There has been much speculation over the cause of Michael Schumacher’s performance woes during his comeback season this year, but Ross Brawn, who is probably the best person to judge, considering the number of years he has worked with the German ace, has come forward and offered the most cogent explanation yet.
Brawn insists that much of Schumi’s problem is owing to the new tires being used this year. Complying with a change in FIA mandated specs, tire supplier Bridgestone narrowed their front tires this season in an attempt to cure the oversteer cars experienced in 2009 as a result of new specs mandated for cars during that season.
It will be remembered that, in an effort to improve the show (i.e. overtaking), the FIA changed mandatory specs such that the rear wings on F1 cars became narrower, and front wings wider and larger. The idea was that cars would become less prone to loss of downforce while in another car’s slipstream going into a turn.
But the 2009 cars were designed with smaller fuel tanks, prior to the 2010 refueling ban, so when the narrower front tires were introduced this year, in cars that were burdended with heavier fuel loads, it became obvious that the oversteer problem had been overcorrected. Many of the 2010 cars suffered from understeer. Mercedes misjudged their design for 2010 more than some of the other teams did.
So the inherent understeer of the car has always been a problem for Schumi. But there’s more to it than that. Ross Brawn has revealed that the front tires themselves are particularly problematic for the German. Brawn recently addressed the issue of the tires, telling Autosport, “They saturate very quickly in terms of providing grip and I think that is probably where we haven’t got hold of the situation. We haven’t found a good way of using them.”
Of course, one might say, that’s all well and good, but Schumacher’s young team mate, Nico Rosberg, seems to be able to cope. Brawn’s response to this notion alluded to the German’s three-year layoff. He indicated that Rosberg had spent the past three years, during Schumi’s layoff period, growing accustomed to changes in tire composition, an experience which would have been invaluable for Schumacher.
Said Brawn, “I think Nico, as part of the evolution of the tires, is very skilled and very talented at using the tires. I don’t think Michael has quite worked out how to get the best from these tires. Some tracks where the tires are perhaps not such an issue then he is fine, where you get tracks like this where finding a way of getting the tires to work is hard.”
Brawn also said that the current tires weren’t really suited to Schumacher’s driving technique. “I also don’t think they reward an aggressive style,” Brawn said. “Michael’s talents are an aggressive-style car that is on the edge of stability and controlling it there. I don’t think these tires reward such an approach, so it will be interesting next year to see what Pirelli come up with.”
During the glory years when Brawn and Schumacher were paired at Ferrari, the Scuderia had a very cozy relationship with Bridgestone. Ferrari was the primary team for the tire supplier, and Schumacher. was the primary tester. This ensured that tire compounds were developed more or less to suit Schumi’s preferences. The value of this cannot be overestimated.
Schumacher enjoys no such special relationship, now. Moreover, with testing banned, he has precious little time available to work out verious setups with the tires during the season. While Schumacher has an undeniable natural genius for driving, one of his real strengths has always been preparation. Unlike Kimi Raikkonen, his replacement at Ferrari, Schumi was a tireless tester, and the benefits of his work ethic need little elaboration.
In addition to Mercedes’ tire woes, former Brawn (now Mercedes) driver Jenson Button has also revealed that the current Mercedes had originally been designed with him in mind. Button notoriously prefers a car that naturally understeers. So between the inherent specs of the chassis, and the tires, it seems that Schumi, who prefers a twitchy car, was doomed to be wrestling with a handful from the start.
Next season should prove interesting. Undoubtedly, Schumacher will have more than his fair share of input on offer when it comes to the design of the W02. And with Pirelli’s new tires added to the mix, it could be that Schumacher has a car that fits him more like a glove.
Now if he could only restrain himself from pushing his rivals into the pit wall.