Lost in calculation

The opening grand prix of the 2006 season did live up to all the hype. Great! For the first time in years, more than two teams look like a championship winner. Perfect! Rookie Rosberg set the fastest lap of the race. Woah! But never were the commentators on Star Sports more nervous and unsure than during the Qualifying session of Bahrain 2006.

It was a straight race, between the new and the old order. One could again picture Michael taking his famed victory leap on the top step of the podium. But Alonso seemed to have got the better of him. Or so we all thought.

“I’m really pleased with the result, but I have mixed feelings because it seems that we could have been ahead and won the race,” quipped Michael.

Ah well, so would Massa claim – I said to myself, as Michael continued.

“Considering how it ended up, it’s now clear that the qualifying lap that wasn’t acknowledged was the decisive factor that played against us. It’s a pity, because yesterday I had to back off because of the traffic.”

Now, this certainly put brakes on my high-revving sarcasm. Does he actually mean that?

A careful review of the events seems to validate his claim. To understand why/how, we need to understand the nuances of the new qualifying rules – especially the ones pertaining to ‘the top ten shootout.’

The important thing to remember is the fact that the last ten qualifying runners hit the track with intended race-load of fuel. So a longer first means, a heavier qualifying car, hence a lower grid position. And the fuel used up during qualifying is re-issued by the FIA on Sunday morning. The designated quantity for Bahrain was 2.75 kg per lap. So a car doing ten laps in qualifying would be refilled with 27.5 kg of fuel.

Of course, some could act smart and run most of the laps real slow to conserve fuel and gamble on a single perfect run. The risk is limited as the worst position could be No.10 on the grid. For a team like McLaren, with a driver like Fulltank Kimi, it won’t be a bother. He proved it yet again, hasn’t he? Thankfully, the FIA saw this coming. So the rules specify that for every qualifying lap that falls outside 110% of the driver’s qualifying time (pole time in Schumi’s case), fuel would not be reissued.

Surprisingly, the most astute of all drivers, Michael Schumacher, fell foul to this rule, effectively lost a lap’s fuel and had to pit a full four laps before Alonso. This meant, a heavier second stint, which gave Fernando the opportunity to close in and turn the tables on Michael with a slick pit stop. Despite the best efforts that are so typical of Schumacher, second place was all he could manage. Had Felipe managed to hold off Fernando at Turn 1, things could’ve been different. In fact, he could’ve gone on to win his debut race with Ferrari. Sigh!

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