Blue team emerge stronger than ever as rivals falter
Renault had settled for second place as the second round of pit stops approached, but that was when the team signalled to Fernando Alonso that race leader Kimi Raikkonen was in trouble with the right front tyre on his McLaren. After their own tyre problems in Monte Carlo, the Nurburgring was an indication that Renault were moving back into contention for victory.
The Spaniard was fighting all the way after a scare at the start when Ralf Schumacher knocked him sideways, and described the teams strategy afterwards as definitely perfect. When trouble came to Raikkonen, he was perfectly poised to capitalise.
Considering that he stalled at the first start and had to take the restart in the pit lane, and that he got held up for all of the middle stint behind Jenson Button, Giancarlo Fisichella could count himself satisfied to salvage sixth place. Renault helped him with their strategy so that he was able to refuel a second time on the 50th lap and drop only from sixth to seventh, and Raikkonens demise elevated him to sixth again by the finish.
For McLaren this was a race to forget, just as the 2003 event had been when engine failure eliminated Raikkonen while he was leading and, as things turned out, quite possibly cost him the title. That may yet prove the case here, but McLaren cannot be faulted for taking their desperate gamble that the right front tyre that the Finn flat spotted while running wide lapping Villeneuve on the 34th lap would hold up until the finish. Ironically the tyre did, but not the McLarens right front suspension which was getting a hammering from the terrible vibrations the car suffered for the final 15 laps. So near, yet so far.
Juan Pablo Montoya was also unfortunate, getting spun round after contact by Webber in the first corner and then having to fight back from 13th to seventh.
Raikkonens 10 lost points mean that he now trails Alonso by 32 points, while McLarens lost 10 leave them 23 adrift of Renault. There are, however, 12 races left, and that wheel of fortune has a lot more turning to do before this remarkable season is over.
Williams were unlucky to lose one car immediately as Mark Webber misjudged his braking for the first corner (he was intent on keeping Jarno Trulli behind), and it would have been intriguing to see whether his two-stop strategy would ultimately have been better than polesitter Nick Heidfelds three-stop plan. The team were full of praise for the Germans drive, which made their strategy work, and though Heidfeld did not think his package had what it took to win he was always in contention for the podium and led a Formula One race for the first time (on lap 30). Though like Raikkonen and Alonso he was always pushing on the limit, he did not make any mistakes on the way to repeating the best result of his career that had been achieved in Monte Carlo. His effort brings Williams within one point of Toyota for third place, 43 points to 44.
Rubens Barrichellos podium finish was a major fillip for both Ferrari and Bridgestone, who had come to Nurburgring with optimism. So was the Brazilians third fastest race lap of 1m 31.028s which compared well with Alonsos 1m 30.711s and Raikkonens 1m 30.940s. Schumacher, interestingly, was half a second slower.
Both drivers lost time at the start when they had to avoid the Webber-Montoya incident, and interestingly on this occasion Schumacher suffered a penalty by running the heavier fuel load in his two-stop strategy, whereas in Monaco his F2005 had been very fast with more fuel aboard. Barrichello had an easier time of it with his three-stop strategy, Michael having to contend with more understeer. The red cars might not have demonstrated race-winning pace over a sufficiently long period this weekend, but the signs are that they are definitely moving back in the right direction.
If he had not received a drive-through penalty for speeding during his second pit stop, David Coulthard was adamant that he could have been on the podium for Red Bull. That is borne out by the fact that he was only 13 seconds adrift of Barrichello at the finish. The problem came when the Scot switched off his speed limiter a fraction early trying to beat Albers Minardi, but otherwise his was a fine afternoons work. Having chosen the harder Michelin tyre option he was happy with his cars behaviour, but Tonio Liuzzi regretted his choice of the softer tyre as he battled understeer from the start. The teams five points maintained their sixth position overall.
Toyota kept up their run of points-scoring finishes thanks to Trullis eighth place, but this was really only a result of Raikkonens last lap misfortune and the Italian had fellow countryman Liuzzi right on his tail by the flag. The elder Italians race was ruined even before it started as Toyota crew members remained on the grid within the 15 second exclusion period before the start of the formation lap because of problems firing his V10, so he had to serve a drive-through penalty on the eighth lap. He ventured the opinion afterwards that with better fortune he could have made the podium, or even won.
Team mate Ralf Schumacher was also penalised early, hitting the back of Barrichellos Ferrari and damaging his Toyotas noise in the first corner melee. That required a pit stop at the end of the lap, and his heavy fuel load prevented him from doing anything much after that. His race ended when he spun off in Turn 10 on the 34th lap.
BAR came to Nurburgring expecting a great deal more than lacklustre 10th and 12th positions for Jenson Button and Takuma Sato respectively. The Englishman fought hard initially for eighth with Barrichello, Montoya and Schumacher, but a very full fuel tank militated against his chances of staying there, and gradually an unusual mix of oversteer and turn-in understeer dropped him back. Right at the end he was extremely lucky not to be struck by Raikkonens spinning McLaren, which missed him by millimetres.
Sato lost time in the first corner incident, and damaged his front wing, so like Ralf Schumacher his race came apart early and he was unable to rescue it. There wasnt much consolation for the team, but at least they will start qualifying in Montreal from reasonable positions.
For the second race in succession there was heartbreak for Sauber as three points went down the drain in the closing stages. Felipe Massa was adamant that he had not flat-spotted either of his front tyres, which began vibrating badly after his second pit stop on the 44th lap. But on the 51st his car simply wouldnt make Turn 5, sending him bouncing over the gravel. After rejoining the race he experienced massive vibrations until his left front Michelin delaminated, damaging the nose and dropping him out of contention.
Jacques Villeneuve started with a full tank of fuel, planning to run as far as possible, but his race was ruined by the first corner shunt which left him to fight against Narain Karthikeyan. In his fuel-heavy C24 he struggled. The Indian enjoyed his scrap more than the former champion did, but it was nip and tuck all the way with Jordan team mate Tiago Monteiro. Karthikeyan passed Monteiro early on but was in turn repassed after their second stops. Then Monteiro got a drive-through penalty for not respecting blue flags, which dropped him back again. But then Karthikeyan made a mistake after running off the road, right in front of the Portuguese racer, who gratefully slipped back in front. They were separated by less than a second at the finish.
Christijan Albers won the Minardi battle, finishing two laps down compared to team-mate Patrick Friesacher who was a further lap in arrears. Albers apologised for any part he might have played in Coulthards drive-through penalty for pit lane speeding, having himself received a drive-through as well, while Friesacher struggled throughout with oversteer and the occasional problem selecting second gear.