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Race analysis - what might have been 29 May 2006

The podium (L to R): Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) McLaren, second; Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault race winner; David Coulthard (GBR) Red Bull Racing, third.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 28 May 2006 Race winner Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 28 May 2006 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Toyota TF106.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 28 May 2006 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren Mercedes MP4/21.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 28 May 2006 Mark Webber (AUS) Williams on the grid.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 28 May 2006

McLaren, Williams, Toyota thwarted by Renault reliability

You could have cut the atmosphere in the Renault pit with a knife immediately after qualifying on Saturday, before the stewards handed Michael Schumacher the penalty that took him from a controversial pole position to the back of the Monaco grid. But on Sunday the blue team were smiling broadly again as Fernando Alonso extended his world championship lead by six points, and Giancarlo Fisichella’s fighting sixth place helped move Renault 28 points ahead of arch-rivals Ferrari.

The speed of Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren apart, the only fly in the ointment came in the form of the penalty that dropped Fisichella from fifth on the grid (which would have been fourth with Schumacher’s penalty) to ninth and thus condemned him to race on a strategy that had been dependent on a position close to the front. The Italian put in an aggressive performance and some excellent overtaking - Rosberg, Coulthard, Villeneuve and Liuzzi all succumbed - in the course of a fighting race that underlined Renault’s bulletproof reliability.

For McLaren, a race that held the possibility of victory for the first 50 laps ultimately yielded a sound second place. The MP4-21 was well suited to Monte Carlo, but a new cooling package ultimately let it down. Raikkonen had a fire on Thursday when a carbon heat shield malfunctioned, and a similar failure while behind the safety car triggered the wiring harness fire that stopped him. Juan Pablo Montoya, meanwhile, had a stage in his second stint when his McLaren handled the way he wanted it to, and rapidly hauled in Alonso, Raikkonen and Mark Webber’s Williams. But just as quickly he fell back as they all encountered the lengthy trains of traffic that were such a feature of the race, and when his car started oversteering again he had to settle for second place. The eight points took McLaren’s total to 50, only 13 behind Ferrari but a long way from Renault’s 91.

The red team had a torrid weekend, with Felipe Massa crashing on his first flying qualifying lap and thus starting from the back alongside his team mate. Both received fresh engines prior to the start, since neither could be penalised further, and Schumacher elected for a single-stop strategy and a start from the pit lane. He quickly scythed through the backmarkers, got caught for a while behind Jenson Button, and then pushed up to join the midfield scrap. Eventually he worked his way through thanks to his pit-stop strategy, and in the closing stages set the race’s fastest lap. Technical director Ross Brawn particularly praised the performance and durability of Bridgestone’s tyres, just as Alonso had Michelin’s. Schumacher’s fastest lap was 1m 15.143s set on the 74th lap, which compared well with Alonso’s 1m 15.671s from the 11th and Raikkonen’s 1m 15.325s from the 19th.

“I don’t think the fastest laps are really representative at all of the races,” Alonso said, “and today the track was improving every lap.” But the tyre war would have been fascinating had Schumacher started from the front row.

Williams were the other big loser, and one wonders what Mark Webber has to do to finish a race on the podium this year. He was in superb form with the agile Cosworth-engined FW28, and the second stint revealed the package to be highly competitive until, almost inevitably, he lost time in the traffic. The problem that stopped him was not, as it seemed from the fire captured by the television screens, an engine failure, but an electrical fire triggered by a faulty exhaust. Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, crashed at Noghes on the lap that the safety car went in because of a sticking throttle.

Right now, Williams have the pace, but their reliability has cost them dearly at a time when so few other cars break down.

For Red Bull, Monaco was the place where everything came good. Superman David Coulthard’s podium finish was his first in two years but also Dietrich Mateschitz’s best showing since he bought the team. It was a solid result, a product of effort and commitment, the decision to change from a two-stop strategy to a one-stop, and the blend of luck that you also need in a place like Monte Carlo. It was none the worse for that. It was a disappointment that Christian Klien lost out on a solid helping of points as his car suffering loss of drive, while the sister Toro Rosso team suffered from the tyre choice that was available to them (Tonio Liuzzi stunned in qualifying after running Michelin’s harder tyres generally deemed to be seven-tenths of a second per lap slower than the softer compound others raced), and Liuzzi also lost out when the team kept him out too long so that he gained no advantage from a single-stop strategy. Scott Speed, meanwhile, struggled after a good start with his STR 01’s nervous rear end.

BMW Sauber took two points, courtesy of a fighting drive from Nick Heidfeld in which last year’s second place finisher avoided making mistakes in a car with poor rear-end grip while keeping it ahead of clearly faster machinery. Jacques Villeneuve might have challenged for points too, but delayed himself with a drive-through penalty after overtaking Nico Rosberg while the safety car was out.

Toyota looked all set for an eventual third place, as Jarno Trulli worked his way unobtrusively through following the various retirements and other incidents. But then his TF106B suffered a sudden hydraulic failure that left him parked on the climb to Massenet. That moved Ralf Schumacher into the points in eighth place, but that was scant consolation to a team that could have done very nicely with a podium slot in the Principality at a time when its effort is nowhere near as impressive as it was last year.

Honda, too, had a tough time. Things seemed to have played into Rubens Barrichello’s hands as Schumacher and Fisichella got moved back on the grid, for he had qualified with a hefty fuel load. He made a good start and defended well against faster cars, and was also on course for that podium slot until he went speeding in the pits and was awarded the drive-through penalty that dropped him a place and left him open to late-race attack from Michael Schumacher. Jenson Button, however, never featured and could not better an 11th place finish in his worst-ever Formula One outing. Plagued by handling inconsistencies, he never had a chance.

Midland’s race began in unusual fashion, as fast-starting Christijan Albers swept across from the left-hand side of the grid and promptly swiped team mate Tiago Monteiro into the pit wall. The Portuguese driver gave it a good bash and had to pit at the end of the lap for a new nose before continuing. He went on to have a 40-lap scrap with Franck Montagny’s Super Aguri, which included a nose-to-tail shoving match exiting Casino Square when Monteiro said he thought the Frenchman had braked far too early. They both survived, to take 15th and 16th places respectively. Monteiro was unhappy that this was behind Albers, even though the Dutchman received a drive-through penalty for causing an avoidable accident on that opening lap. Albers said he was very happy with 12th, considering his penalty, and reported that his M16 was going really well.

Further back, Takuma Sato was his usual energetic self, but was stopped by electrical problems after 48 laps.

With the fast sweeps of Silverstone coming up, it’s anyone’s guess whether Renault, Ferrari or McLaren will be supreme, but watch out for Williams too, and don’t write off Honda yet.