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When Star Wars came to Monaco but the Force was with Raikkonen

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May 22, 2020, 8:36 AM

The 2005 Monaco GP saw a storming drive to victory by Kimi Raikkonen – while his McLaren Formula 1 team made a big strategic call with a little help from the folks back home.

Fernando Alonso and Renault got the 2005 season off to a flying start, but main rivals McLaren soon fought back. Kimi Raikkonen set the pace at Imola, only to suffer a CV joint failure, and then won in Barcelona in dominant style.

He then staked his claim to that year's world championship with a sublime victory in Monaco. It was an entertaining race, and it featured much excitement down the field as different strategies and low grid positions for big names helped to shuffle the order.

This was the oddball year when tyre changes were banned, and queues developed behind those who were struggling. That even generated the one thing we rarely see at Monaco – overtaking.

There was even a bit of movie glamour attached, as the newly re-badged Red Bull Racing team was running in Star Wars livery as part of a deal with George Lucas, who was a guest of the team. Mechanics were even dressed in stormtrooper uniforms for the pitstops.

The real war was the one that developed on track between Raikkonen and Alonso. It was an intriguing contest, and one that led us to learn for the first time that McLaren now relied heavily on input from folk back in the Woking factory.

This wasn't just a case of people following engine or chassis telemetry numbers remotely – they were providing direct input to aid the decisions taken on the pit wall.

Strategists as such were not new, and indeed Paddy Lowe recalls today that McLaren first created the role in 1996. However, initially they only travelled to races. It was only after the move to the new MTC facility in 2003 that some began to work from the UK.

It was the start of F1 teams developing what we now know as NASA-style "mission control" facilities, with strategical specialists following the action on banks of screens, seeing things that those at the track might miss, and crunching the numbers.

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren MP4-20, leads Fernando Alonso, Renault R25

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren MP4-20, leads Fernando Alonso, Renault R25

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Monaco '05 was only 15 years ago, and yet the concept was not yet widely known, as McLaren saw no reason to alert rivals. Details emerged after the race when technical director Adrian Newey acknowledged the extra support that the team at the track had received on a day when making the right calls was the key.

"We have a couple of guys in Woking who come in over the weekend," he explained as the champagne began to flow. "They make strategic recommendations to help us on the pit wall. It's not their full-time job, they basically work in the simulation department on other areas during the week, but that's their weekend job.

"They watch ITV, and we have noticed at times that things are spotted on television, by someone like Martin Brundle, that we haven't spotted for ourselves.

"It's very useful because one of the dangers of the pitlane is that it's such a noisy, crowded environment, and sometimes it's difficult to think straight. Being in a quiet room is so much easier, and communications are easier.

"We still make decisions at the track, but they make recommendations, which we may or may not chose to take note of. Ultimately if it's on Kimi's car, it's Ron [Dennis], and if it's Juan Pablo's car, it's Ron and myself."

Newey was adamant that the system worked: "You don't want to have too much of a committee that's slow to react, and equally if you're putting people in charge of things, and they became the specialist, it can be a little bit arrogant to then say, 'We're going to do that job ourselves.'

"The fact of the matter is that Ron and myself, when it comes to strategy during a race, are really Sunday afternoon heroes. The other guys do their job. I think it helps just to have people who are not distracted by the noise and everything else that's going on..."

Do, or do not. There is no try

On Thursday in Monaco the McLaren drivers were not entirely confident with their brakes, but that was clearly solved by Saturday when Raikkonen stormed to provisional pole.

But he cut things a little fine in the second of the aggregate sessions on Sunday morning when he only just managed to stay ahead of Alonso, having taken a race fuel load that was almost too optimistic. Team Juan Pablo Montoya started well down the field after receiving a penalty, so McLaren's hopes rested with Raikkonen.

All went well at the start and in the early laps of the race as the Finn gradually dropped Alonso. It took a spin for Minardi's Christijan Albers and a traffic jam at Mirabeau to give Raikkonen and the McLaren crew a little unwanted stress.

A safety car arrived at the lap 25 mark, just in time to fit neatly with the fuel windows of those planning either one or two stops.

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren Mercedes MP4/20

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren Mercedes MP4/20

Photo by: Sutton Images

In a situation like that at Monaco, the leader always has the hardest decision to make, not only because it's easy to get it wrong and look silly.

By definition you are first on the track, which means two things – everyone can react to what you do or don't do, and you obviously have less time to complete your calculations and make a call, simply because you are ahead and will get to the pit entry first. Those seconds can make a difference.

