At this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix held at Monza, in sight of the snow capped Alpine giants to the North, two giants of Formula One, Ferrari and McLaren, were neck and neck for most of the race. Such proximity calls for a little bit of human intuition, but once again McLaren preferred to let the computer programs do their thinking for them.
So often this year McLaren have misread the weather data from their computer systems, without necessarily having any understanding for the essentials of how weather works. They’ve been caught out on the wrong tyres more than once, to their detriment. On Sunday though, it was their analysis of tyre data that was their undoing – although McLaren’s team boss Martin Whitmarsh prefers to blame the mechanics.
Alonso’s Ferrari had taken pole on Saturday, the only car to lap in less than 1 min 22 secs. Reigning World Champion Jenson Button, renowned for being easy on his tyres, had opted for a high downforce setup which is unheard of at Monza. This gave Button better grip on braking into corners, and better traction out of corners as well as far better downforce around the faster curves such as the two Lesmos and the legendary Parabolica.
This was because McLaren’s tech department had come up with a great way to stall the rear wing so it doesn’t reduce speed as much as it might otherwise do when on the fast straights – the innovative “f-duct” (so called because the air intake pops up in the middle of the ‘f’ in their sponsor’s name).
Although the Ferrari was faster in a straight line (straight line testing is the only sort allowed this year) it couldn’t get close enough to Button to get past. So long as Button stayed in front of Alonso, it would not matter if Alonso had the faster car because of Button’s choice on setup. Since Jenson’s also great on his tyres, he can always be expected to go further than Hamilton before ruining them. But Button’s the newbie in the team this year, and their collective wisdom has been scarred by so many of Hamilton’s lost races caused by not looking after his tyres as much as Jenson does.
There was only one way Button was going to stay in front in this race, and that was by staying in front. Sounds glib, but there’s more to it than a simple inanitude. That meant pitting last, in my opinion, and I’ll tell you why.
Because of the minimum of one pit stop per race to change tyres all cars must make, there was a crucial danger point for Button. In order to stay in front, it was imperative for him to maintain track position, and he could do this even though his car was slower, based on qualifying times.
Whitmarsh claims that the new tyres were faster than the old ones, but naturally not in the first lap after being put on when they were still cold. Ferraris have had a reputation for a long time of being poor on cold tyres. Leaving Button out for longer than Alosno would have maintained track position with Button in front because Alonso was always out of shape in the places he needed to be on rails to get past Button.
If Alonso had pitted first, and Button one lap later, Alonso would not have had enough time on warm fast tyres to overcome the track position advantage Button would have been able to maintain: Button was hardly sliding around – that was Alonso on cold tyres (he’s always prone to being a bit wild anyway). Alonso’s out lap on cold tyres while still behind on track position could have brought down his famous “red mist” causing him to make a mistake; making him do catch up on tyres he was used to and comfortable on put less pressure on him, and to beat Alonso, pressure is always a good weapon to apply.
In any case, he would only have been on hot tyres when Button came out of the pits to do his out lap – but with track position maintained. It would have been tricky for Alonso to get past, and Button is good on cold tyres anyway. But I fear McLaren set their defaults according to Hamilton, and they have not yet learned to trust how different Button is.
As we saw from Vettel’s Red Bull, it was possible to run the whole race on the tyres so a tyre change was an imperative only for rule-keeping, not for strategy, and not for track position.
Now, Whitmarsh contends that the new tyres were “faster” – but were they fast enough to overtake at Monza where the only places to overtake are those places where a high downforce set up is an advantage? Remember, two cars racing closely together never lap at their optimum speeds due to the competitive nature of what they’re doing, blocking, looking in mirrors, taking different lines. They can be left behind or caught up by slower cars just because a race is a sub-optimal environment for attaining maximum speed potential.
So, when Button and Alonso met once again after the pit stops, Button was the only one of the two to have completed a lap on slower, cooler tyres, while Alonso who had not been so disadvantaged now had track position and a faster car, even though it had cooler tyres. All Fernando had to do was set his faster car and superior track position against his cooler tyres, while Button only had warm tyres to set against his slower car and inferior track position.
I think it was one of bike World Champs Jim Redman or Mike Hailwood who once said, “You don’t have to be the fastest to win; you just have to be fast enough.” Perhaps Martin Whitmarsh should think of this next time, and not rely quite so much on his theoretical computer models?