Champion sets stunning pace to almost steal victory
Renault do it again, but a revitalised Michael Schumacher takes it down to the wire at Imola in a thrilling San Marino Grand Prix.
All through the slow-down lap he raised three fingers to the Italian crowd, but it was all in the best possible taste. Alonso had just driven the race of his life to fend off the most intense pressure from the greatest active driver in the sport as for the final 12 laps he had Schumachers scarlet Ferrari never more than feet behind his Renault.
If proof was needed that the Spaniard is a genuine challenger for Schumachers crown, this was it. Always he placed the Renault just where it needed to be, and even when Schumacher nosed alongside in Piratella and again at the Variante Alta, where on lap 46 Schumacher had insouciantly snatched the lead from Jenson Buttons BAR, Alonso held fast, played by the rules and stayed ahead. By the flag they were separated by only 0.215s after the most electrifying race of the season, and one which signalled that battle is now well and truly engaged between the two men.
So, small wonder that Alonso was happy to celebrate his third successive win of the season and a triumph that boosts his points tally to 36 compared to Schumachers 10. Pretty soon, if the Ferrari goes the way it did here today, a 26 point advantage is not going to be anywhere near enough.
The race began with Kimi Raikkonen sprinting away from Alonso with Button jumping ahead of Mark Webber, who pulled a steely move on upstart Jarno Trulli round the outside of the second Rivazza. For the first 20 laps Schumacher was only 10th, trapped behind brother Ralfs Toyota, but after the first round of pits stops the regained strength of the Red Menace became all too apparent.
Once things had settled down again, Alonso led Button, for Raikkonens day had ended as early as lap nine with so trivial a failure as a driveshaft constant velocity joint. But now Schumacher had miraculously jumped ahead of the train comprising Alexander Wurz (who had himself benefited from a late stop to vault past his immediate rivals), Takuma Sato, Trulli, Jacques Villenueve, Webber, Nick Heidfeld and brother Ralf. It was a remarkable performance from the Ferrari team.
Soon Schumacher had slashed Buttons 21.8s second-place advantage to less than a second by lap 46, and that was when he slammed by the BAR as they came up behind the battling Webber and Heidfeld at Variante Alta. Button refuelled two laps later, Schumacher on lap 49. But Alonso, who had stopped on lap 42, had regained the lead that his stop had handed to Button.
Now Schumacher set about Alonsos meagre 1.3s lead, and from lap 41 onwards the Ferrari was never more than half a second behind the Renault.
Behind them, Button continued in third, grateful for his first finish and first podium of the year, and Wurz consolidated fourth place ahead of Sato. Clever pitwork from Sauber got the revitalised Villeneuve ahead of the battling Toyotas of Trulli and Schumacher Jnr, while Heidfeld caught and passed Webber. That was how they finished, with Tonio Liuzzi blowing off David Coulthard on his debut and finishing 11th with eighth fastest lap overall for Red Bull Racing, less than a second behind Webber.
Felipe Massa was fast but always seemed to be caught in traffic after his enforced 18th place start, and lost time taking off his nose on Coulthards rear wheel on the 16th lap and then having to refuel earlier than planned while a replacement was fitted. An unhappy Coulthard, later shouldered down a place by Massa at Rivazza on lap 37, finished13th ahead of the Jordans of Narain Karthikeyan (who did an excellent job and set the 12th fastest lap) and Tiago Monteiro.
Besides Raikkonen, Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher failed to bring their Minardis home after suffering gearbox-related problems, Giancarlo Fisichella crashed his Renault out of 11th place on lap six, and Rubens Barrichello retired his Ferrari from eighth place on lap 18 with electronic gremlins, just after his first pit stop.
Wurz, Villeneuve and Liuzzi all did great jobs for their respective teams, but all were overshadowed by Alonso who kept his cool and tossed back at Michael Schumacher the gauntlet that Ferraris stunning performance had thrown down. It was a superb race and holds the promise of more great encounters between these two stars (not to mention Raikkonen and Button) as the season progresses.