Race analysis - is Ferrari back for good? 15 Sep 2003
Has Ferrari really made a big leap back into contention? Did the nature of Monza simply favour the aspects of its package that are acknowledged to work - its horsepower, braking performance and bullet-proof reliability - while minimizing its shortcomings - the performance of recent races of its Bridgestone tyres and therefore its lack of mechanical grip? Did the fresh interpretation of the rule covering the measurement of front tyre treads - introduced at Monza after Ferrari and Bridgestone prompted the FIA into a reassessment - really hurt Williams and McLaren?
These were just some of the questions ricocheting around the paddock after Ferrari's dramatic comeback victory in the Italian Grand Prix, which set the scene for further battle in the championship struggle in both Indianapolis and Suzuka.
But there was another one, too. Was this another race, like Silverstone, that could have gone Williams's way with slightly better fortune? Had Juan Pablo Montoya not slid fractionally into understeer on the entry to Ascari during his qualifying lap, and had he thus maintained his momentum to take pole position, could he have turned the tables on Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in the race?
Schumacher's own comment that his success in fending off Montoya's attack in the second chicane on the opening lap was crucial in his 50th victory for the Prancing Horse, may have said it all. Montoya admitted that overtaking the champion would have been tricky at best had he got close enough to attempt it in the closing stages, so why should it not have been the same had their positions been reversed? The cars are so evenly matched these days that finding even the tiniest advantage when you have drivers of this calibre racing is extraordinarily difficult.
Montoya's strongest part of the race came during the second stint when he was able to race with his best set of tyres, a scrubbed set of Michelins. But he only had sufficient fuel aboard to go as long as 16 laps between stops (laps 16 to 32), whereas Schumacher did 17 (15 to 34). Had Montoya been able to run a few more laps that might have made all the difference in building an advantage over the Ferrari.
Once the backmarkers intervened to spoil things, there was simply no point in the pragmatic Colombian pushing hard just to close back up on Schumacher (possibly risking the sort of spin that was nearly so costly in Hungary), so it all became academic. But it would be wrong to suggest that Williams was blown off; it was a case of whoever got the advantage - and it began with pole - was likely to hang on to it.
Whether the same order will prevail in Indianapolis in a fortnight's time remains to be seen. Montoya said he did not believe that Ferrari's result had anything to do with the changes concerning the tread measurement of his Michelin tyres.
"The way it looked over the last few races," he suggested, "it seems that Ferrari was in a bit of our position over the last few years: they struggled in most of the races, came here and were very strong. Whereas, this year, perhaps we drop a little bit, but we're still very strong. They beat us here, but I believe in the last two races, there are no more circuits like this that are low downforce and everything. I think in high downforce trim we should be strong again, and McLaren and Renault should be very strong, and that could make the difference. I think I came out of here with the least loss possible. I had to try and finish second and I did."
Schumacher needs a 10-point lead going into Suzuka to wrap the title up. But a Williams 1-2 at Indianapolis would prevent that, and so would Ferrari-beating finishes for McLaren or Renault. Michael, however, remains confident. "To my memory Indianapolis is not so different from Canada," he said, "and we won there in June."