Race analysis - Renault playing catch-up 08 May 2006
Ferrari prove they plan to push champions all the way
For the second race in succession, Ferrari headed home with their tail up. Ultimately, theirs was a dominant performance at the Nurburgring, though at times it did not seem so. It was the second victory of the season for the team and for Michael Schumacher, and the first podium of Felipe Massas career, and set them strongly on course to challenge Renault over the balance of the season. In some of the Michelin teams there was the feeling that Bridgestone had a small but crucial advantage this weekend, and Michelin themselves admitted that some of the compounds they had selected were probably too hard for the prevailing conditions.
Beaten for the second time in a row, Renault were resigned in Germany. Generally there was an air in the camp that their package was not on a par with Ferraris, with Michelins contribution arguably among the key factors. There were allusions to grip problems all weekend, however, and afterwards Flavio Briatore said: We have to admit that the combination of Bridgestone and Ferrari was too strong for us today, and in those conditions finishing second is like winning.
While Fernando Alonso said he was quite happy with second place and another eight points, Giancarlo Fisichella had a tougher race in the pack after starting 11th. He was in traffic the whole afternoon, first trapped behind Jacques Villeneuve whom he had criticised so strongly after allegedly being blocked in qualifying, then behind Rubens Barrichello. He was very pleased with his second stop, which finally enabled him to beat the French-Canadian, and overall the team still garnered 11 valuable points.
Frankly, the best that McLaren realistically hoped for was third, and Kimi Raikkonen failed to achieve that by a mere 0.432s. The Finn said he was unhappy with the performance of the car after beating Barrichello away at the start and diving by Jenson Button on the fourth lap, but agreed that it was an improvement over Imola. He set the second fastest lap of the race, albeit four-tenths shy of Schumacher, and was the fastest man out there in the final stint. Juan Pablo Montoya spent most of his race stuck in the traffic, and was struck down by a Mercedes-Benz engine failure.
Once again Honda didnt have the pace when it mattered. They ran a different strategy to usual, with Barrichello stopping on lap 19 and Button on 20, rather than being among the very first to stop. Button found his car inconsistent, partly because of the wind, with the balance changing from corner to corner. Things were improving in the second stint and he said he would have been happy with fifth in a car he didnt like, but then his engine let go as he started his 29th lap. Barrichello fought poor balance and fifth place was more a matter of surviving than anything else.
Midland enjoyed a great race between team mates Tiago Monteiro and Christijan Albers, and a return to solid reliability. Monteiro was very happy with the consistency of his M16s balance all the way through, but Albers lost ground in the Ralf Schumacher-induced Tonio Liuzzi/David Coulthard clash in the first corner, then got stuck for a while behind Takuma Sato after Monteiro had found a way by. The Dutchman was then slowed before the finish by a rear-end vibration. It was a more promising performance for the team to finish just a lap down, the same as Jarno Trulli (Toyota), Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber) and Scott Speed (Toro Rosso).
Williams had a frustrating time in Germany, which began when both cars required engine changes before qualifying. That compromised everything as Mark Webber had to start 19th and Nico Rosberg 22nd. Both naturally began with high fuel loads and after making a great getaway Webber was nicely placed for what the team believed would have been a fourth or fifth place finish when his FW28 lost hydraulic fluid. Rosberg fought well for seventh place, and believed he might have made that sixth had he felt more inclined to take a risk with Fisichella.
BMW Sauber picked up the final point, but Villeneuve suffered on the first laps after pit stops trying to get sufficient heat into the tyres. He was able to keep ahead of Fisichella for a long time early on, but ultimately lost out to the Italian because of that problem second time around. Interestingly, he felt the F1.06 felt better on worn Michelins. Nick Heidfeld made a great start and moved up four places, but his performance was soon hurt by poor balance. Overall the team garnered another point, but were not fast enough.
Toyota benefited from Bridgestones performance in Ralf Schumachers case, and a long first stint, and having survived hitting Liuzzi at the start the German was on target for sixth place when he suffered a rare engine failure on the 53rd lap. Trulli, however, could not get grip from his cars set-up and struggled home a disappointing ninth.
At Toro Rosso, Liuzzi made a great start but then suffered damage after Ralf Schumachers assault launched him into Coulthard. The front wing was hanging off and the right rear tyre was off the rim. The latter caused him to spin when he got to Turn 10, and as the safety car came out for two laps, his race was over. Speed believed he was quicker than Heidfeld and the Toyotas, but that he and the team jointly lost crucial time in the pit stops. He finished11th.
Red Bull had a lousy day. Coulthard made one pit stop at the end of the first lap to have his RB2s nose replaced, but then other associated problems stopped him for good on lap four. Christian Klien showed reasonable pace as he chased after Heidfeld, but was taken out by gearbox issues.
Neither of the Super Aguris finished; Franck Montagny suffered what appeared to be an engine failure but which was described by the team as a hydraulic problem which momentarily set the back of the car alight. Takuma Sato made a superb start to run 14th at the end of the opening lap, but later suffered a flapping engine cover wing at one stage before retiring with a hydraulic problem.
The Grand Prix of Europe posed some fascinating questions in the run-up to Spain next week, and spelled out in the clearest terms that the 2006 World Championship is going to be a great struggle between Renault, Ferrari and McLaren. What happens in the next clutch of races will be crucial to aspirations and performance as the tight deadlines place a premium on individual teams abilities to develop their cars quickly and efficiently.