Ultimately Raikkonen stayed out on track, and the team then watched with no little interest as Renault's Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella both pitted, along with the pursuing Williams duo, Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber.

The latter pair spent less time at rest, and it was apparent that they were on two-stoppers, but unexpectedly the Renaults had longer stops, and thus appeared to take on enough fuel to get to the flag.

McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh confirmed that there was some confusion on the pit wall, created in part by the fact that no sooner did the FIA signal for a safety car than the mess cleared up and it became redundant.

However, it was too late to cancel its deployment. There was the added problem that radio transmissions around the town were not always crystal clear.

An extra handicap was that at Monaco the management sat behind the old pit buildings and thus didn't have a direct view of the pitlane - usually they would look over their shoulders to see other crews preparing to receive cars, something that clearly had an influence on any decisions.

I have a bad feeling about this

"There were some doubts at the time," Whitmarsh admitted after the race. "But we believed in the approach we took. The safety car was signalled on the screen, then it was taken off the screen, then it was back on again. So the poor old driver was being told safety car, no safety car, then safety car."

"When we radioed [Kimi] he didn't really hear the radio," said Newey. "And that was part of the problem. So then he wasn't sure if we'd asked him to stay out or come in, or whatever. I'd rather not say what we told him to do, but he couldn't hear on the radio, so he had to stay out..."

Newey wouldn't elaborate, but in the post-race press conference Raikkonen revealed that he had in fact got a message to come in. Unfortunately he finally heard it just after he passed the pit entry, and had to tell the team it was too late, in what was presumably rather colourful language.

David Coulthard

David Coulthard

Photo by: Red Bull Racing

However Dennis, who was a little annoyed that the celebrating Raikkonen had let that piece of information slip, denied that things panned out that way. He also gave a clue to the value of the input from back home.

"What happened is the first read on the data was stay out," said Dennis. "There was confusion at one stage, because there was an initial thought that the safety car had been deployed, but then it didn't get deployed.

"And by the time it was deployed we got a confirmation from our strategists that the right strategy was to stay out. At the end of the day there was frustration for Kimi because we told him, 'Stay out, we'll get back to you,' which of course is very frustrating, because you don't know what's going on."

Typically Dennis wouldn't countenance the idea that there was any doubt behind the decision: "There were several calls made as the circumstances changed, but it was a disciplined call that had a degree of confusion because of the ability for us to determine whether the safety car was out or not."

To be fair, all this was happening in a matter of seconds, but certainly the initial impression was that McLaren might have got things wrong.

A key issue was fuel tank size, the choice of the team when designing their chassis. Not every car could get to the flag from that point.

Alonso had to run 53 laps, including a few slow ones behind the safety car. McLaren would never have revealed its own capacity, but Raikkonen's team mate Montoya would eventually stretch his own run out to only 47 laps, suggesting that Raikkonen couldn't have gone to the end, had he stopped. He would have had to be put on a riskier two-stopper.

As the order settled down behind the safety car, Raikkonen was still safely in front, ahead of the lapped Michael Schumacher and Albers, and the Toyota of Jarno Trulli, the only other top runner not to stop.

Immediately behind the Italian were Alonso and Webber. Raikkonen could see those guys in his mirrors and must have wondered what the hell was going on. He knew they had both stopped, but had either or both got the fuel to go to the end, while he had still to stop?

I find your lack of faith disturbing

The safety car period dragged out to allow everyone to join the queue. The problem was that some drivers were trying to save fuel, and were therefore not too keen to catch it up. That period of dead time gave both Raikkonen and his crew ample opportunity to wonder what was going to happen next.

Red Bull Racing crew members ready for a pitstop

Red Bull Racing crew members ready for a pitstop

Photo by: Red Bull Racing

"I'd be lying if I didn't say there was an element of trepidation to it," said Newey. "We weren't sure if they [Renault] could fill to the end from that point or not, and they certainly showed a pretty big fuel range to be able to do that."

"When we saw the safety car, there was a decision not to pit," said Whitmarsh. "But when your principal contender comes in, you think, 'Is he right or are we right?' We knew that Williams were going to come back in. We thought that Alonso may well be able to last to the end without coming back in. That was our view.

"When you see the car you're racing take advantage of the safety car you think you're right, but they've worked it another way, it makes you think. But as it turned out, we made the right choice."

