Race analysis - a tale of tyre temperature 03 Apr 2006
The real secret of the Australian Grand Prix - apart from avoiding the many accidents - was maintaining tyre temperature. And in the final analysis only Renault truly managed this. Once again the excellence of the R26 chassis played a key role in Fernando Alonsos stylish victory. The Spaniard reported that he was pleased with the cars balance all the way through, as rivals moaned unhappily of understeer and oversteer as they tried to keep their tyres hot after the four safety-car periods.
It was not all sweetness for les bleus, however. Giancarlo Fisichellas car stalled at the start and the Italian began his race from the pit lane, and subsequently he lost his telemetry and had to dictate relevant readings to his pit crew while trying to push forward in the opening stages. Then the clutch malfunctioned after his final stop, after a middle stint married by terrible understeer.
Renault may be the class of the field, but even they have their problems.
McLaren had many. They started with Montoyas spin even before the grid had formed, and continued as the Colombian was one of many to struggle with tyre temperature. This led to a spin before the first safety car, and then his off-course moment on lap 46 which led to his retirement. The impact as he bounced over the kerb activated a default system which switched off the engine, so that was that.
Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, struggled once a front wing endplate fractured as a result of vibrations caused earlier on when he flat-spotted his tyres. That generated serious understeer which really hurt his progress, and it wasnt until he had the front wing replaced in his final stop on lap 34 that the balance was restored. By then it was too late.
Toyota lost Jarno Trulli on the first lap after his collision with David Coulthard, but Ralf Schumachers third place was a timely fillip and was all the more creditable given the drive-through penalty he received for speeding in the pit lane. He explained that he inadvertently hit the limiter button twice.
BMW Sauber were very happy with their speed in qualifying, but even more so with their performance in the race, but had the F1.06s been able to maintain their tyre temperature Nick Heidfeld could certainly have been on the podium. As it was, fourth and sixth (Jacques Villeneuve running a single-stop strategy because of having to start 19th) gave them a healthy dose of points and endorsed the decision to hand select engine components after parts that did not come up to production tolerances had been responsible for the failures that Villeneuve suffered in Bahrain and Heidfeld in Malaysia.
Ferrari and Bridgestone also found it hard to generate tyre temperature, and in the early going Michael Schumacher struggled notably. Things were better in his second stint and he was able to set the races third fastest lap, but tyre wear later accounted for his heavy accident in the final corner as he understeered on to the grass. After all their effort building up a new car around the spare chassis, Felipe Massas mechanics were distraught when he was taken out in the second corner melee.
Williams had a torrid time, with Nico Rosberg being a first-lap casualty, but Mark Webber looked strong in the lead on lap 22 during the pit stops, and was due to run another five or six laps before refuelling. This time it was a gearbox problem that stopped him, just as the Williams FW28 was about to unlock its potential.
The race was bitterly disappointing for Honda. They went to the line feeling quietly confident after Jenson Buttons pole position, but it soon became clear that problems maintaining tyre temperature would really hurt them. Button said his RA106 felt like a car without wings as it slithered haplessly round and was overtaken by Alonsos Renault at the first restart, and Raikkonens McLaren at the second. I dont want to start from pole position and go through that again, Button said tersely, after the engine failure that cost him any points.
It was not a happy day for Red Bull either, though it should have been. Vitantonio Liuzzi drove forcefully and passed Michael Schumacher (for the fourth time in his Formula One career) even though the STR1s were running Michelins harder tyre compound. The Italian believed he could have challenged for fifth or sixth place, and was disappointed by slow pit stops and then very angry after claiming he was squeezed on to the grass and into a huge accident by Jacques Villeneuve on the 38th lap. Team mate Scott Speed could not match his pace, but kept Coulthards surviving Red Bull at bay to the flag to score his and the teams first championship point.
Coulthard was not happy to be beaten by the American, and later protested that he had overtaken him under yellow flags at the Liuzzi incident. The stewards agreed and added 25 seconds to Speeds race time, dropping him to 11th place, and gifting Coulthard his point in the process.
Christian Klien had a tough day, clobbering the unfortunate Massa and Rosberg on the opening lap and later crashing heavily as a result of damage inflicted to his own car.
Midland brought one car home, with Christijan Albers finishing 11th, but Tiago Monteiro retired his M16 with differential failure.
To bring both cars home in only their third Grand Prix was a great achievement for Super Aguri, especially as Ides SA05 was reportedly doing display-car duty outside an Australian burger bar only two months ago. Takuma Sato was one of the stars of the race as he resolutely kept Rubens Barrichello and Coulthard behind him for many laps in the first stint.
Renault remain the class of the field, though it is evident that McLaren have great potential, and in that respect 2006 is currently mirroring the same stage of the 2005 season. The blue cars have almost twice as many points as the silver arrows, however, after only three races. Honda, Ferrari and Williams have shown patchy form, while BMW Sauber surprised in Australia. There is a three-week break before Imola, and you can be sure that everyone will be burning midnight oil in prodigious quantities in the meantime in order to try and resolve their respective shortcomings.