The Renault F1 Team has selected five key moments in the race for the title, to explain their strategic importance. Episode one: Australia. Arriving in Melbourne in early March 2005, the Renault F1 Team had the conviction that they were quick ...
The Renault F1 Team has selected five key moments in the race for the title, to explain their strategic importance. Episode one: Australia.
Arriving in Melbourne in early March 2005, the Renault F1 Team had the conviction that they were quick enough to run at the front. Throughout winter testing, only McLaren had been capable of matching the pace of the blue and yellow cars. Ferrari was using modified 2004 cars, and had maintained a low profile -- although many thought this was a tactical ploy rather than serious problems.
As for BAR, they had suffered frequent reliability problems during the winter; they didn't look likely to trouble the front-runners in the opening races. The new regulations were also set to mix things up: reduced downforce levels, tyres that had to last a whole race distance and two race weekend reliability demands for the engine. If one thing was sure on Thursday in Australia, it was that nothing was sure.
Faced with so many unknowns, Renault decided to take no risks: "We made quite a conservative tyre choice for the opening race, because it was a step into the unknown," explains Pat Symonds, Executive Director of Engineering. "During the winter, we had tested on European circuits in cool temperatures, but not in race conditions, and not in hot weather, so we decided to take the harder Michelin tyre as a precaution."
The decision wasn't just about being cautious, because tyres were destined to be the parameter that was affected most by the regulation changes. Compounds were generally harder than in 2004. But that was only the beginning. "The tyres' magic laps -- the performance gain that comes from a new set -- could only be taken advantage of once, in qualifying," explains Pat.
"As a result, we generally expected to make one stop fewer than the previous season." What's more, the 'rhythm' of the races would change significantly in 2005. "The harder tyres suffered less degradation, and the cars were usually as fast at the end of their stints, with low fuel, as they had been at the start with newer tyres," continues Symonds.
"This had an impact on strategy: as a general rule, the strategies were 'rearward biased' -- which usually meant the first and second stops were pushed as far beyond 1/3 and 2/3 distance as possible, to gain track position and keep fuel loads lower at the end of the race in order help conserve the tyres."
At Melbourne, F1 would also inaugurate a new two-part qualifying system: a quick lap on empty tanks on Saturday afternoon, with a second on Sunday morning running the fuel load for the first race stint. But in the end, rain would decide the outcome of the sessions: Giancarlo completed his lap just ahead of the shower, taking pole position. Fernando, running a few minutes later, was less lucky and, running in the eye of the storm, he took lucky P13 on the grid.
"Giancarlo was in an ideal position," explains Pat. "But there were still some unknown factors because we didn't know how the midfield cars would plan their strategy. In previous years, we had seen that our approach was sometimes a little different to other teams in the opening races. So we simply chose to change nothing in our plan, and that reassured us that Giancarlo's race would be relatively trouble-free. As for Fernando, though, I didn't see much we could do to move him up the field."
On Sunday morning of the opening Grand Prix of 2005, following the second qualifying session, there were mixed feelings in the Renault F1 Team. On one hand, Giancarlo Fisichella would start from pole while his main rivals languished in the midfield -- which meant he had every right to expect a strong finish.
On the other, Fernando was 13th on the grid and, in the words of Pat Symonds, "there are no miracle solutions to help him climb through the field." The team had decided to gamble on a long-long-short strategy to allow the Spaniard to gain positions. And then waited to see what would happen. The one consolation was that the car was sure to be competitive.
Giancarlo got a good start, and quickly pulled out the margin he needed to safely manage his tyres and engine -- both still unknown factors in the heat of battle. He stopped on laps 23 and 42, and would win with a 5 second margin over Rubens Barrichello. The gap had stood at 12 seconds prior to lap 50, when Giancarlo decided to control his pace to look after the car. It was a masterclass in race management.
From 13th position, Fernando had to fight. He passed cars on track, took risks, lost time behind slower cars but didn't give up until the flag. He was 10th by the end of lap 1. "During the first stint, it became clear that the tyre degradation was very low, and the car was very competitive," explains Pat Symonds.
"That meant we could extend Fernando's second stint to allow him to run further, without any penalty in terms of his pace relative to the cars in front of him. But at that point, our conclusions on tyre degradation were based solely on the data from the opening stint: at the start of the race, we had been completely in the dark. So we chose to push back the second stop a few laps to see what happened..."
It was the right decision. Fernando was up to 7th after the first wave of pit-stops, but his final stop late in the race allowed him to climb to 3rd position: he had stopped on laps 25 and 45. "That was when I realised how good the 2005 car was," explained Fernando at the finish. "It was too early to think about the title or anything, but that evening, I knew we would be very quick. And it was a great race for me. I fought hard, and the result came. Perfect." The two Renaults also set the two fastest race laps.
Pat Symonds was delighted. "The first thing we learned was that the 'rearward biased' strategy worked very well under the 2005 regulations," he explains. "We found that out by taking some risks on Fernando's strategy. But the surprise was the relative lack of competitiveness from McLaren -- they weren't on their game all weekend. Fernando started behind them, passed them in the pits, and finished in front."
But back to Giancarlo Fisichella. He deserved additional recognition for his achievement, unknown to many observers. Yes, he had won his debut race with the Renault F1 Team. But his thoughts lay elsewhere, after his young son had been hospitalised during the weekend. The Italian gritted his teeth, did his job, and celebrated the result with his team. Then, discreetly, he jumped into a plane and returned to Europe. To good news -- his son was fine. Only then could he truly savour his victory...