Michael Schumacher resisted pressure from Renault's Fernando Alonso to end the regie's winning streak and bring to an end an 18-month victory drought for Ferrari against meaningful opposition.

The German led from start to finish but had to put up with Alonso dancing around in his mirrors for two-thirds of the race. The Spaniard appeared to have the greater pace, particularly mid-race when Schumacher was struggling with a poor set of tyres, but a mistimed second pit-stop dropped the world champion back in behind the Ferrari when Schumacher returned to the track, and the status quo remained to the end.

Jenson Button would almost certainly have joined the pair on the podium but suffered a fuel rig problem that saw him take half of the nozzle attachment down pit-lane with him. That allowed Juan Montoya into third, ahead of Felipe Massa, who had blocked Alonso's early charge, and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, largely anonymous in the second McLaren.

Mark Webber took an equally quiet sixth for Williams, having methodically made his way up from tenth, while Button salvaged seventh from his disappointing afternoon, and Giancarlo Fisichella eighth from his equally poor Saturday.

The race appeared to have started cleanly, unlike the morning's GP2 encounter, but the sense of satisfaction lasted only as far as Villeneuve, where Midland's Christijan Albers was tipped into a spin by an optimistic Yuji Ide, the Super Aguri driver eager to make the most of another poor getaway from the Dutchman. He picked the wrong place, however, with Albers riding up and over the SA05's left-hand side and barrel-rolling through the gravel. Despite landing upside-down, however, Albers was able to extricate himself, and returned to the paddock unaided to give his side of the story.

The safety car was deployed for a couple of laps to cover the clean-up process, not long enough to seriously damage the three-stopping Schumacher's getaway, but sufficient for the Scuderia to contemplate switching its star turn onto a more common two-stopper.

One-and-a-half seconds up the road a lap after the field was released again, Schumacher's immediate opposition might have come from Button and team-mate Massa, but few expected Alonso, who had already gained a place, to be anything less than a threat. The man to miss out at the start was Rubens Barrichello, the second Honda - having put in its best qualifying performance of 2006 - dropping to fifth off the grid, and finding itself under pressure from Ralf Schumacher, who had maintained sixth at the expense of the two McLarens, which were now split by Mark Webber's fast-starting Williams.

Barrichello would also have been the first to pit, had it not been for Ide limping back to the Super Aguri garage for repairs and Jarno Trulli following suit at Toyota, complaining that his steering now appeared to have little input into the direction of his car. Reports suggested that the Italian had suffered from contact with Vitantonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso, which spun on the previous lap.

Barrichello's stop came some eight laps after Trulli called it a day, and the Brazilian was stationary for a long time, apparently taking on a lot of fuel in an attempt to rectify his track position by the end. Only when he returned for a top-up on lap 34 did things begin to look different - and less promising - for Rubens.

Honda's fuel rig was to have more serious consequences for team-mate Button, but not before the Briton had been delayed by a sticky wheelnut, allowing Alonso valuable track position. The Spaniard's biggest problem in the early stages, however, was Massa, whose pace suddenly dropped off, but not enough to allow the Renault clear passage as Ferrari played its trump card in attempting to give Schumacher a gap.

Only when Massa made his first fuel stop was Alonso freed, but the Spaniard struggled to make a dent on Schumacher's advantage until the German was a couple of laps into his second stint, having been switched on to a two-stop strategy. Then, with used tyres fitted to the Ferrari, and a fired-up Alonso running with hot rubber and a lighter fuel load, the gap began to come down, slowly at first and, then, in bigger chunks as Schumacher found that his car was not handling as well as it had early on.

Alonso made his first stop on lap 25, returning to fray ahead of Button and Montoya, but still in second spot. Ten laps later, the two main protagonists were nose-to-tail, Schumacher's understeering 248 clearly not a match for the Renault, but able to stay ahead because of Imola's lack of passing places. Try as he might, particularly at Tosa, Alonso was unable to find a way through, leaving the matter in the hands of their respective pit crews.

Thankfully for the tifosi, one of their heroes was involved in the lead battle, for the race was largely uneventful behind them. Button, Massa, Montoya and Webber ran strung out in the leaders' wake, with Raikkonen, Ralf, Barrichello and Fisichella rounding out the top ten approaching half-distance. The Italian was among the last to stop for fuel, having taken the option to load up his Renault after qualifying only eleventh. Progress was slow in the early stages, but would pick up later on as he was able to run longer than his rivals, albeit still making two stops.

The two BMWs, both Red Bulls and Nico Rosberg all chose similar strategies, having qualified in roughly the same part of the grid, but none made it into the points positions as reliability proved a strong factor in the first half. Ide continued to re-appear on track as the Super Aguri boys worked on his damaged suspension, but eventually called it a day while still 39 laps adrift. Christian Klien made it 17 laps further, but the pair were soon joined on the sidelines by their respective team-mates, Takuma Sato and David Coulthard, the Scot completing the list of retirements on lap 47.

By that stage, the leading contenders had all made their second stop and, in some cases, a third. Button was the main casualty, after he was mistakenly given the signal to leave by 'lollipop man' Alister Gibson. Despite the board coming down again a split second later, the damage was done, with Button already out in the 'fast lane' - with the fuel nozzle still attached. Fortunately, the Briton stopped before rejoining the track, but the hose had been ripped from the nozzle and several crewmen lay in his wake.

Somehow, the Honda only dropped to eighth place in the aftermath of the incident, and a third stop 14 laps later failed to remove him from points contention, although the likely podium was gone. Barrichello, however, was out of the race for points, having also taken a third stop and now running in 13th. The Brazilian would recover to tenth by the flag, but that was little consolation having started third.

Ralf Schumacher was also to be denied a score, having also opted for a three-stop race plan, with Fisichella sneaking into claim the final point, five seconds up the road from the German. The Renault driver could, feasibly, have caught Button, just as the Briton could have made further inroads into Webber's slim advantage, but the trio crossed the line split by just three seconds, and still some 20secs adrift of Raikkonen.

The Finn, in turn, was trying all he could to close the slim gap to Massa, whose early role in helping his team-mate had left him off the podium and in a battle with both McLarens. The three cars circulated within a couple of seconds of each other without getting quite as close as Alonso was to Schumacher, leaving Montoya to take the final podium spot.

The destiny of the top two steps remained uncertain until a couple of laps from home, although Alonso's attempts to pass the Ferrari looked increasingly fruitless as the German enjoyed a better handling car throughout his final stint. Indeed, it was Alonso who began to struggle with his tyres, the rear-end of the Renault becoming increasingly unsteady as the chequered flag neared.

With 14 laps to run, the Spaniard finally ran out of road at Rivazza, running on the very edge of the gravel trap, but managing to keep his foot in to bring the R26 back on track. Undeterred, he kept pushing to close back in on the leader, but then ran wide at Villeneuve with two tours remaining, effectively ending a challenge that had mirrored Schumacher's constant pressure from a year ago.


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