Title race well and truly on as Renault struggle in Germany
Not even an aero package described as the teams most significant update of the season could save Renault from another beating by Ferrari in Germany. From the start of the weekend the red cars had that same edge they showed in Indianapolis and Magny-Cours, and the runaway one-two scored by Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa was testament to the current strength of the Italian package.
Once again, the race was a story of tyre performance. The Ferraris were in a class of their own, and after the opening laps neither of their drivers really had to push at 100 percent. Driving on the limit would have been difficult today, Schumacher said, but we didnt have to. That said it all.
As they swept on majestically, the wheels came loose on Renaults world championship campaign, with Fernando Alonso a weak fifth ahead of team mate Giancarlo Fisichella. Both complained of blistering Michelin tyres, but nobody was prepared to estimate how much that might have been down to the decision not to run with the controversial mass dampers after the FIA indicated their intention to appeal the decision of their own stewards that such dampers are legal.
Alonso said his first set of Michelins was poor, his second good, and his third poor again, and blamed his big slide on lap 61 on a combination of the blistering and the need to push hard after Jenson Button. Fisichella, however, said that his first set was good, the second bad, and the third good. Renaults strategy this weekend called for all of their race sets to be scrubbed, to try to avoid the graining to which new tyres are prey, but it didnt pay off.
As Schumacher and Massa set the fastest race laps - 1m 16.357s and 1m 16.392s respectively - Alonso languished in ninth place (one behind Fisichella) on 1m 17.256s. Worse still for Renault, those times were bettered by McLarens Kimi Raikkonen (1m 16.475s), the Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher (1m 16.763s) and Jarno Trulli (1m 16.807s), Mark Webbers Williams (1m 16.812s) and Button in the Honda (1m 16.818s). Some of those were explainable because of the Bridgestones, but for Renault to be behind fellow Michelin runners McLaren and Honda indicates the depth of their distress at Hockenheim. To make matters worse, only 10 points now separate them from Ferrari in the constructors championship: 149 to 139. Renault wont have the same type of tyres at Hungaroring next weekend, and therein lies their current hope of retrieving the ground lost so spectacularly to Ferrari and Bridgestone in recent weeks.
While Renault sweated, McLaren and Honda left with their tails up. Were it not for a glitch in which less fuel than intended was put into Raikkonens tank for the third session of qualifying, the Finn might not have taken pole position and might not, ironically, have had such a good race. He reported that his Michelins were all but finished after his 10-lap opening stint, but then he got into a good run which was compromised by an electronics problem that prevented his engine from developing full power and sent the gearshift awry. Without that I think we could have been a lot closer to the Ferraris, reported the Finn, who was the only front runner to make three refuelling stops. Part of McLarens upturn is down to a new front wing first tried in Jerez the previous week. Pedro de la Rosa should have been a strong points contender, but retired early with fuel pump failure.
Lots of separate programmes to improve parts of the RA106 added up to a significant improvement in performance for Honda in Germany. They began to look like the team that had started the season with such high hopes. There was disappointment when Rubens Barrichellos engine broke early on, but Button buoyed everyone with his strong run to fourth. I just have to hope that we can carry this progress through to Hungary now because everyone has been working so hard to make this step forward, Barrichello said.
Toyota continued to hold on to the fifth place in the standings that they relieved BMW Sauber of at Magny-Cours, courtesy of Jarno Trullis strong run to seventh place. Had it not been for Fisichella ahead of him when Alonso had his grassy moment in the stadium, the Toyota driver would probably have jumped the Spaniard, such was his pace. Team mate Ralf Schumacher had a torrid day, hitting David Coulthard on the opening lap, getting a pit lane speeding drive-through penalty and then a driving lesson from Tonio Liuzzi, but his fourth-fastest lap showed that the TF106B is a contender for points now that its tyres are working well.
Williams should have left Germany with four valuable - and desperately needed - points, as Mark Webber drove his heart out in the FW28. There had already been the disappointment of Nico Rosbergs second shunt of the weekend on the opening lap; then, with nine laps to go, Webbers Cosworth succumbed to, of all things, a water leak. It was a bitter blow, especially as that would have moved the team ahead of Red Bull Racing. As it was, Christian Klien took the final point for Dietrich Mateschitzs team after a measured drive, which left team mate David Coulthard so disgruntled - he was assaulted by Ralf Schumachers Toyota early on and then overtaken later by Tonio Liuzzi;s year-old Toro Rosso design - that he refused to make any meaningful comment afterwards.
The Toro Rossos were actually pretty quick, Liuzzi and team mate Scott Speed setting the 10th and 11th best lap times ahead of the two Red Bulls, but Liuzzi reported that he did not have to grunt to keep ahead of the two Toyotas.
Midland started two cars and finished both, only for them to be disqualified after stewards decided there was too much flex in their rear wings. Christijan Albers had a solid dice with Speeds Toro Rosso and was ahead when his Toyota engine began to lose power in the closing stages, costing him a place. Tiago Monteiro chose softer Bridgestones that were less durable, and suffered accordingly, and his race was further compromised by a drive-through penalty for ignoring blue flags. He also had a spell chasing Takuma Satos new Super Aguri SA06, until the latter lost so much oil that its gearbox cried enough. Satos team mate Sakon Yamamoto made his Formula One debut from the pit lane on the races second lap, but was an immediate retirement with a driveshaft failure.
And so to BMW Sauber. They had the worst possible opening lap as Jacques Villeneuve ran into the back of team mate Nick Heidfeld in Turn 6. Both made pit stops at the end of the lap, and resultant damage to Heidfelds brakes eventually prompted his retirement. Villeneuve got going again with a new nose, but serious oversteer caught him out in Turn 17 on lap 31, and he got off line on to the marbles and crashed heavily.
The 2006 championship chase is now at two-thirds distance as everybody heads for Hungary next weekend. Whether there is time for Renault and Michelin to get back into the groove by then remains to be seen.