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The Michelin factor
28 June 2001 Volume 3 - Issue 20

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In my opinion Williams had the wrong strategy for the European GP. They came in on the same lap as Ferrari when they should have planned to stay out longer.

The Michelin tyres seem to take an extraordinary time to get up to speed. At the start and also after every pit stop Williams were not as fast as Ferrari but after 8 laps both Ralf Schumacher and Montoya were reeling the Ferrari back in.

I am sure that it did not take 8 laps for the tyres to come into their own as it was obvious that they were faster after 8 laps, so let us assume that it took 6 laps before they were working properly. Two pit stops (which is the strategy they adopted) breaks the race up into 3 stints and if they were off the pace for 6 laps every time (and there was no indication that they were not) they used 18 laps to get their tyres competitive.

Give Michael an advantage of 18 out of 67 laps and he will find a way to make that last for the whole race.

In Canada Williams demonstrated that they were capable of being on the pace with considerably more fuel than Ferrari so the fuel load should not have been a problem.

Williams were also fastest just before they pitted. This is quite normal - Ferrari were also faster on a low fuel load. However, Williams were demonstrably faster than Ferrari at the end of each stint, which can have only one explanation: their tyres were working much better than Ferrari's.

So, if that is the case. Why did they not take advantage of it?

It could be that they did not expect the tyres to take that long before they reach optimum performance. A little weird if this is the case as they have had several days of practice and should have discovered it.

The first two sets that went on Ralf's car were obviously scrubbed and I am sure that Williams expected them to "get into the good zone" much quicker, but the last set of tyres on both cars looked new.

The tyres that came off the Williams cars had very little groove left as were the tyres on Panis' BAR when it ended up in the sand trap.

Could it be that Williams and Michelin were concerned that the scrutineers may react to tyres worn to the extent that they resemble slicks?

Some may say that Michael Schumacher was lucky. If Ralf did not have to stop for his 10-second penalty, Michael would not have won the race.

His tactics to keep his brother behind him at the start will undoubtedly also draw some criticism. In my opinion Michael knew that he had very little option but to push the rules to the limit at the start. Williams seem to have better launch control and Ralf has been very fast off the line several times this season.

Michael had to make sure that he got to the first corner in front, and he did what it took.

Michael makes his own luck. If Ralf did not have to fit in the extra stop we may have seen some close racing but as they were both on the same pit strategy and timing I am sure that Michael could have kept Ralf at bay for the whole race. Ralf may have been faster but not fast enough to overtake an uncooperative driver and there was no reason at all for Michael to cooperate.

I am not sure that I believed Coulthard when he implied that McLaren still have the most powerful engine.

I do believe that the McLaren car was developed on the assumption that the power advantage they had last year would continue this season. I also believe that the only way they will recover is to find enough horsepower to bridge the gap.

Over the season Ferrari (who, in my opinion, could not match McLaren's power in the early part of the season) has found more power and is now obviously faster than McLaren. Williams may not have started with a reliable motor but it was obviously the most powerful from very early in the season.

McLaren needs the extra power for the balance of the season. It is possible that a redesign of the aerodynamics and chassis could give them the increased pace that is needed and they may well be working on that, but there is only one week between Nurburg and Magny Cours and that is not enough time.

Their only short-term solution must be to increase the power and that means running the risk of engine failures.

McLaren may make up the pace but for the foreseeable future I expect to see more engine failures for this team.

Interesting that all six leading cars finished in the points. It is probably just coincidence but it shows that reliability in the front is not the issue it was earlier in the season and that it will be difficult for the other teams to score points from here on.

Of the rest of the bunch Jaguar impressed me the most. Their aerodynamic changes have improved their performance substantially. They are promising of more to come but I suspect that it will be too late in the season to matter.

The Circuit de Nevers in the Magny-Cours district has hosted the French Grand Prix for the last 11 years.

With the long sweeping curves and shorter straights we should see some overtaking. The pit straight that ends in a sweeping left hander (Grande Courbe) has potential for overtaking as it is immediately after a very slow corner that would require mostly mechanical grip which will allow close following (necessary for maximising the effect of the slipstream of the car in front).

The long curve leading up to Adelaide corner (where Schumacher nudged Senna off on the opening lap in 1993) will be an easy overtaking spot for cars with a speed advantage and the straight after Chateau d'Eou bears watching too.

It is not a fast circuit. Average speed of the winning car should be around 122 mph (196 km/H) if it is a dry race. It is not a favourite venue amongst the drivers who all feel that, with the exception of the first two turns, it is quite a boring drive.

It does however have some very fast sections where this year's cars could reach 320km/H(200mph).

Tyre choice will be critical as the circuit is very smooth and needs the softest possible compound to maximise grip. Depending on weather conditions many teams may find themselves out on the wrong rubber. Too soft and tyre wear may be too high, too hard and grip may be too low.

Magny-Cours needs somewhere in between high and medium downforce. I expect to see all teams carry fairly large wings. Teams that are down on horsepower could get away with less downforce if they have a chassis that has good mechanical grip as not all of the circuit needs the downforce and time can be made up on the faster sections.

The ideal configuration would have quite a lot of mechanical and aerodynamic grip, but as these are presently virtually mutually exclusive most teams will compromise between the two. .

Michael Schumacher is probably best equipped to win here. If it is very hot and the Williams tyres get up to performance rapidly we may again see a race between the Schumacher brothers. This time of the year Magny-Cours could be very hot, so hot that Bridgestone may develop blisters again. In that case it is possible that both Williams will get past Michael Schumacher.

McLaren could also do well seeing that their marginal lack of power should not be too obvious. If they do turn the wick up by increasing maximum revolutions allowed they may blow an engine or two.

The pure, outright, performance of the Williams and the brilliant driving, strategy and car control of Michael makes me suspect that this will again be a battle between the two Williams and the lone Ferrari of Schumacher.

If Michael wins again, the championship struggle is over bar the fat lady singing.

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