Dominant Schumacher puts focus on tactical battle

Monaco grand prix: Champion aims to secure record-equalling sixth victory tomorrow in race where gambling on fuel may prove decisive
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The Independent Online

The odds, and the gods, favour Michael Schumacher. He is at the top of his stellar form, on a circuit tailor-made to showcase his brilliant talent, and in the Ferrari F2003-GA he has a car capable of gliding over Monte Carlo's numerous bumps while continuing to grip the road with almost religious fervour. The odds against him equalling the late Ayrton Senna's six-victory claim to kingship of Prince Rainier's streets are shorter than the resurrection of Shergar.

He set the fastest qualifying time on Thursday afternoon with a grace and insouciance that made his efforts appear easy, the final result a foregone conclusion.

"I am happy with my time this afternoon," he said, after hopping off the electric scooter that allows him to speed through the paddock while avoiding the majority of his myriad fans plaintively waving their autograph books and pens. "The track was quite slippery as I was only the second car to run. Right since the start of the morning session, my car has been very well balanced, which obviously helped me to do a good time.

"It is always difficult to predict what can happen here in Monaco, but we can be confident for the rest of the weekend as the car is working well and we have identified our tyre choice early, so now and on Saturday morning we can concentrate on establishing the right fuel strategy for final qualifying and the race."

After a car that is sufficiently well balanced to turn where you point it, that is the next most crucial thing on any Monaco racer's wish-list.

Under the new regulations for 2003, drivers must start the race with the same chassis set-up and fuel load that they used during their single qualifying lap. The new regime has obliged drivers to reassess their approach, especially on a circuit where sliding only a couple of inches too far can have catastrophic consequences.

"It's obviously different because we don't have four goes at it any more," said Jenson Button, third fastest for BAR Honda on Thursday and tipped finally to take a podium finish after recently equalling his own personal best fourth place in Austria. "I like qualifying now, I really do. I find it very exciting, but obviously it's going to be very important here and probably the most difficult circuit to get it right is here. Either people will be pushing too gently, to stay off the wall, or you're going to have nasty accidents, so I think qualifying is going to be pretty good here."

No circuit places a higher premium on a start from the first two rows. "The thing is that if you crash in qualifying and you damage your car and you end up at the back of the grid you're out of the race straight away," last year's pole-sitter, Juan Pablo Montoya, said. "At least out of the points for a race."

Schumacher himself believes he has things under control. "Just be aware of the facts. Just be aware of the fact that this is the run that counts," he said. "If you compare it to other races, however, it's probably pretty similar in terms of tactical challenge, with maybe the extra fact that overtaking is very much unlikely here. But I think the logistic challenge for the team is much higher. To work in the circumstances that they have to work here, that's quite a big challenge for them."

The team engineers have to figure out a compromise. The less fuel they run, the lighter their car is and the closer to the minimum weight limit. That means it will go faster in qualifying, but less distance in the race. A lighter car will also accelerate quicker off the grid, which might allow drivers to make up places, but there is no point in doing that if you only run at the front for a few laps before the need to refuel drops you back in the pack.

It is possible, but fanciful, that a team might gamble on very low fuel runs for both cars and a strategy that calls for one to hold the pack up while the other builds sufficient lead to pit and rejoin in the lead.

The BMW Williams engineer Sam Michael believes it could happen. "You could easily lose a couple of seconds a lap round here behind a slow car, and if you had 15 laps' worth of fuel on board that might be enough," he suggested. "The problem would be deciding which of your drivers would hurt their own race. Only a couple of teams might consider that."

If there is one thing Schumacher is not even considering, it is such wild-card qualifying. "If someone really does do something like that, and he does the speed that he does in qualifying, that will be the speed he will do in the race, probably not for very long because he goes into the pits. He can still do this speed, and therefore he goes with you or whoever, but he comes in earlier. But I don't think it's then the case that you need to be worried about blocking because it's a slowish car. It's not."

If Ferrari gets its strategy right, such things are likely to be academic anyway. Unless the weather forecast here proves correct. Qualifying will be dry, but thunderstorms have been predicted for tomorrow afternoon.