With the Renault
inching ever closer to the back of the Ferrari, the Italian team opted to call Schumacher in for his second stop ahead of what appeared to be his original schedule. After a 20-lap opening stint, the German peeled off again just 15 laps later, allowing Alonso to lead the field and send the crowd into rapture.
The status quo
was restored not long afterwards, when Renault
called Alonso in for his second stop of the afternoon, but the Spaniard's hopes of closing the gap to the leader was enhanced as Schumacher, emerging in fourth place behind the Renault, Barrichello and his brother, found Ralf putting a little more resistance than he had been used to. With Alonso attempting to put in the sort of lap time that had seen him leap-frog Barrichello earlier in the race, it took pressure and a mistake from the WilliamsF1 driver for Michael to get through and begin restoring his advantage.
In fairness to Schumacher Jr, his FW25 had been long-filled at his first stop, as Williams
switched from a potential three-stop strategy to two to capitalise on the good starts made by both its drivers. This meant that, when Alonso exited the pits for the second time, he too quickly caught the German - and found him just as hard to deal with.
Although the BMW-powered car was not handling quite as Ralf would have liked, with tyres locking repeatedly into turns five and seven, he managed to keep the Renault
at bay for four whole laps. Again, however, it took an error for Alonso to find a way through - and that almost did for Ralf's chances of making the finish, as he ran wide through the long turn three, dropped a wheel off the road and all but clipped the wall on the outside of the circuit. Fortunately, he managed to avoid any contact, but required a longer than expected stop to check the car over for damage.
From second place, this dropped the German to fourth, and right into the hands of team-mate Montoya. The Colombian had been minding his own business for much of the afternoon but, presented with the sight of a white rear wing in front of him, stepped up a gear as he sensed another point on the cards. Hunting down what was now an ailing FW25, Montoya lined Schumacher up as he again ran wide in T5, before spearing up the inside into T7 and held the German off. Once ahead, Montoya simply pulled away, and left his team-mate to be lapped by the leaders.
The route through the pack for both Schumacher Sr and Alonso had now been made easier by the departure of both Heinz-Harald Frentzen - with suspected suspension failure - and Olivier Panis, who again had his Toyota
fail on him within seconds of completing a regulation pit-stop.
''Something needs to be changed,'' a frustrated Frenchman sighed, ''We can't afford to go on losing points in this way. It is a shame.''
The two frontrunners completed their third and final pit-stops on laps 49 and 50 respectively - Schumacher again earlier than Alonso - but the gap between them remained the same. Only the threat of backmarker interference - or F2003-GA frailty - was now likely to hand Alonso an emotional home win, but still the plucky Spaniard kept chasing in his press-on style.
Sadly the backmarkers went against him on this occasion - for a grandstand finish would have been something new for the Spanish GP - and, again it was Schumacher Jr in the thick of things. With his car handling worse than ever, the German already had da Matta hounding him, and momentarily held Alonso up through the twisty back section. Again, a wave from the Spaniard and he was gone - along with his hopes of victory.
Schumacher Jr, however, managed to keep the excitement going right to the flag - as did the small group trailing a handful of seconds further down the road. The German was unable to shake the determined da Matta from his tail and, on almost every lap, it appeared that the Brazilian was about to open his F1 account with fifth place. Only the power of Schumacher's BMW
engine kept the Williams
in front, but it was enough for the German to hold on to a top five finish.