The British Grand Prix was quite a battle. The pendulum kept swinging between Montoya and Alonso till the final laps of the race, with Kimi Raikkonen looking ever threatening. But while the television cameras were busy capturing the stars of the show, one unassuming man came close to winning the race and did not even get noticed for it.
A look at the final classification table belies the truth, but three-fourths way through the race, Giancarlo Fisichella was just 1.41 seconds behind race leader Fernando Alonso. Fine, he botched up his second pit stop by stalling, but it was the timing of this very pit stop that ruined his race.
Alonso had done a better job in qualifying (1:19.905 vs 1:21.010). However, the Italian had a couple of laps more fuel, which should and did allow him to run longer first stint than his teammate.
At the start of the race, both Barrichello and Fisichella got past Jarno Trulli on the first lap. Across the line at the end of lap 1, the order was: Montoya, Alonso, Jenson Button, Barrichello, Fisichella.
As the first stint developed, Button’s BAR could not run at the same pace as the leading pair but the lighter Barrichello did a good job of hanging onto it. Fisichella, knowing that overtaking an evenly matched car at Silverstone is a risky proposition, stayed 3 seconds behind, running in clean air and looking after his tyres.
When Button pitted on lap 20, Fisichella picked up his pace significantly and posted a series of quick laps. Montoya pitted on lap 22, giving the lead to Alonso, who pitted on lap 23 with a 4.84 second lead over 2nd placed Fisichella and a 21.28 second lead over now 3rd placed Montoya.
After leading the field for one lap, Fisichella duly pitted on lap 25, with a 15.87 second lead over 2nd placed Montoya and a 16.64 second lead over 3rd placed Alonso. It is worth noting the pit stop times for the Renault drivers – Alonso 24.62 seconds and Fisichella 24.09 seconds. Taking into account the fuel pumping rate of 12 liters / second, Fisichella probably got 6.0 liters less fuel than his teammate.
Given that a lap of Silverstone requires around 3.7 litres of fuel, Alonso could perhaps have gone on for two-and-half laps more than Fisichella, before diving into the pits for the second time. Also since Alonso pitted one lap later than Montoya whose pit stop was eight-tenths lesser (23.82 seconds), the Spaniard had the advantage of running a much longer second stint over both.
What Renault’s director of engineering Pat Symonds said after the race confirms this: “What we did with Fernando was extend him a long way beyond what we had planned. We had planned to go quite long and we added three laps to that. We decided it during the first stint.”
But the fight was not over yet. As the race progressed towards the second round of pit stops, Montoya’s lead over Alonso grew to 7.16 seconds whose lead over Fisichella was just 3.4 seconds.
On lap 44, Montoya pulled in for his second pit stop (21.82 seconds). Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen climbed up to 4th place, about 11.2 seconds behind Fisichella.
For 12 laps in a row, Kimi consistently lapped the circuit in the 1 min 20s, while Fisichella managed the same only on three laps and Alonso & Montoya only on 6 laps. Was Montoya holding up the field to let Kimi pounce on the Renault drivers? It was probably this situation, which made the Renault think tank greedy. They could smell victory. Victory for Alonso, the championship leader.
On lap 45 however, Alonso got bogged down by caught Trulli and Fisichella duly closed the gap to just 1.41 seconds while Montoya rejoined a further 15 seconds behind in 3rd place with Kimi right on his tail. This worried the men at Renault. Any dogfight between Alonso and Fisichella could be a boon for McLaren and for championship runner-up Kimi in particular. So they radioed Fisi to pit the very next lap.
No sooner did Fisichella begin his 46th lap; Kimi dove into the pit lane on what was his 45th lap (21.15 seconds). Fisichella dutifully pulled into the pits on lap 46 and stalled his engine for the second time in as many races (33.810 seconds), gifting 3rd place to Kimi in the process.
Meanwhile, Alonso clocked three quick laps, but that wasn’t enough to keep him ahead of Montoya after his second pit stop on lap 49 (20.36 seconds). So the order was Montoya leading Alonso by 1.8 seconds, Raikkonen by 18.3 seconds and Fisichella by 20.4 seconds. Once it was clear that Kimi had no way of catching Alonso, Montoya coolly defended his lead.
Fisichella later said: “The second pit stop was supposed to be later. I don’t know why, maybe they called me in to protect Fernando’s position against Kimi. Logically I should have stopped later, but he’s fighting for the Championship, so…”
So, was Fisichella a victim of Renault’s obsession with Alonso and Kimi? Let’s analyze. With 11 laps to go, Alonso’s pit stop lasted 20.36 seconds. Discounting the pit stop screw up, Fisichella, with 14 laps to go, shouldn’t have stopped for more than 26.0 seconds at the most. The difference: 26.00 – 20.36 = 5.64 seconds.
The difference between Alonso and Fisichella just before Fisi dived into the pits: 6.0 seconds. The difference, in case of a trouble-free stop: 6.0 – 5.64 = 0.36 seconds.
The difference had he stayed out for just another lap? A look at the time set by the two on lap 45 holds the answer: Alonso 1:23.246 – Fisichella 1:21.606 = 1.6 seconds. Hence, 0.36 – 1.6 = 1.24 seconds in favor of Fisichella. How far would he have been from Montoya? Alonso’s gap of 1.87 seconds – 1.24 = 0.63 seconds!