Spain 2006: Alonso's Spanish class
14 May 2006
Fernando Alonso gave the massive Spanish crowd just what it wanted in Barcelona, taking a comfortable lights-to-flag win to ease out his championship lead over closest rival Michael Schumacher.
The pair proved to be the main protagonists at the Circuit de Catalunya but, for the second time this year after Bahrain, the tactical battle went the Spaniard's way, as Renault's ploy of running lighter in qualifying paid off with scorching early race pace.
Schumacher had to be content with second after exploiting his ability to run longer than either Renault to leap-frog Giancarlo Fisichella at the first round of stops, but the German had no answer for Alonso, who came home 18 seconds clear, to the delight of the crowd.
With both its cars on the front row, and its legendary starting ability still in its pomp, Renault would have expected to have at least one of its cars leading at the first corner, and so it proved, with Alonso and Fisichella executing a perfect team start, with the Italian covering the inside until the last minute then switching to left to ease his own passage around the turn.
Felipe Mass again proved Schumacher's equal off the line, but deferred to the multiple world champion into the opening corner, setting up a formation appearance to the front of the field. Behind the red cars, however, Kimi Raikkonen had given his chances of success an early boost, vaulting from ninth to fifth, passing both the two Hondas and both Toyotas along the way.
Rubens Barrichello followed the Finn, keeping team-mate Jenson Button at bay into the bargain, while both Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher undid their good work in qualifying by slipping back into the clutches of Nick Heidfeld at the foot of the top ten. Juan Montoya, meanwhile, had made early gains after his disastrous qualifying and was now ahead of Mark Webber, while Scott Speed also climbed the order with a rapid getaway in the best of the Toro Rossos.
Familiarity with the Barcelona circuit as a result of it being a favoured test venue saw little movement at the front of the field, but that did not prevent Alonso from beginning to stretch his lead from the start. Already 1.6secs up at the end of the first lap, the Spaniard had increased the margin to 3.8secs at the culmination of lap four, and 7.4secs by lap eleven, Fisichella all the while keeping Schumacher at bay.
There was a little more activity at the rear of the field, with Tiago Monteiro and Takuma Sato both spinning in the early stages, and Franck Montagny being forced to curtail his second F1 appearance with driveshaft problems on lap eight.
With the main pack running in two-by-two formation, Raikkonen aside, little was expected in the way of passing, but no-one appeared to have told the Toyota twins as Schumacher attempted an optimistic lunge on team-mate Trulli into the first turn. Although the Italian had been hobbled by a wayward filler car, the move was never really on, and Schumacher was lucky to come away with just his front wing in tatters. Unfortunately for the German, he still had the rest of the lap to complete before repairs and he dropped to the rear of the field.
There was also a bit of tension in the air at Honda, where Button was complaining of being held up by Barrichello. The Brazilian had out-qualified his team-mate for the second time in as many weekends, but Button clearly had the faster car. In the absence of team orders, however, the swap could not be affected until the first round of pit-stops, when the Briton finally emerged ahead.
Alonso kicked off the stops on lap 17, roughly what had been predicted by the 'experts' in the paddock, and his 8.5secs turnaround dropped him to fourth and elevated his team-mate to the lead. It was a short-lived advantage, however, for Fisichella was in on the next lap, allowing Schumacher to the front and giving the Ferrari the clear air he needed to try and claw back some of the 12.8secs deficit he had had to the leader when Alonso stopped.
Although Schumacher went on to run for a further four laps, eh was simply not able to lap that much faster than the crowd favourite, with Alonso keeping to within a handful of tenths, and being able to sweep back into the lead when Ferrari eventually called its man in for fuel and tyres. The question then became whether the Scuderia's finest could turn its man around in time to get back on track before Fisichella and at least set up the prospect of a head-to-head between the main championship contenders.
This last task proved possible, with Schumacher squeezing ahead of Fisichella into the first corner and proceeding, first, to hold the Italian off and, then, stretch away. The Renault driver made things harder for himself by running into the gravel at turn three, but returned to the track in time to maintain some advantage over Massa who, in turn, had held onto his position ahead of Raikkonen, Button and Heidfeld through the stops.
The German was one of the last points candidates to stop on a conventional schedule - BMW Sauber team-mate Jacques Villeneuve would run a single stop having started from the very back - only eleven laps before Alonso returned for his final fill.
In the interim, the Spaniard had again opened out a cushion of around ten seconds and, while Schumacher again inherited the lead, there was simply not enough time - or pace in the Ferrari - to swing the pendulum the other way in the five laps he had out front. Fisichella and Massa pitted far closer together, swapped places and resumed as before, the Italian looking set for the final podium spot despite constant pressure from his Brazilian pursuer.
With the front four seemingly set, attention switched to the remaining points places - and whether those chasing the leading quartet could avoid the ignominy of being lapped. Alonso had already scythed through the back of the field, and had the likes of Heidfeld and Barrichello in his sights entering the final third of the 66-lap affair.
Raikkonen continued to lead the also-rans, although Button was making a concerted, if ultimately fruitless, attempt to close the gap on fifth. Once ahead of his team-mate, the Briton had been able to ease away, but found himself caught in no-mans' land with time running out. Barrichello was similarly comfortable ahead of Heidfeld, but the battle for the final point could have gone any number of ways based on the slightest slip.
Although Heidfeld hung on to deprive the two Williams drivers of eighth, Trulli again fell from contention as the Toyota refused to live up to expectation in the race, and Montoya joined Ralf Schumacher on the sidelines. The German eventually succumbed to the mechanical injury inflicted by the rear of his team-mate's car, but JPM's exit was all down to his own car, which the Colombian claims suffered a traction control malfunction, pitching him sideways at La Caixa and beaching him on the kerbs.
Villeneuve also appeared a contender for a point, much in the same way as Nico Rosberg had been at the Nurburgring, but could not make enough progress on his first stint to make up for dropping back behind the Williams twins during his pit-stop. He was probably the last contender, however, as neither Red Bull or Toro Rosso featured higher than tenth, and Midland and Super Aguri ran at the back as expected. The main talking point among the quartet was a rare engine problem for STR's Scott Speed, which saw the American retire on lap 47.
With Schumacher Sr appearing resigned to second place, Alonso was allowed to open up a sizeable advantage in the closing stages, eventually coming home with 18 seconds in hand over the Ferrari. That allowed him to soak up the adulation flowing from the grandstands, finding time to wave his gratitude for support that has carried him through the weekend, and throw in a couple of extravagant weaves of celebration as he approached the flag.
The victory regained two of the points lost to the chasing Schumacher in recent races, but the series switches back to one of the German's favourite haunts in two weeks' time, keeping the battle bubbling as it heads to Monaco.