Spaniard imperious as title rivals fall away
Life is all about contrasts, and few things contrasted more starkly than Renaults mien in Montreal and in Magny-Cours yesterday.
In the former, they went home with no points. In the latter, they put on such a crushingly superior showing in front of the parent companys most senior management that even an unhindered McLaren would have struggled to beat them. The blues hoped that they had made progress as they headed for their critically important home race, but even they were surprised by the manner of their victory. Fernando Alonso was so quick that he built an early lead, stopped for the first (of three) times on lap 20, and never even lost his lead. Yes, he was helped when McLaren were hamstrung having to start Kimi Raikkonen from 13th on the grid after his Friday engine failure, but if you look at the fastest laps they make interesting reading.
Raikkonen set the best one at 1m 16.423s on lap 25, but Alonsos best was 1m 16.502s and it came as early as lap five. To be one tenth off the acknowledged best car albeit while Renault were running a three-stop strategy to McLarens two was encouraging.
In their wake, Ferrari struggled a little after their North American showing. But a lot of this was down to Michael Schumacher getting trapped behind Jarno Trullis Toyota as Alonso escaped in the opening phase. By the time the Italian had pitted for fuel Schumacher had lost a lot of ground and was unable to make it up.
Both Raikkonen and Schumacher got better deals than their team mates. Juan Pablo Montoya chose a harder tyre than Raikkonen and was looking good in third place when his MP4-20 started developing an hydraulic problem that stymied his power steering and gear selection. Meanwhile, Rubens Barrichello struggled with a brake problem after four or five laps, and this got progressively worse so that he failed even to score a point.
Renault were thus the only one of the three topline contenders to bring both cars home in the points, but Giancarlo Fisichella also had a pretty torrid day. First he had a problem with his refuelling rig during his first stop, which lost him track position. Then one of his undertray supports broke midway through the race, losing him both grip and downforce. Finally, the engine stalled as he went to pull away from his last pit stop, so a possible fourth place disappeared to mar an otherwise impressive outing for Renault. However, with 13 points from their afternoons work, Renault reached 89 and keep hold of their constructors championship advantage. McLaren took eight, to move up to 71, while Ferrari lost ground scoring six and are now third on 69 after sharing second with McLaren going into the race.
There was relief for BAR when Jenson Button brought his 007 home fourth to score his and the teams first points of, what has been thus far, a troubled season. Overall the team were pleased with the effort, even though the Englishman was lapped, and felt they had turned something of a psychological corner, though Takuma Satos antics possible cost them further points.
Yet again, though they could not quite pick up top finishes, the Toyotas were strong enough for further points, with Trulli surviving for fifth and Ralf Schumacher benefiting when Jacques Villeneuve slid momentarily off the road, to grab seventh. A further six points moved them clear of Williams with a respectable score of 53.
Sauber also had cause to celebrate, with only their third-ever points score at Magny-Cours thanks to Villeneuves eventual eighth place. Had his C24 not bottomed out and put him into the gravel in Turn 1 momentarily on the 50th lap, he would have beaten Schumacher Jnr for seventh and might have profited from Fisichellas misfortunes to take sixth. Team mate Felipe Massa was adamant points would have been easy to score had his C24 not developed exactly the same hydraulic problem as Montoyas McLaren.
For only the third time, Red Bull failed to score a point. Christian Kliens RB1 suffered a fuel pressure problem that killed his engine and his race on the second lap; David Coulthard could never make up time lost in early traffic, in a race in which the car simply lacked grip.
Few faces were longer than those in the Williams camp, especially at a circuit where the team have been very quick in the past. Mark Webber suffered throughout from heat in the cockpit area, which burned his right hip; he actually requested water to be tipped into the cockpit during his pit stops. Nick Heidfeld, meanwhile, suffered from unpredictable handling due to problems in the differential which showed up clearly on team telemetry.
At one stage Narain Karthikeyan was challenging the troubled Heidfeld very strongly, after Tiago Monteiro had earlier dispensed with the German. The Portuguese driver had a trouble-free run, but the Indian had problems with his gear selection which denied him third or fifth gears on a track where they get used a lot. At least both yellow cars made it home; Minardi lost Christijan Albers to a crash in Turn 2 after the PS05s left rear Bridgestone tyre failed, and also Patrick Friesacher when his left rear tyre deflated.
A lot of people would dearly love to go testing before Silverstone next week, either to iron out problems or to hone their cars and/or identify the shortcomings that afflicted them in Magny-Cours, but the schedule wont permit that. Renault go to Britain convinced that McLaren will dominate, but on their showing this weekend that may not be a foregone conclusion.