"Obviously there was a degree of doubt," Dennis admitted. "But the fact is that if you've got heavily degraded tyres and a full fuel load [like the Renaults], around Monaco that's going to give you a hard time.

"You've got to believe in the data, and this is one of those times when that belief was well founded. In fact, the call was perfect, and the outcome of the race demonstrated how well our strategists reacted."

Newey agreed that Raikkonen himself must have been a little concerned.

"I expect he was!," he smiled. "We're all human, and we all have doubts. A situation like that is never clear cut, but Kimi did his job. He got his head down and pulled out the lead he needed. We told him what he needed to do, basically what gap he needed to pull out before his pitstop..."

Never tell me the odds

Monaco has a short and thus fast pitlane, and allowing for the time he'd need to spend stationary while being filled, McLaren calculated that Raikkonen needed to build up a lead of 20 seconds.

Only the team knew that when the safety car finally came in he had just 13 green laps to do it before he needed fuel, which didn't seem like much.

Alonso was very visible in Raikkonen's mirrors as they toured round, but at least the three cars in between them created a useful cushion.

Even as the safety car came in Raikkonen had already got a useful gap of 3.2s, and at the end of the first flying lap he had more than doubled it. In fact, after three laps he had already opened nearly half of the gap that he needed, despite struggling with tyres that had lost pressure.

Those 13 laps were a stunning demonstration by Raikkonen, the sort of driving we'd seen so often from Schumacher. He knew what the target was, and he went for it. This is how it unfolded:

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Gap Raikkonen to Alonso

Lap 28: 3.294s (Restart)

Lap 29: 7.557s

Lap 30: 9.447s

Lap 31: 11.740s

Lap 32: 14.147s

Lap 33: 17.002s

Lap 34: 19.845s

Lap 35: 22.665s (Raikkonen has the lead he needs)

Lap 36: 25.168s

Lap 37: 27.107s

Lap 38: 28.048s

Lap 39: 29.088s

Lap 40: 32.398s

Lap 41: 34.751s (Raikkonen sets his fastest lap)

Lap 42: Raikkonen pits, retains lead

Lap 43: 13.119s

Raikkonen had done more than enough to ensure victory, and struggling with tyre issues and carrying more fuel, Alonso simply couldn't stay with him.

After the stop Raikkonen pushed the lead back up to more than 30 seconds, and only when Heidfeld finally muscled his way past Alonso did the gap to second place come down. Webber also passed Alonso, leaving the Spaniard a frustrated fourth.

"We were pretty comfortable after two or three laps of the safety car being in," said Dennis.

"Because effectively the predicted pace we had was there. We knew how far we had to go to our pitstop, and we had more than enough pace to pull out the lead that we felt we needed to have to be comfortable.

"We needed 20 seconds, and at 30 seconds we just backed off. We could have had a lead of 35-40 seconds. It was not only the right amount of time, it also had a fudge factor in it."

In my experience there is no such thing as luck

To be fair Raikkonen was flattered by the situation that Renault found itself in. The extra fuel weight over those 13 laps played a part, but more important was keeping the tyres alive, which had also been an issue for the Enstone team in Barcelona.

"I think they must have lost tyre temperature behind the safety car," said Newey. "And they didn't build it back up again, because neither of their cars were quick after the safety car pulled in. It's not just about traction control, it's a whole number of features.

"Certainly how the traction control works is one of them. If you noticed towards the end of the race their rain light was flashing, which I imagine means that they gone to that traction control map - they were so desperate they had to go to a wet map…"

"The disadvantage of what happened to them is that they obviously made matters worse for their tyres," Whitmarsh noted. "Because they chucked all the fuel on board and loaded it up.

"At the end of the day, you've got to say that Kimi, for three weekends, has just been blindingly perfect. It's surreal, how good and strong he has been. He's been quick at Imola bumping over chicanes, a highly technical circuit like Barcelona, and then Monaco."

It was a great day for the Finn and his team, but that fourth place was useful damage limitation for Alonso – and he and Renault would quickly regain their title momentum.

And what of those stormtroopers at Red Bull? They didn't bring much luck, for David Coulthard was forced to retire after being hit from behind by Schumacher, while his teammate Tonio Liuzzi damaged his rear suspension, and also pulled into the pits.

It would be a few more years before the force was with Red Bull.

Podium: race winner Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren, second place Nick Heidfeld, Williams, third place Mark Webber, Williams

Podium: race winner Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren, second place Nick Heidfeld, Williams, third place Mark Webber, Williams

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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Series Formula 1
Author Adam Cooper