Schumacher hangs on for victory 23 Apr 2006
For a while Ferraris grip on the San Marino Grand Prix looked tenuous, after Michael Schumacher had initially built up a lead after sprinting away at the start. By the time he pitted for fuel on lap 20, arch-rival Fernando Alonso had worked his way up to second place, and then took the lead until his own stop on lap 25. Schumacher just beat him for the lead as Alonso rejoined, but then the Spaniard began to put the Ferrari under massive pressure. If he could keep up this pace, it seemed, victory would be assured by the next fuel stops. It wasnt to be.
Schumacher said that he lost pace in the second stint because of tyre graining and a problem on the car that he did not elect to identify, and began lapping up to two seconds off the pace as a frustrated Alonso got bottled up behind him. Now instead of a festival of pure speed it had become a chess game. Who would pit first? The answer finally came on lap 41 when Alonso suddenly sprinted into the pit lane. After a 6.7s stop he was back out again. Schumacher, meanwhile, was suddenly able to catch backmarkers Nick Heidfeld and Scott Speed, whom he had apparently been unable to catch earlier on. But any hope in the Renault camp that they might impede their rival ended when Schumacher swept outward on lap 42, after remaining stationary for 7.1s.
Both teams had changed their strategy to pit early, and this time Schumacher just got out of the pit lane before Alonso arrived at Tamburello, setting up a finish that was a reverse carbon copy of last years race. Lap after lap Alonso gave Schumacher no breathing space, but as Michael appreciated last season, Imola is a tricky place to pass a determined rival. Alonso got partially alongside on one lap, but when he slid over a kerb and ran wide exiting Villeneuve on lap 59, the great chase was over. He settled back to the second place that Renault had already agreed would be acceptable, and wisely preserved his championship lead.
An ecstatic Schumacher, already the new pole record holder after qualifying, sped on to the 85th victory of his career and his first since the Bridgestone-only US Grand Prix in 2005, and his first against a full field since Japan in 2004.
Behind them, a very long first stint helped McLarens Juan Pablo Montoya to third place ahead of a challenging Ferrari of Felipe Massa, who had Kimi Raikkonen right behind him in the second McLaren as the three of them crossed the line.
Mark Webber brought his Williams home sixth after a good run, aided again by a long first stint. Jenson Button should have finished a lot better than seventh for Honda, but had another unhappy race. He was the second leading runner to refuel (on lap 15, a lap after team mate Rubens Barrichello), and later had a disaster when he was signalled prematurely to rejoin after his second stop on lap 30. The lollipop man signalled him to go, then changed his mind as he saw that the refuelling hose was still connected. By then Button was already on his way and got swiped on the head by the lollipop as it was hurriedly lowered again. He stopped a few feet beyond his pit garage as team members ran to retrieve the now broken fuel nozzle from the car, and he finally resumed after the delay, dropping from third to eighth place. His third stop went okay on lap 44, but it was another disappointing result for him and the team.
The final point went to Giancarlo Fisichella, who started 11th with a full Renault tank and sat it out in the pack until things improved as others stopped.
Ralf Schumacher was the only other driver apart from Button to opt for three stops, but could not quite squeeze enough performance from his Toyota to score a point. He headed home a disappointed Rubens Barrichello in the Honda, Williams Nico Rosberg, and Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld in their BMW Saubers. Vitantonio Liuzzi spun from 16th place down to 18th behind Red Bull team mates Scott Speed and Christian Klien after running off at Variante Alta on the fifth lap, but a tigering drive brought him home 14th, ahead of Speed. Tiago Monteiro was 16th for Midland.
Neither Klien, nor David Coulthard, finished the race. The Austrian struggled with his Toro Rosso team mates before retiring on lap 41 with an hydraulic problem, while the Scot disappeared on lap 48 with a broken driveshaft.
Neither Super Aguri made it home either. Yuji Ide prompted deployment of the safety car on the opening lap after shoving Christijan Albers Midland into a barrel roll in Turn Six. The Dutchman was unhurt, while after a lengthy stop for repairs Ide later rejoined but spun off at Variante Alta with suspension damage after 23 laps. Following the race, Ide was officially reprimanded over the Albers incident by the race stewards.
Team mate Takuma Sato stopped on lap 45, interrupting the teams finishing record. Jarno Trulli was the other retirement, driving his Toyota into the pits with a steering problem after only five laps when he was running eighth.
The race puts Ferrari back into contention for a championship that has 14 races left. The championship had never really gone away even after two difficult races, Schumacher said, but now its looking two points better and there is a long way to go.