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McLaren caught with their pants down 
29 September 2000 Volume 2 - Issue 31 

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I know that I have been the cause of heated debate, especially with the Ferrari fans, when I keep on insisting that McLaren are still faster than Ferrari.

Surely now, that Ferrari have finished first and second in Indianapolis, I should acknowledge defeat and admit that I was wrong.

Not yet. Not this season.

Not only was the Indianapolis Grand Prix the first race on a circuit that had no history, let alone F1 experience, but it also is a unique track. Half of it is potentially faster than any other circuit in the season and the other half is almost as slow as Monaco, the slowest circuit in the season.

It was exactly this phenomenon that caught McLaren with their pants down, although we may never hear them admit it. They set their cars up for optimum performance by finding the balance between drag and downforce that would result in the fastest laps. To do this they ended up carrying more wing than any of the other teams.

Under normal circumstances it would not have mattered much if they were in touch with the lead for the entire race, but after Coulthard’s 10-second penalty he was not likely to get back in contention unless something dramatic happened to the leaders and Mika’s rather lack lustre performance on a damp track before the first pit stops did not help either.

Catching Schumacher meant being fast on the straight as well as through the slow section. Hakkinen was very fast through the slower, twisty, bit but was carrying too much drag (or wing) to capitalise on his superior power on the straight. In fact for the first time this season we saw a McLaren struggling to overtake a Minardi.

Once on dry tyres it was obvious that the McLaren was faster and Hakkinen reduced Schumacher’s lead to just over three seconds before his motor gave up. Although not in contention for the podium, Coulthard posted the fastest lap of the race. The McLaren was fast!

In my opinion Hakkinen knew that he had no chance of overtaking Schumacher on the track (I remind you again that McLaren was hard pushed to overtake Minardi) and knew that his only shot at it would be in the pits. It was therefore essential to get in touch with Schumacher before the next pit stop.

That meant pushing the car as hard as he could. Accelerating onto the banked curve had to be at maximum, using absolute maximum revolutions at a very heavy drag loading.

I guess the Mercedes engine just could not take the sustained pounding and voted for time out with an oil seal or two.

Under the circumstances Mika could do nothing else and McLaren learnt the lesson that all teams will remember: At the brickyard downforce may be important but you must leave the car slippery enough to overtake too.

David Coulthard deliberately blocked Schumacher at the start of the race.

But isn’t this exactly what happened in Malaysia last year? And was it not Michael Schumacher that did the blocking that time?

Now, Coulthard should not interfere because he is not in contention for the championship. But last year when Michael did it he was also not in contention for the championship. So, where is the difference?

I think that this constant whinging between these two drivers (and dramatising by the press) should stop. They accuse each other of unsporting tactics at the start, blocking unfairly during the race and if that does not work, subtle insults are tried.

In both their cases it detracts from their stature as professional drivers.

Why don’t they just admit that they do not like each other and leave it at that. If either oversteps the line they will be penalised or even disqualified. If that does not happen they should accept it and get on with racing, and not announce their petty dislikes to the world at the first press conference. They should both be above that.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that racetrack design may be the easiest way to overcome the overtaking problem (the original idea was not mine – one of our readers suggested this a long time ago).

Although it rained in Hockenheim and we also had the man on the track that caused an unnecessary number of laps behind the pace car, the long straights made slipstreaming and overtaking possible.

The long straight at Indianapolis, immediately after a flat out banked turn, also made overtaking possible.

So it seems that, if we want to see overtaking, in future Grand Prix should be held on circuits where there is at least one section where top speed is maintained for long enough so that slipstreaming will work. If this long straight ends in a rather tight bend it is even better as it adds the opportunity for braking duels.

It does however create another problem: Risk. Long straights mean high speed and if anything goes wrong the accidents are normally very severe. F1 drivers are paid to take risks, but there is a limit. The risk to spectators and marshals is also greater.

One of the ways to limit the outright speed is to make the rest of the track (or at least a very large portion of it) tight and slow so that a high downforce configuration is needed for the best lap times. At least the high downforce will limit top speed.

What do you think?

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