Alonso closes on title as tyre woes hit Raikkonen
That, Juan Pablo Montoya admitted, was some race. And indeed the Italian Grand Prix was, even though for only the third time in Formula One history all of the starters made it to the finish.
Montoya swept into the lead from the start, leaving Fernando Alonso to chase him all the way home. But if the first two positions were relatively settled so early, others were not. Jenson Button and Takuma Sato were split by Jarno Trulli on the opening lap, but Sato soon deposed the Italian with a bold move on the outside line going into Parabolica before it was over. Neither BAR was scheduled for glory, however. It soon transpired that their qualifying speed had been down to low fuel loads; Button soon lost touch with the leaders and would eventually have to be satisfied with eighth place and the final point. Sato lost time when his refuelling rig short-changed him in his first stop, and after an extra remedial visit to the pits, never made it up en route to an eventual 16th.
Nor did fortune smile on Trulli, though he would finish fifth ahead of Toyota team mate Ralf Schumacher, whose long first stint helped move him up the finishing order.
Ahead of all of them, Giancarlo Fisichella and Kimi Raikkonen took third and fourth places. The Italian had another of his fast yet unobtrusive races to help Renault to garner another 14 crucial points in their fight against McLaren in the constructors stakes. With McLaren taking 15 the scores are now poised at 144 to 136. Behind Fisichella, Raikkonen came thrusting through to finish only five seconds adrift after an afternoon in which almost everything that could have gone wrong, did.
First of all he got trapped behind Jacques Villeneuves Sauber for the first 14 laps, before making his first pit stop on lap 25, by when he had risen (during other drivers stops) to second place behind his team mate in a stint which saw a rare wheel-to-wheel battle with title rival Alonso. The Spaniard had emerged immediately in front of the McLaren after his earlier first stop. Raikkonen got past him once, but cut the first chicane in doing so and was obliged to let the Renault back past. By the second chicane, however, Raikkonen had muscled through again.
His first stop dropped him to fifth, but three laps later he was in again. The left rear tyre showed signs of stress in the area of its outer tread, so a new tyre was fitted and off he went again. Unbeknown to anyone outside the team, he had qualified with a very high fuel load, and now he did not need to stop again, but his chances had already been stymied. That unscheduled stop put him back behind Villeneuve, where he had started, but when the French-Canadian was unfairly and incorrectly shown blue flags he had no choice but to let the McLaren through. Thereafter Raikkonen charged back into contention to pass Trulli for fourth place by the 43rd of the 53 laps. But then he spun on his own in the second chicane on lap 45, and had to repass the Toyota two laps later. That killed his chances of challenging Fisichella, but it was a fabulous performance.
Meanwhile, in the closing stages Alonso began hacking in to Montoyas 11.2s advantage. By lap 49 it was clear that the Colombians left rear Michelin was showing the same signs that Raikkonens had. McLaren readied for a pit stop, but that would surely have handed victory to Renault. So, just as they did in Nurburgring, they gambled. And this time a very bold ploy paid off. Montoya had only two and a half seconds in hand as he crossed the line, but that was a crucial victory that was richly deserved.
For Ferrari it was a highly disappointing afternoon, with low performance despite low fuel loads. Rubens Barrichello had team mate Michael Schumacher tucked up all afternoon, until he too had to have a new left rear tyre, his a Bridgestone of course, after a puncture 42 laps in. Schumacher was challenging Button for the final point, but then went off in the Lesmos near the finish and dropped behind Felipe Massas well-driven Sauber and ultimately finished only 10th. Ferrari, and Schumacher, are now completely out of the title hunt.
Barrichello finished 12th behind Villeneuve, while Christian Klien came through for 13th ahead of Mark Webber. The Australian got delayed after the inevitable incident in the first corner, but took 14th after an excellent scrap with Kliens Red Bull team mate David Coulthard. The Scot was also a first corner damage victim, after running into the rear of Fisichella and damaging his front wing, and finished 15th.
With Sato salvaging 16th, Tiago Monteiro recovered from delays avoiding the first corner incident to take 17th in the debuting Jordan EJ15B, ahead of Robert Doornbos and Christijan Albers (who got a drive-through penalty for delaying Massa). Narain Karthikeyan, who suffered a puncture after being hit from behind by Albers at the start, completed the finishers with 20th place.
The race may not have been non-stop action, but the underlying stories ultimately lent it great drama. And his own strong drive earned Alonso eight points to Raikkonens five, thus stretching his drivers title advantage to 103 over the Finns 76. That means, if results go his way, the Spaniard could become Formula One racings youngest world champion at Spa next weekend.