There were few surprises in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix and the resulting grid line up for today's race is fairly unremarkable. However, as we have seen in previous races, strategy is becoming more and more important. It seems ...
There were few surprises in qualifying for the United States Grand Prix and the resulting grid line up for today's race is fairly unremarkable. However, as we have seen in previous races, strategy is becoming more and more important. It seems inevitable that from a Ferrari front row there will be a Ferrari victory, but what strategy games will be played out?
Of course, we will just have to wait and see, but there's no harm in a little prognostication. Rubens Barrichello has been flying all weekend, which in itself is notable. Not that Barrichello is exactly sluggish at the best of times but it's rare to see him outdo Michael Schumacher. Indianapolis is Barrichello's first pole of the season and Schumacher conceded that he'd simply been outdone.
However, the scarlet pair are reportedly on different strategies so the outcome is by no means clear cut. "They can race freely," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "The strategies will be open between the two drivers."
We've all seen just how effective Michael's strategy is this season -- while he undoubtedly drives to the best of his phenomenal abilities, his pit stops effectively overtake the competition for him. Barrichello will have his work cut out for him today to stay ahead of his teammate.
Following on from Ferrari, BAR and Williams kept a neat little team formation theme going, two by two on the grid. Takuma Sato took an impressive third place and managed not to get his BAR tangled up with anyone else for a change. Jenson Button was slightly miffed to be behind in fourth.
Rather than strategy, it would seem more likely that the outcome of Sato's race lies in his and Honda's hands. Taku is enthusiastic, to say the least, when it comes to taking a chance and it doesn't always pay off in his favour -- his adventurous move on Barrichello in Europe springs to mind. The Ferraris may feel a twinge of concern to have him champing at the bit behind them on the grid.
Then there's the matter of his engine: will it or won't it? Explode, that is -- Sato has suffered many engine failures this season and the odds of his engine survivng Indy are fifty-fifty, given the past efforts. "We really don't know about what is going on with the reliability issues," Sato said after qualifying, which is not terribly encouraging.
Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher took the third row, Montoya ahead in fifth, which he found slightly disappointing but 'promising'. Williams has previously been on different strategies to Ferrari and we could see Montoya and Ralf coming in for the first pit stops before Barrichello and Michael. But who will be two-stopping and who three?
Williams technical director Sam Michael was fairly happy with the result and has presumably packed the dodgy brake ducts away in the box marked "oops". "You can always hope for a better result, but what we have got is not a bad position from which to start the race," he said. "Both cars have a good race set-up and we are confident that we can race competitively here."
Missing from the line up of the usual near-the-front runners was Renault. Jarno Trulli struggled round his qualifying lap with a gearbox full of gremlins caused by a faulty steering wheel. The Italian starts from the back today, which obviously changes whatever strategy the team originally intended. Given Renault's rocket launching starts, Trulli could easily come in to play given the right pit stops and a little luck.
Teammate Fernando Alonso qualified ninth, which appears a poor result for Renault but the Spaniard was curiously upbeat. "I didn't have any problems on my lap, and made no mistakes; in fact, I am feeling quite confident for tomorrow," he chirped. "I am only starting from ninth, but the times are very close and given our fuel load, I think we are on a good strategy."
Alonso is no slouch at working his way up the field but the Renault engines don't appear to have the speed this weekend to get Fernando as far as the podium. But with a little tactical magic… Engineering director Pat Symonds was convinced that Alonso's strategy in Canada could have given him a chance to fight for victory had his car not failed him.
Ahead of the optimistic Alonso on the grid are McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Toyota's Olivier Panis, seventh and eighth respectively. Raikkonen was as surprised as anyone else to end up where he did. "We did better than expected as the car has been quite difficult to handle so far this weekend," the Finn admitted.
Kimi had to suffer the jibes of helping Ferrari win at the N?rburgring. He managed to get himself up to second after confusion at the first corner, then collected a string of impatient cars behind him while Michael disappeared into the distance in the lead. Seventh on the grid at Indy is not bad but the McLaren just doesn't have the grunt to keep rivals at bay. Even with a good strategy Raikkonen is unlikely to be thinking of a podium finish.
Toyota has shown indications of performance with some good practice and qualifying results but never seems to translate it into race results. Olivier Panis starts eighth and teammate Cristiano da Matta 11th. No doubt Toyota has borrowed Williams' "oops" box for its Canadian misdemeanors.
"Although this is one of our best qualifying performances of the year so far, we are all a little bit disappointed that we were unable to get both cars in the top ten and higher up the grid," said technical director Mike Gascoyne. Points is surely the best that Toyota can hope for.
Mark Webber's Jaguar rounded off the top ten but it seems unlikely that he will make much of an impact on the race. Not that he won't be trying but Jaguar, like Toyota, appears to suffer an inexplicable performance loss somewhere on a Saturday night. The team bosses are getting increasingly impatient for results and the rumuor mill suggests that Webber has already signed for Williams next year, hence a lack of motivation with the reluctant Jaguar.
Further down the field there's one or two that can't be counted out. David Coulthard's 12th is a poor result but can be worked on, and Sauber's Giancarlo Fisichella has been popping up in the points recently. It would be too much to expect another bombshell like the Canada disqualifications but, as ever, the midfield and backmarkers will be hoping for some luck.
Renault's executive director of engineering Pat Symonds gave his opinion of the Indy strategy variables. "This circuit is very hard on rear tyres, so those cars that are also hard on their rears may decide to opt for a three-stopper, while other teams with lower degradation may choose two," he explained.
"With that in mind, I think we can probably expect the first stops to come within quite a wide range, perhaps as early as lap 14 or 15 and probably as late as the early to mid twenties."
Ferrari has to be the sensible bet for the top step of the Indianapolis podium and the prospect of another scarlet one-two is entirely likely. If Barrichello can play the strategy game as well as Michael, we might get a different winner, albeit still a red-suited one. But if anyone can outdo the Scuderia at its favourite game of pit stops, who knows what might happen?