The likelihood of Michael Schumacher winning an eighth Formula One world championship seemed remote after the Canadian Grand Prix in June, when he was fortunate to finish second to the runaway series leader, Fernando Alonso. At that stage, the reigning champion and his Renault team seemed to hold all the high cards, with 84 points to Schumacher's 59. The very idea that the German could get back into the title chase seemed preposterous. True, he had won two races, but Alonso had won six, the last four in succession.
But their fortunes in Sunday's German Grand Prix have totally changed such perceptions. That race gave Schumacher his third successive win, and his fifth of the season. And where Alonso took only 16 points from his last three races, with fifth in Indianapolis and Hockenheim and second in Magny-Cours, Schumacher won all three to take the maximum score of 30. With only 11 points between them and six races to come, that suddenly looks like a mountain the seven-time champion can scale before the series leaves Europe next month for its final three races.
So what has gone wrong for Renault? And what have Ferrari been doing right? Renault's relatively poor showing in Indianapolis - fifth for Alonso (below), sixth for team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella - could be explained by understandable caution from Michelin after the fiasco the previous year when their tyres were unable to cope with loads imposed in the banked Turn 13. In retrospect, however, it became clear that this coincided with Ferrari improving their car and Bridgestone introducing a big step forward on their tyres. That became more apparent at Magny-Cours, where Renault were soon disabused of their hope that Ferrari's tyres could not last long in the race at the speed they had shown in qualifying. They could. Renault changed their pit-stop strategy in the race and salvaged second place, but it was clear they were on their back foot. Then came Hockenheim.
In the days leading up to the German race, the sport's ruling body, the FIA, ruled that mass damping - a special damper mounted in the nose of the Renault to control vertical movement in reaction to bumps - was illegal. Their own "policemen", led by permanent steward Tony Scott Andrews, upheld Renault's view that mass dampers did not constitute illegal movable aerodynamic devices as argued by the governing body. But when the FIA indicated that it would appeal to its own court of appeal, Renault took the prudent decision to run in Hockenheim without them.
How much that hurt them is debatable, because the cars are so complicated today that such systems have to work in harmony with several others before a significant performance gain can be realised. Think grey rather than black and white. But clearly the Renaults had lost pace compared not just with McLaren, who had their own aerodynamic improvements, but also Honda, both of whom use the same tyres. Add in the fact that Renault had introduced the "most significant" aerodynamic update on their car this season, and perhaps an answer begins to emerge.
There are some uncharitable types in the paddock who hypothesise that the governing body may be trying to manipulate the outcome of the championship and point back to 2003 when they made a retrospective ruling on what constituted acceptable levels of tyre wear. On that occasion, the Michelin teams suffered badly as their campaigns were interrupted by the need to develop different tyres.
Renault do not want any part of such allegations. Instead, the engineering chief Pat Symonds said: "We have two teams, Renault and Ferrari, with their cars at a very similar level and each of them is on a different tyre. Added to this, tyres play a bigger role in total performance than any other factor. For example, in France, a five per cent increase in downforce would bring around 0.3sec per lap; a five per cent increase in tyre performance would bring more than a second per lap. When this characteristic is coupled with the apparent equality between the leading teams, tyre performance becomes the keynote of the championship."
The big question is how much removal of mass dampers might have affected the way the Renault used its tyres, which blistered badly in Hockenheim's heat.
The performance pendulum has swung back and forth this year due to tyre performance. Renault won the first three races, then Ferrari were strong for the next two, before Renault moved ahead again. Then came Ferrari's latest resurgence. Performance cycles can change by the race, such is the pace of development.
"The balance of performance is so fine and can swing either way on small details," Symonds continued. "In France, we raced aggressively and before the race, we hoped that Ferrari's tyre would not hang on - indeed, they themselves were worried that it would not. But it did, so we had to get the maximum possible from the weekend, which was second. That might have been a form of damage limitation, but it shows how fine the balance is this year and how quickly it can swing. You have to think carefully for each event, prepare thoroughly and react as it unfolds. There are no certainties in this championship."
Indeed not. At one stage a back-to-back Renault success seemed a foregone conclusion. Now it seems Ferrari will overhaul them and sweep ahead. " In the last few races we have introduced some new components on the F248 F1 and this result is down to all the hard work by the Scuderia," said Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn. Right now, that investment is paying a handsome dividend. But Ferrari are not resting on their laurels.
"I have always maintained that, as long as it was mathematically possible, we would continue to pursue our objectives," managing director Jean Todt said on Sunday evening. "That's what we are doing and what we will continue to do. However, we really must keep our feet on the ground even more than usual."
As both contenders appreciate in what has become a gripping season, complacency is the one thing that could lose either of them their championship shot.
Gear change: Schumacher's surge
* 2 JULY: US GRAND PRIX, INDIANAPOLIS Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa finished first and second at a canter, with Alonso fifth.
Alonso 88pts; Schumacher 69.
* 16 JULY: FRENCH GRAND PRIX, MAGNY-COURS A processional victory for Schumacher, who led from the first turn. Alonso finished second, 10 seconds adrift.
Alonso 96pts; Schumacher 79.
* 30 JULY: GERMAN GRAND PRIX, HOCKENHEIM Schumacher took the lead on lap 10 and was never overtaken, beating Massa into second place. Alonso, offering little, finished fifth.
Alonso 100pts; Schumacher 89.
RACES TO COME
6 Aug: Hungarian GP (Budapest)
27 Aug: Turkish GP (Istanbul)
10 Sept: Italian GP (Monza)
1 Oct: Chinese GP (Shanghai)
8 Oct: Japanese GP (Suzuka)
22 Oct: Brazilian GP (São Paulo)Reuse content