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Pat Symonds - Ferrari pulled a blinder 24 Apr 2006

Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 248F1 and Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26 battle.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, San Marino Grand Prix, Race Day, Imola, Italy, 23 April 2006

To stop or not to stop? Did Renault make the right decision?

Following Michael Schumacher’s victory over Fernando Alonso at Imola on Sunday, the paddock was alive with speculation about ‘tactical errors', bluff and counter bluff, and respective fuel loads. Did Renault throw away a race win with a tactical mistake? Or did they do everything they could to try and steal the win from Ferrari? Clearly, Renault believe the latter - as engineering director Pat Symonds explained…

Q: Pat, let's start at the beginning. How did the first stint go for Alonso?
Pat Symonds:
To be honest, the first stint unfolded pretty much as we expected. We saw Michael pulling away from everybody, as we had predicted - although perhaps not as fast as we had thought. It also became clear during that stint, that the tyre degradation was very low. That meant we knew the longer first stint we had planned, would allow us to pull back some time on Michael - as, indeed, proved to be the case [Alonso was 13.563s behind when Schumacher stopped, and 11.272s behind after Alonso had stopped].

Q: And what about the second stint of the race?
PS:
That was when things became very surprising. Michael's tyre degradation was suddenly dreadful - and it very soon became clear that we were significantly quicker than him, and running much faster. It took Fernando less than ten laps to close the gap and start pressuring him.

Q: Presumably, then, the logical thing to do would have been to run longer again and pass him at the stops?
PS:
Yes, that would - but by the middle of the second stint, we are already locked into our strategy. We make the decision about our second stop during the first stint, and at that point, we had no idea that Michael would have the problems he did. So we followed our optimum pattern, which was to do a shorter second stint in order to improve our track position relative to Michael. Unlike the television predictions, which had us stopping on lap 47 I believe, our measurements said we would stop only a lap later than Michael in all likelihood, or possibly even on the same lap.

Q: In reality, though, you stopped Fernando early…
PS:
Yes, exactly. Fernando pitted two laps earlier than we had planned. Had we been certain of going significantly further than Michael in the second stint then obviously, the option would have been to stay out - and it would have probably worked. But we didn't have that extra fuel, and we would probably have run only a lap longer than Michael. During that lap, he would have been on new tyres and we saw in qualifying that they were particularly strong on those opening ‘golden' laps. So we didn't think it would work for us and obviously, simply following Michael in and out of the pits was not an option. So we got creative, and took the only other option available to try and get the win - to bring Fernando in early.

Q: Was it easy to know which lap to stop on?
PS:
We had to judge it so that we didn't stop too early, and drop into Massa's clutches. So as soon as we saw we were clear, we discussed it with Fernando and gave him a choice: if he was able to overtake Michael, he should stay out; and if not, then he should pit. He pitted, we went for it, and we missed out by just 0.7s when the stops cycled through.

Q: So what was the key?
PS:
The really significant thing was that on the free lap after Fernando pitted, Michael showed he had some performance in reserve. On the lap we pitted, he did a lap of 1:25.7 - where his average speed in the ten previous laps, was 1:27.4. The lap-times during the second stint had not suggested he had that performance in reserve.

Q: Is it frustrating to get beaten by such a fine margin?
PS:
I think that's what motor racing is all about to be honest. Hats off to Michael and Ferrari, because they pulled a blinder! From our point of view, we could have run our planned strategy and still finished second. But it would have been an unsatisfying second place, because there would have been a ‘what if' factor because we hadn't explored every option available to us. As it was, we tried everything we could - and it didn't come off because we saw two cars with very equal levels of performance, battling for the win.* As I said yesterday, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ But in this case, nothing lost either.

*Note: the ‘ideal' laps for each driver - produced by adding together their best three sectors, and which indicates the ‘ultimate' potential performance of the cars - were 1:24.524 for Alonso and 1:24.502 for Schumacher.