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The Italian rennaisance continues 07 May 2006

Race winner Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari and Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari celebrate on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, European Grand Prix, Race, Nurburgring, Germany, 7 May 2006

The 2006 championship looks set to get a whole lot closer with confirmation at the Nurburgring that Ferrari are firmly back on winning form. Renault now know they are going to have their work very much cut out maintaining their lead in the title race - while Fernando Alonso will be in no doubt that Michael Schumacher’s dominant victory in the European Grand Prix presages a hard-fought race for the drivers’ championship.

And in Maranello, Ferrari’s home, it must be hard for the Tifosi to know what feels better - to be back winning races, or to have proved the team’s critics wrong. Certainly anyone who supposed that this season would be a battle between Renault and McLaren will have called in their opinions for an oil change. After Imola and the Nurburgring, Ferrari look dangerously like the team to beat.

Granted, Alonso managed to grab pole position in Germany - but Schumacher and Massa were right behind him in P2 and P3 respectively, freezing out the rest of the pack. And Ferrari’s masterful race strategy proved to be more than a match for Renault.

Not that during the opening stages of the race it looked like Ferrari would claim victory. Indeed, as Alonso scampered away it seemed as if the 'Prancing Horse' would have to settle for the second and third steps of the podium. Having made a strong start from pole, Alonso was soon trading fastest lap times with Schumacher - and the Spaniard managed to hang onto his lead after the first round of pitstops.

But behind the scenes, Ferrari’s technical brains were already plotting to snatch the lead from Renault. After estimating how much fuel Alonso had taken on board during his first stop, Schumacher was given a slightly bigger load when he pitted on the next lap. Although he emerged just behind Alonso, the seeds for his victory had been sewn. As the Spaniard’s Renault came in for his second stop, Schumacher stayed out and put in a series of devastatingly fast laps - emerging from his second stop with a clear margin over Alonso.

And that’s how it stayed until the end of the race: Schumacher cruising to a comfortable victory in front of the thousands of adoring German fans who had come to support their hero at what is effectively his home Grand Prix.

Felipe Massa also deserves credit for a well-judged race which took him to third place, his first visit to the Formula One podium. Not only did he effectively defend Schumacher’s position by controlling the pace of the race behind him - but he also managed to hold off the flying Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages to claim another six points for Ferrari in the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

Not that Ferrari are going to find it easy to overhaul Renault’s strong position in the championship. Schumacher’s victory at the Nurburgring means he has clawed another two points out of Alonso’s lead in the drivers’ championship, but the Spaniard still has 44 points to the German’s 31. In the constructors’ championship Ferrari have cut Renault’s lead to 16 points, with the two teams on 46 and 62 respectively.

It will be fascinating to see how things develop as the season progresses.