Ralf profits from Raikkonen's demise
For 25 laps of the European Grand Prix, Kimi Raikkonen looked set to score a fabulous victory from his first-ever pole position and regain his championship lead. Then his McLarens Mercedes engine broke and instead it was Ralf Schumacher who came through to score his first win of the year. But after the closeness of qualifying, it wasnt quite the incredible race everyone had expected.
Having recovered well after his Canadian Grand Prix qualifying gaffe by taking pole, Raikkonen soon built a lead over Ralf Schumacher. He was nine seconds clear when he made his first refuelling stop on the 16th lap, with Schumacher Snr another ten seconds further back. Ralf led briefly for Williams and ran until lap 21 before pitting, but this was still insufficient to keep Raikkonen out of the lead. Schumacher Jnr was still 4.8 seconds behind when the Mercedes engine blew up. Somewhat remarkably, Raikkonen was the first retirement of the race.
His demise lit a slow-burning fuse that led to further explosions of drama. On the 43rd lap Montoya and Schumacher Snr collided while fighting for second place. Montoya had gradually reeled in Schumacher until they were side-by-side on the rundown to the Dunlop Kurve. In a move that reminded some of his controversial clash with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997, Schumacher ran up the kerb and tagged Montoyas Williams as it moved into second. As Schumacher spun and sat stranded, his Ferraris rear wheels spinning helplessly in the gravel, Montoya continued unabashed. By the time three marshals and fireman pushed the Ferrari from its dangerous spot on the corners apex, Schumacher was down to sixth.
Michael was quick on the straights, but in the corners he was very slow, said Montoya. He was on the inside and I was on the outside. I thought I gave him plenty of room. I wasnt going to give him all the track, but I thought it was all right.
Even Schumacher thought that Montoya had given him enough room and after a stewards enquiry, no action was taken. Ferraris Ross Brawn was far from amused with the situation, but Williams technical director Patrick Head remarked trenchantly that, had Montoya been penalised, it would effectively have been a declaration that overtaking was no longer allowed in Formula One racing.
Then, on the 57th lap, Coulthard suddenly had to swerve around Alonso approaching the chicane, and spun spectacularly into retirement in yet another dramatic incident.
Alonso braked ten metres earlier than he had the lap before, said Coulthard. He was dealing inconsistently with problems, as his rear tyres looked completely worn out. But I just got caught out. The Spaniard continued, and was very nearly caught on the final lap by the recovering world champion.
Williams haul of points from a race in which McLaren went home with none moved them up into second place in the constructors championship and first sparked speculation of a late challenge for the title. Ever cautious, Sir Frank Williams, who never likes to reveal his cards in public, was careful to play down such talk. But with Ferrari only 13 points ahead, everyone within the team was seriously motivated and firmly believed that they had a genuine chance of challenging long before the season was over. The third phase of the 2003 world championship, the Williams phase, was now well under way.