After the enormous build up, Michael Schumacher’s comeback drive didn’t yield a pole or a podium, he finished sixth two places lower than on his last race in Brazil 2006. And this is probably more or less what he expected. The Mercedes didn’t look as fast as the Red Bull and Ferrari in pre season testing and it more or less matched the McLaren for pace all weekend, showing what a good result third was for Lewis Hamilton.
Analysing Schumacher’s performance is worthwhile for two reasons; it shows what kind of shape the great champion is in, on his return after three years off and it sheds some interesting light on the problems F1 faces with the new rules,
Having overshadowed his new team mate Rosberg in the run up to the event, Schumacher was forced to slot in behind him on track, which only happend very occasionally in the past. But he will have seen enough to know that he is going to be able to compete over a season. While he looked rather tense in the early part of the weekend, by the end of it he looked quite calm and that means he knows he can go up several gears from here.
Schumacher was around four tenths of a second slower than Rosberg in headline lap time throughout the practice sessions, but managed to get closer in qualifying, bringing the margin down to just three tenths of a second.
After qualifying he said, “”I certainly feel a little bit rusty, certainly on the one-lap issue I can do better. On long runs and consistent runs things are pretty good, I’m quite happy. I will just use the rest of the weekend in order to tweak out the little bits.
“It’s not a problem. It’s just that for one lap I saw that Nico was four-tenths up and that is a bit too much for my standards. I’ve got to raise my game a bit and I’m sure I’m able to.”
Schumacher hadn’t mastered the first lap on the new tyre, especially when the track got hotter in the decisive Q3 session. What happened then was that he overheated the tyre in the middle sector, which featured the twisty new section. And because of the way he had the Mercedes set up, the tyres did not cool down on the straight which followed, so he wasn’t quick through the final sector. Everyone was faced with the same problem and the big margins between cars on the grid are as a result of this. It’s something that Vettel and the Ferrari drivers got right.
“(The front tyres) are very small and narrow for my style of driving and so I cannot get the car into the corners the way I like to,” he said after the race on his website.
Schumacher’s race was very straight forward and is hard to analyse in any depth because he was always following other cars, maintaining a gap so as not to overheat his tyres or engine.
Starting seventh on the grid, he got a reasonable start, but not as good as Rosberg. Nico managed to squeeze past Hamilton who made a mistake in Turn Four and got himself on a bad line. Schumacher wasn’t able to follow and stayed behind Hamilton and Rosberg for the opening stint, three seconds off Hamilton’s tail.
He pitted on lap 15, the same time as Hamilton. When Rosberg pitted a lap later, he had lost the initiative to Hamilton, who made good use of the new tyre on his out lap and so Hamilton now led Rosberg with Schumacher behind. The gap was two seconds initially, but went out to four seconds and stayed that way to the finish.
Schumacher’s race symbolised the problem with the new rules in that there were no other possible game changing moments for Schumacher to take advantage of. There were no more pit stops, Rosberg didn’t make any mistakes, they both dealt with the traffic pretty well and so there were no opportunities to change the game.
Refuelling stops break up that kind of pattern because they provide the possibility of a slow in or out lap, a mistake by the pit crew.
The crucial difference between now and the early 1990s, the last time we had no refuelling, is that the cars are so much more reliable now, thanks to the quality control processes imported from industry. The tyres are too also too good, as are the aerodynamics, so no-one uses up tyres significantly more than anyone else, making them vulnerable.
Of the retirements, four were new teams, who have yet to master reliability . Both Saubers went out with a hydraulic problem, which shows them in a poor light, given that all the other established teams got to the finish no problem.
In the opening race of 1993 in South Africa, a race I remember well as it was my only visit to that country to date, only seven cars were classified at the finish and to of them didn’t actually cross the line. Schumacher was in that race for Benetton and collided with Ayrton Senna on lap 39.
Of the 26 cars which started the race, 10 retired due to technical failure and seven either spun out or crashed. Even in the last race of the pre-refuelling era in Australia that year, six cars had technical failures and five had accidents. The top three finishers that day were the same as the top three in qualifying, showing that it has never been easy to pass in F1.
At least we had a significant pass for position between Alonso and Massa on Sunday.