not always work, but in this instance it allowed Williams to maximise the efficiency of its Michelins for the race, and to run sufficiently low fuel to put Montoya and Ralf Schumacher on the front row in qualifying. It was advantageous all round.
Ferrari, by contrast, split its options, putting Barrichello on soft tyres and a likely three-stop strategy, while Michael opted for harder Bridgestones and a two-stop plan. McLaren and Renault also went for two stops, but the former was on Michelin's harder compound and both its drivers had a flexible strategy that allowed for two or three stops. After Raikkonen's crash at the start, Coulthard opted for two stops and it paid off, though nothing like as well as Williams' strategy.
The fact that Montoya could still leave his rivals for dead when his throttle was only opening to 93 percent from the 15th lap speaks volumes not just for the effectiveness of his rubber, but also the strength of the respective parts of the overall package contributed by the once-criticised Williams technical team and BMW.
"They told me to back off but I could still do laps of 1m 15.7s, 1m 15.8s and pull away," Montoya said, and the incredulity was evident in his voice. "I couldn't believe it!"
His rivals wished they couldn't either, and it was enough to strike fear into their hearts. With four races left to run on circuits that should continue to suit the Anglo-German cars, Schumacher's six-point lead is looking ever more precarious.
Clearly, the German had to use all of his considerable skill to extract the maximum performance from a car that some observers still believe to be the best in the field.
Meanwhile, Trulli and Alonso did well with their Renaults, but in trying to make up for the Anglo-French car's acknowledged power deficit Trulli overworked his Michelins under braking in particular and ultimately paid the price when the canny Schumacher exploited the shortcoming on lap 59 to go round the outside in the hairpin. Normally that wouldn't work, if there was the usual gravel trap on the outside, but the new tarmac run-off areas allow drivers to exploit what has effectively become a wider track, and the race officials quite happily condoned this. Trulli wasn't happy about it, but it enabled Schumacher to pass there, and Coulthard to overtake Webber early in the race and Trulli later on.
Meanwhile, Coulthard found both sets of his fresh Michelins needed nursing for several laps after each of his pit stops, until they stopped graining and generating understeer. After that the MP4/17D was very fast, which bodes well for the team in Hungary where the conditions will be similar to Hockenheim's.
The Michelins are not a panacea, however. While the Toyota once again looked very strong - and moved into sixth place in the constructors' points rankings when Panis and da Matta finished fifth and sixth - Jaguar struggled in race trim after looking good in qualifying. Webber initially ran fifth but could not sustain that performance and was struggling with Jenson Button's Bridgestone-shod BAR in a fight for the final point for eighth place when he slid off the road close to the finish.
The summer test ban is still in effect, and will remain so until the first week of September, which means that everyone must make do with the work they did in the major tests before the British Grand Prix. There it appeared that Bridgestone and Ferrari had taken a step forward in relation to Williams and Michelin. Now at Hockenheim the latter appeared to have regained the initiative. This see-saw effect will continue over the final races, and it is difficult to predict with any certainty which circuit will suit which combination.
But as long as Schumacher had a reasonable points lead when Raikkonen was runner-up in the standings he seemed likely to be able to maintain it by driving for points finishes. However, with Montoya now in such strong form, and enjoying great momentum as he closed to within only six points, that luxury may no longer be available. And while Ralf Schumacher may have written himself out of title contention with his first corner gaffe in Germany, he still has a car that could potentially deprive his older brother of the points he so desperately needs to stave off his Colombian challenger.