Ferrari, BAR up the pressure on championship leaders
In hard terms, the San Marino Grand Prix was another significant triumph for Renault, the third on the trot for Fernando Alonso, the fourth of the season. It boosted them to 46 points in the constructors championship, 19 ahead of Toyota and 28 ahead of Ferrari. But there were downsides to the success.
For a start, Giancarlo Fisichellas car suffered some sort of failure which pitched it off the road at Tamburello after only five laps, when the Italian was down in 11th place. And Ferraris sudden return to form was a clear shock to the blue team as Michael Schumacher slashed into Alonsos advantage with ease in the closing stages. Only the Spaniards extraordinary resistance and calmness won them the race.
Then there was the fact that Schumacher, Jenson Button and Alexander Wurz set faster laps than Alonso, who was pushing hard all the way through. This is how they read: Schumacher, 1m 21.858s; Button, 1m 22.604s; Wurz, 1m 23.023s; Alonso, 1m 23.133s; and Kimi Raikkonen did 1m 23.296s, and he retired after 10 laps.
Clearly, there is much food for thought for Renault after this race, both in terns of speed and reliability, and the performance of the Michelin tyres. The boot was on the other foot in Italy as Bridgestone had a clear advantage at the end of the race, in conditions that were a lot cooler than Bahrain. That said, Alonsos victory marked the first time the same engine has won two consecutive races.
The race performance of Ferrari staggered everyone, not the least the manner in which Schumacher was seemingly able to lap as fast after a pit stop as he was in the laps immediately preceding it. His advantage in lap time over Button evoked memories of 2004. And his second place came despite running 10th, in traffic for the first 20 laps. Had he started from the third place that seemed likely before his ran wide in second qualifying, nobody would have seen which way he went. Ferrari, too, had a fly spoiling their ointment, however, as Rubens Barrichellos unhappy weekend closed as his F2005 suffered an electrical problem.
Ferraris upturn overshadowed BARs improvement. Prior to the race the Anglo-Japanese team harboured secret hopes of victory after finding some eight-tenths of a second since Bahrain, but in the race their pace was that amount behind Ferraris and Schumacher overtook Button with ease. With both cars finishing there was cause for celebration, but it was more muted than it might have been.
For McLaren, Imola was yet another what might have been race. Raikkonen did everything he needed to in qualifying to retain the pole, and at the start he sprinted away from Alonso. But on the 10th lap he slowed with a damaged outer cv joint on one driveshaft, and that was that. Doubtless his performance will be forgotten in all the subsequent drama, but the Finn was not due to run later than all of his main rivals, and should have won comfortably if everything had gone to plan.
As it was, Wurz did a fine stand-in job for the team, running smoothly and taking maximum advantage of a lap 25 stop which enabled him to vault ahead of rivals Jarno Trulli and Mark Webber. That put him into the fourth place he retained to the end ahead of Sato, and his third fastest lap was icing on his personal cake. Not surprisingly, however, there is a lot of frustration in this camp at present.
Peter Saubers team take their profile from the owner, so often their achievements are overlooked. They came to Imola with revised rear bodywork, and after the first day Felipe Massa was soon describing it as significant a step as revisions had been at Silverstone last year. But come qualifying, Sauber and technical director Willy Rampf realised it was even bigger than that, and the race was also a nice surprise. It was a tragedy that Massa had to start from 18th, but his eighth fastest lap was a sign of potential, and Jacques Villeneuve was able to utilise his new freedom within the team to set his C24 up the way he likes and to exploit that and the aero improvements in the race to finish a fighting sixth. This was a good weekend for the Swiss team, who seem likely to switch to BMW power for 2006.
Imola was less satisfying for Toyota, for whom Trulli finished seventh. Ralf Schumacher initially finished right in his wheeltracks until a 25-second penalty was levied on his race time after the team waved him out of their pit right in front of Nick Heidfeld in the second stops. This dropped him to 11th place, but the team will appeal.
The team had expected to struggle more on this type of track, but Trulli was nonetheless disappointed after struggling with oversteer. On the bright side, however, Toyota remain second in the championship, three points ahead of McLaren.
Williams had an awful time, as Mark Webbers wonderful pass on Sato round the outside of Rivazza 2 on the opening lap ultimately translated into nothing better than 10th place. Part of the problem was getting bottled up behind Trulli, as he had in Melbourne, and then an error on the run past Tamburello lost him his hard-won place to Sato and another at Variante Alta let Villeneuve by. He complained later of lack of grip and an engine that had to be detuned, having already run in Bahrain. Nick Heidfeld had a poor start and lost places, but later pushed ahead of Webber in the second stops and quickly caught the Toyotas to finish in a corrected eighth to score another point. The fact remained, however, that the Anglo-German cars again lacked speed.
Reality has intruded on Red Bull as others have developed their cars more since the start of the season, but there was much to cheer in Vitanonio Liuzzis stirring drive. This saw the rookie actually nip past Michael Schumacher at Tosa on the first lap, only to be repassed at Piratella. After that he outpaced team mate David Coulthard and set the races seventh fastest lap (1m 23.488s) as he hounded the troubled Webber in the closing stages. Ultimately he finished 10th after Schumacher Jnrs penalty. Coulthard was attacked twice by Massa, and finished an unhappy 13th with part of the floor damaged.
Jordan regained their 100 per cent finishing record, with Narain Karthikeyan leading Tiago Monteiro home in 14th place. The Indian enjoyed his most competitive race to date and set the 12th fastest time. Monteiro, however, picked up a wheel-damaging puncture with 11 laps to go.
Unlike Bahrain, where both cars finished, Minardi suffered a double retirement on the debut of their new PS05. Gearbox-related gremlins struck down both Patrick Friesacher and Christijan Albers. Something broke in the Austrians unit, while the Dutchmans suffered an oil leak.
The first European race of the year certainly created some fresh shockwaves, not the least of which was Ferraris dramatic return to form. Now all of the major players will be testing in Jerez, prior to the Spanish Grand Prix on May 8.