Alonso still in charge, but working harder for it
The three fastest laps for the Canadian Grand Prix make fascinating reading: Kimi Raikkonen 1m 15.841s; Fernando Alonso 1m 15.911s; Michael Schumacher 1m 15.993s. Then add in the respective laps: 22, 22, and 68. And the pit-stop strategies: stops on laps 25 and 53; laps 23 and 50; and 32 and 57.
What does that all mean? Well, for a start, that McLaren were very competitive in Canada. Raikkonen was able to fight every inch with Alonso in the first stint, and had two laps worth more fuel. In the past when hes run the Renault close this year, its been the other way around.
It was thus bitterly disappointing for the Silver Arrows that a clutch problem hurt both of Raikkonens pit stops - in the first it made it difficult for the mechanics to change the rear wheels as they were still trying to rotate; in the second it stalled the engine. Without that, Raikkonen should have been able to give Alonso a run for his money on Sunday afternoon. Instead, Jacques Villeneuves accident on lap 59 set up the play that saw Michael Schumacher snatch second place from the Finn on the penultimate lap.
McLarens loss was thus Ferraris gain, and if we are honest about it Ferrari were way off second place until Villeneuve crashed. On the 59th lap Alonso had a lead of 20.9s over Raikkonen, and Schumacher was a further 18.2s adrift.
What this tells us is that Ferrari paid a heavy price in qualifying, when Schumacher and Felipe Massa struggled for grip on the first lap on new tyres and were also, of course, running a higher fuel load (Massa actually went through on one stop, on the 36th lap). That meant the red car was slow in the early stages, when Schumacher lost a lot of ground behind Jarno Trullis Toyota. The fact that its race pace was good enough to challenge Renault and McLaren became an academic factor - until the second safety car came out.
While McLaren and Ferrari thus had good news and bad, so did Renault.
Alonso, of course, did all that was required of him in winning his sixth race of the season and his fourth on the trot. Clearly, the R26 on its Michelins was a very strong package, and at last Renault were able to lay their Montreal ghost to rest. The fly in their ointment was the jump start that Giancarlo Fisichella was adjudged to have made. The Italian tried to make amends, by lifting off, and indeed lagged sufficiently off the start line to let Raikkonen jump into second place. But then he got his drive-through penalty and, though that only dropped him from third place to fifth on the seventh lap, it was enough to compromise his race. He eventually brought is car home fourth for five points, where Renault could use him finishing second to Alonso to take points away from Schumacher. The Italians fastest lap was also a second off his team mates.
Nevertheless, in the constructors championship stakes, Renault continue to look strong, with 121 points to Ferraris 87 and McLarens 65.
Fourth place is still clearly up for grabs. Honda had yet another disappointing day. Rubens Barrichello was an early retirement with an engine that was steadily losing power, while Jenson Button rued a complete lack of grip, front or rear, which was exacerbated whenever the car slid on to the marbles and picked up even more dirt on the tyres.
While they failed to score and thus to add to their 29 points, thanks to David Coulthard depriving Button of eighth place with four laps to go, BMW Sauber grabbed another two courtesy of Nick Heidfelds seventh place. But this could have been more. Villenueve had been in feisty form all weekend and looked set at least for eighth place after a late second pit stop on lap 55, but it all went wrong when he slid wide on the marbles in Turn 7 after having to go off line to pass a slow Ralf Schumacher. Nevertheless, BMW Sauber continue to hold fifth overall, now with 19 points.
Toyota were the other team to score well, with Jarno Trulli fighting hard all weekend for his eventual sixth place and his first three points of a troubled season. As a result, Toyota move ahead of Williams and into sixth place overall.
Where the Italian found grip, team mate Ralf Schumacher could not. The German had an appalling race after admitting he had made the wrong choice in opting for Bridgestones hard-compound tyre.
Red Bull boosted their tally by a point thanks to some opportunistic driving by David Coulthard in the closing laps. The Scot started from the back of the grid after a precautionary engine change after qualifying, and then fought the balance of his Red Bull RB2 all through the race. But he was delighted with the strategy planned by race engineer Mark Hutcheson and was able to jump Button for the final point on lap 66. Team mate Christian Klien suspected that he broke first gear in the hairpin at that stage, which was why he ran wide and surrendered a place to Coulthard.
The sister Toro Rosso team were less happy. Vitantonio Liuzzi was running an excellent 11th from the third lap onwards, until he had contact with Mark Webber after he alleged that the Australian moved over twice on him on the back straight. That necessitated a pit stop for a new front wing, so his race was ruined. Team-mate Scott Speed was in the hunt for a top 10 finish thereafter, despite struggling with his STR01 on the poor surface and losing time in his first pit stop when the left rear wheel proved reluctant to come off.
Mark Webbers miserable weekend at Williams continued, the Australian another driver to suffer from choosing the wrong Bridgestone tyre compound. After starting 16th, he eventually came home 12th, which was at least more than team mate Nico Rosberg managed. The Germans promising qualifying outing all came to nothing when he crashed out on lap 2 after coming off worse in an early duel with Montoya.
At Midland, Tiago Monteiro committed the cardinal sin of taking off his team mate, Christijan Albers, in the hairpin on the opening lap. Monteiro locked his brakes and ran into the back of Albers. Monteiro continued to finish 14th after a pit stop for a new nose, but Albers day was over there and then.
At Super Aguri the disappointment also came early when Franck Montagny suffered an engine failure on the second lap. Team mate Takuma Sato drove a feisty race. He had been obliged to pit for a new nose after a brush with David Coulthard just after the first deployment of the safety car, but then kept ahead of Tiago Monteiros similarly delayed Midland until the final lap of the race (his 65th), when he creamed it into the wall in Turn 9 after getting on to the marbles there.