Right rubber at the right time tells the story of Spa
What has happened to McLarens luck this year? You could hardly label them unlucky after Kimi Raikkonen won the Belgian Grand Prix with ease (and some not inconsiderable support from team mate Juan Pablo Montoya). But once again the teams first one-two since Austria 2000 slipped through their fingers.
This was particularly cruel fortune for the Montoya, who had led the race for 32 laps before Raikkonen took over, and was stroking it home for second place. That would have elevated McLaren to first in the constructors standings, ahead of season-long leaders Renault. The cars were supremely reliable all weekend, yet once again their hopes of an 18-point haul were frustrated by outside factors - this time in the shape of Antonio Pizzonia.
What happened between the Brazilian and the Colombian highlighted the story of this remarkable race: it was all about being on the right tyre at the right time. After Giancarlo Fisichellas crash at Eau Rouge on lap 11, Montoya, Raikkonen, Jarno Trulli, Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Takuma Sato, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Christian Klien, Pizzonia, Rubens Barrichello and Narain Karthikeyan all pitted. Schumacher Snr, Sato, Button, Coulthard, Webber and Pizzonia all opted for dry tyres, but had to come in again a lap later to go back to intermediates. This was, Jordans Johnny Herbert observed, the first time I can remember a wet Spa not really drying out before the end of the race.
Pizzonia slid into Montoya while trying to unlap himself, and that was that.
Renault were delighted that the incident elevated Alonso to second place and minimised the impact of Raikkonens sixth victory of the season, but they could have done with Fisichella scoring points too. Instead the unlucky Italian pushed too hard in a car that was running in low-downforce configuration and shunted heavily. That may well prove to be costly as the Renault versus McLaren fight in the constructors stakes continues. As far as the drivers title is concerned, all Alonso needs to do in Brazil in a fortnight is finish third. Alternatively, six points from any of the three remaining races will suffice.
BAR was the third top-finishing team to have mixed fortunes. Button feared all was lost after his tyre snafu, and was hampered by severe oversteer in the early going. But a key front wing adjustment in his first stop helped things and gradually the race came back to him. Team mate Takuma Sato had a different day, and Michael Schumacher was not amused to be taken out at La Source when the Japanese driver ran into the back of him on lap 14. Cold brakes and tyres notwithstanding, Satos mistake will cost him 10 grid positions in Brazil, though curiously Pizzonia, who was not fighting for position, got away with a fine of US$8000 for his later misdemeanour.
It wasnt all bad for BAR, though. Buttons podium finish earned them six more points and pushed them into sixth place overall ahead of Red Bull.
Putting aside the Pizzonia business, Williams also had reason to be cheerful. Having considered their race damned after the tyre choice on lap 11, they found themselves back in the game. They were the first team to time the switch to dry tyres perfectly, bringing Webber in on lap 38. That enabled the Australian to set fastest lap (later bettered by Ralf Schumacher) as he clawed back to catch and pass Rubens Barrichello for fourth place. A good performance all round.
Ferrari came to Belgium expecting little, even if it was wet, and went home with only four points for Barrichellos fifth place. In the dry they struggled, and the race wasnt wet enough for the qualities of the Bridgestone tyre to come into play. Schumacher was looking in reasonable shape until the Sato incident, but Barrichello was just surviving out there and could offer no defence as Button and then Webber challenged him in the closing stages.
Sauber should have finished third thanks to Felipe Massas strong drive, but the Brazilian made a crucial error in electing to switch to dry tyres on lap 29. He felt the conditions were similar to Friday morning, when that ploy had worked, but crucially the track was not drying out anything like as quickly. Having lost huge amounts of time he sped back in for intermediates three laps later, but by then it was all over. Instead they had to be content with Jacques Villeneuves best drive of the season into sixth place. With a single-stop strategy he was always going to be driving a relatively heavy car. But he did so with gusto and made a fabulous save when he got completely sideways in Eau Rouge on the 29th lap. That lap he also banged wheels with Narain Karthikeyan as the Indian overtook at Les Combes, but as the fuel load went down in the closing stages the French-Canadian was able to attack again and to resist Ralf Schumachers challenge.
Toyota looked like a possible threat for a podium at one stage, but ultimately came away with only two points and slipped a little further back from Ferrari in the battle for third place in the constructors championship. Ralfs efforts to run on dry tyres caused him to spin at Les Combes on lap 24 and to lose all the benefit of a strong low-fuel opening run that at one stage took him as high as second place. Team mate Jarno Trulli was also strong early on before also losing out on dries. Later he fell off when Tiago Monteiro accidentally pressed his Jordans pit lane speed limiter. The Italian ran into the back of the EJ15B, lost his Toyotas front wing, and hit the wall. After so much potential promise, those two points and Schumacher Jnrs fastest lap were little consolation.
At Jordan, that incident with Trulli apart, Monteiro drove an excellent race and they thoroughly deserved the point for eighth place. Monteiro was in the thick of midfield battles for much of the race, and Karthikeyan showed his usual feisty form fighting against Villeneuve.
For Red Bull it was a day of maximum disappointment. Coulthard was in the hunt for points until his engine blew on lap 19 - Cosworths first failure of the year with the team - when he was running 11th, while Christian Kliens pace came too late for the Austrian to do better than ninth. He did, however, set the third fastest lap on his dry tyres.
Minardi qualified with such low fuel loads that neither car could actually start from their back row of the grid positions. Robert Doornbos took over the spare PS05 and had it refuelled, while Christijan Albers likewise started from the pit lane and was thus able to refuel. Their causes were hampered when both started on full-wet Bridgestones, and had to make early stops for intermediates. Then Albers lost second gear and after 12 laps was not able to select any ratio lower than third. Nevertheless he finished 12th, with Doornbos 13th after losing a minute during his stint on full wets.
Now the focus switches to Brazil, where Renault have a major aerodynamic update and their latest D-specification V10. BAR will have similar steps, and Ferrari hope that a new Bridgestone tyre will take them back to the form they showed in Hungary. McLaren, meanwhile, will be hoping to get their cars home first and second at last.