Renault triumphant; McLaren 'tyred' and emotional…
So near, so far. Thats how Kimi Raikkonen felt when his McLarens front right suspension collapsed so spectacularly going into the first corner of the last lap of the Grand Prix of Europe. But in truth he and his silver arrows team had known for several laps that they were running on borrowed time. Renault knew it too.
The Finn had leaped into the lead of the race and seemed to have full command of it until a sudden moment on the 30th lap sent him slithering off the road in Turn 5 and alerted rivals to possible tyre wear problems. He ran across the gravel bed and was able to rejoin after the corner, just in time to lose his lead to the hard-charging Williams of Nick Heidfeld. The young German pitted the next lap, however, but Raikkonens restored lead was dented further on lap 34 when he ran wide in Turn 1 while lapping Jacques Villeneuves Sauber.
It was soon clear that this was not a race that the Finn could dominate the way he had in Monaco. Renaults Fernando Alonso was on the same two-stop strategy as McLaren, and this time it was the silver car that was suffering from tyre wear. He had picked a massive flat spot in that second incident that generated more and more vibration as the race went on. From the 50th lap onwards even trackside and onboard cameras were able to detect the fearsome wobble, and as Raikkonens lap times lengthened so Alonso became more and more dangerous. From 6.1s on lap 52 the gap shrank to 1.5s as they went into that last lap. But then Raikkonens tormented front suspension could stand the strain imposed no longer, and as it collapsed the McLaren was pitched into lurid retirement in the Turn 1 gravel bed.
Alonso could hardly believe his good fortune, though had Raikkonen been able to keep going the last lap of this very slow burning race would have been equally spectacular. As it was, the Spaniard sped home to his fourth win of the season, raising four happy fingers all around the slowing down lap. Suddenly the championship is beginning to look like a one-horse race again, as his points tally extended to 59. Raikkonen is still second on 27, but shares the position with Jarno Trulli after the Toyota driver picked up the final point for a disappointing eighth place.
Poleman Heidfeld starred again with an excellent second place for Williams, using a three-stop strategy and fighting all the way with Rubens Barrichello who was on a similar strategy for Ferrari. It marked the Italian marques first podium finish since Imola and only its third of the season.
David Coulthard was a primary beneficiary of a first-lap shunt in Turn 1 caused when Mark Webber braked a little too late and spun Juan Pablo Montoyas McLaren. As both Ferraris scattered to avoid the melee, Ralf Schumacher lost his nose against Barrichellos rear wheels. Webber was an instant retirement, but everyone else continued. This helped Coulthard to jump into fourth place from the first lap, and the Scot put a Red Bull into the lead of a race for the first time on the 19th and 20th laps after Heidfeld (lap 12) and Raikkonen (lap 18) had made their first stops, and Trulli, third initially, had already been obliged to do a drive-through penalty on the eighth lap because his mechanics had been working on his car on the grid within 15 seconds of the formation lap.
However, Coulthards hopes of a podium evaporated after his first stop when he too picked up a drive-through penalty, his for speeding in the pit lane. Nevertheless, after that he was able to establish himself in a strong fourth place, unable to resist Barrichello but otherwise untroubled to the flag.
Fifth fell to Michael Schumacher after a race that surely disappointed the champion, as he had to run for the middle stint in the wheeltracks of Felipe Massas Sauber before switching places after their final stops. Both the champion and Alonso had off-course moments along the way as their tyres wore, and so did Massa who slid off in Turn 5. Eventually his left front delaminated, forcing him to stop for a replacement and a new nose and losing the team another helping of much-needed points for the second race in succession.
Sixth place thus fell to Giancarlo Fisichella, who recovered well from a pit lane start after a stall on the original grid forced a restart and made the race distance 59 laps instead of 60. He spent a long time bottled up behind Jenson Buttons disappointing BAR.
Montoya recovered to seventh, another to chase after Massa as he at one stage threatened Schumacher Snr before dropping back. Trulli was eighth, while Tonio Luizzi fought understeer on his Red Bulls softer tyres (Coulthard chose the harder compound, which was better) for ninth, and was literally on Trullis tail by the flag. Button was an unhappy 10th.
Raikkonen was classified 11th, not that it mattered to him in the circumstances, Takuma Sato was an undistinguished 12th and Jacques Villeneuve headed Massa home with 13th and 14th places for Sauber. Tiago Monteiro led home Jordan team mate Narain Karthikeyan, the two switching places after the Indian had a gravelly moment on the 57th lap. Earlier he had enjoyed a spirited fight with fuel-heavy Villeneuve, who was not so thrilled about their encounter.
Finally, Christijan Albers brought his Minardi home two laps down in 17th (like Monteiro, getting a drive-through penalty for ignoring waved blue flags), and Patrick Friesacher was 18th and last, three laps behind.
Besides Webber, the only other retirement was Ralf Schumacher, whose fuel-heavy race was hurt by the need to pit for a new nose on the first lap, and ended with a spin into the gravel exiting Turn 10 after 33 laps.
For Alonso, then, a critical triumph. For Raikkonen and McLaren, bitter, bitter disappointment.