Imola 2005: Alonso denies magic Michael 'home' win
24 April 2005
Fernando Alonso may have been denied pole position for the first European grand prix of the season, but he was not about to pass up the opportunity complete a hat-trick of victories - even with Michael Schumacher and will of the tifosi on his tail.
The pair ran nose-to-tail for the final dozen laps, with Schumacher's new Ferrari F2005 looking the class of the field. The German made several feints to pass his likely successor as world champion, but Alonso - and his nerve - held firm, using the superior torque of the Renault to repel each and every move, eventually crossing the line a scant couple of tenths in front.
The race had begun very differently, however, with Alonso a mere eleven places further up the grid than his would-be aggressor. And the Spaniard wasn't even on pole, as Kimi Raikkonen had managed to extend his 0.003secs overnight advantage closer to half a second.
The Finn duly led away at the start and, while the pack squabbled in Alonso's wake, made good his escape, pulling out a three-second gap in just a matter of laps. The disappearing McLaren confirmed the suspicion that Raikkonen may have been more lightly fuelled than Alonso during their qualifying showdown, but no-one got a definitive answer as, after only nine laps, the Renault swept through and into the lead as Raikkonen slowed exiting Tosa. There was no tell-tale smoke to suggest an engine problem, leaving the finger of blame to fall on the gearbox, and it was an extremely angry Raikkonen who crawled back to the pit garage.
The Finn's demise left Alonso with a healthy advantage over Jenson Button, the Briton nevertheless revelling in the reworked BAR, with the rest of the field scrapping over the minor points places. It was a frenetic battle mind you, with Jarno Trulli and Takuma Sato having jumped Mark Webber off the line. Webber then repaid the compliment, forcing his way past Sato on the run between Tosa and Piratella, while Jacques Villeneuve and Rubens Barrichello both made up ground at the expense of a tardy Nick Heidfeld.
Just before Alonso assumed the lead, his Renault team-mate had become the race's first victim, plunging off the road at Tamburello in an incident that looked more likely to be the result of a mechanical failure than driver error. Following the twitch that scuppered his first qualifying run, the Italian will have every right to banish the first of this season's 'home' races from his mind.
At the same time as Raikkonen slowed, so Patrick Friesacher did likewise at the other end of the field. Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart had predicted that neither of the new PS05s would make it to the end of the race, but one expects he had hoped for more than eight laps before the first retirement. Team-mate Christijan Albers showed no ill-effects from his qualifying crash, but could not coax his car beyond lap 20, when he retired in the pits.
Indeed, the entire casualty list was complete by the time the Dutchman pulled back into the Minardi garage, with Rubens Barrichello becoming the fourth retirement on lap 18. The Brazilian had not long made his first pit-stop, but was quickly back in the pits, pulling straight into the Ferrari bay and climbing out.
Barrichello had been one of the first to pit for fuel, although Felipe Massa brought forward his initial visit, having clipped then rear of David Coulthard's Red Bull RB1 in the midst of an over-confident passing attempt at Rivazza. The Sauber required little more than a front wing change, and Massa was soon back in the fray - book-ending his race with a slightly more forceful assault of DC at the same place shortly after half-distance. The pair finished twelfth and 13th respectively, a lap down.
Trulli and Webber began the meaningful pit-stops on lap 22, the Australian having seen Sato sweep past for fourth at Villeneuve and almost lose two more places as the chasing Wurz and, fittingly, Villeneuve looked to capitalise on his ensuing moment. Sato and Villeneuve joined Alonso in the pits next time around, the Spaniard losing the lead to Button, but knowing that he would regain the advantage when the Briton stopped next time around.
Whilst cars came and went out front, however, Schumacher was quietly biding his time, working his way through the pack. When Barrichello's car quit, the German was up to tenth, but still struggling to pass his brother's Toyota, but Ferrari knew that it had an ace up its sleeve, as the world champion kept pressing relentlessly on.
His first fastest lap coincided with Button's pit-stop, but merely preceded a string of lightning tours that began to eat in to the leaders' advantage. By staying out three laps longer than Button, and four more than Alonso, Schumacher elevated himself to third place, and had enough of a gap over those already having pitted to be able to hold the position as he returned to the track.
At half distance, Alonso had been restored to the front, with Button his chief pursuer, but Schumacher was now ahead of Wurz, Sato, Trulli and Villeneuve, the midfield pack having relegated both Williams to the role of points hopefuls rather than certainties. Webber and Heidfeld remained in front of Ralf Schumacher, with debutant Vitantonio Liuzzi making a steady, if rather anonymous, first appearance, albeit ahead of the duelling Coulthard and Massa.
Out front, however, battle was now joined, with Schumacher's pace hardly being dimmed by his increased fuel load. The German consistently lapped a full second quicker than either of the men ahead of him, taking visible chunks out of Button's immediate advantage between laps 30 and 40.
When Alonso pitted for the second and final time a lap later, Button was already engaged in defensive mode, the world champion right on his tail. The scrap briefly became that for the lead - not just because Alonso was receiving his top-up, but also because Schumacher was intent on making short work of passing his closest rival of twelve months ago.
Ironically, it was the team that Button could have been driving for this year that contributed to him losing the advantage. Webber and Heidfeld found themselves together on the road and, in shades of Malaysia, got closer than either they or the team management would have wanted. The moment caused Button to think for a split-second, and that was all that Schumacher needed, boxing the Briton in behind Webber and forcing his way through at Variante Alta. Once in front, the Ferrari pulled away with ease.
Schumacher's race was now with himself to see if he could open out enough of a gap to hold the lead when he emerged from the pits. When he was behind Button, Ferrari prepared to call him in but, once the F2005 had moved ahead, the crew returned to the garage and let their champion do his job. Button pitted from second on lap 48, Schumacher from the lead two tours later - fully seven laps further than Alonso had managed.
As it turned out, it wasn't quite enough for the German, who left pit-lane to see the pale blue and yellow form of Alonso's Renault just ahead of him. Closing the gap wasn't the problem, but passing the determined points leader proved to be a tougher assignment. With little of note going on behind, the battle for victory became all-absorbing, with the tifosi on its feet, anticipating a return to form for its beloved Scuderia.
Schumacher took his first look heading into Tosa with eight laps to go, a move that could have been completed at any point up to Acqua Minerale. Alonso, however, had one key advantage and, despite driving defensively, knew that the superior torque of the R25 would help him keep ahead on the exit of corners. The Renault looked marginally better across the top of the circuit, but Tosa, Piratella and Rivazza all provide potential passing places for Schumacher, if he could get close enough.
The German had begun his mind games even before the circus arrived in Italy, setting up a curious conclusion to the race. Would Alonso simply succumb to the pressure being placed on his young shoulders? Or would he think of the championship, and allow his pursuer by? Both would have shown mental weakness, and the Spaniard wasn't about to hand any advantage to his older adversary, regardless of the comfortable cushion between them in points.
The game of cat-and-mouse continued right to the last and, with little to lose, Schumacher began to make bolder moves with a lap to run. A big move at Tosa was rebuffed, but the German was far from done, and shaped up to try again at Piratella and Acqua Minerale. Again, Alonso had just enough to fend the Ferrari off and, at Variante Alta, Schumacher made the slightest slip, losing his line and effectively ending his challenge. It would have taken a big lunge at Rivazza to dislodge the Renault now, and Schumacher wisely opted against it, despite still looking for the slightest flaw to exploit on the run to the flag.
In the end, two-tenths was all the split the new and old guard as they blasted across the stripe. However, with Ferrari clearly getting to grips with the F2005, how much will that change in the races to come....