Michael Schumacher took full advantage of Ferrari strategy and a brace of fast in-laps to claim his second straight victory of the 2006 Formula One season, delighting fans in his native Germany with success in the European Grand Prix.

Despite starting behind Fernando Alonso, and having to follow the Spaniard through the first two-thirds of the race, Schumacher used the two laps difference between their final fuel stops to stretch out enough of a gap to ensure that he rejoined ahead of the Renault. He then held the lead for the rest of the race, while Alonso fell back into the clutches of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.

There was no further passing up front, giving Alonso his eleventh straight podium and Massa his first ever, while Rubens Barrichello survived similar pressure from Giancarlo Fisichella and Nico Rosberg to claim fifth, after Honda team-mate Jenson Button was forced to retire with engine problems. Rosberg rose from the very back of the grid to take seventh, with Jacques Villeneuve benefiting from the late retirements of both Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher to take the final point.

Alonso made the best of his pole position to lead into the first turn, with Massa initially get a good enough start to think about challenging Schumacher for second. The Brazilian thought better of its, however, slotting in behind the German and protecting his rear from the fast-starting Jenson Button, already up from sixth on the grid.

The Briton's gain came at the expense of Honda team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who slipped back to seventh - from fourth - and Raikkonen, who dropped in behind the Honda. Jarno Trulli also got the better of Barrichello, with Villeneuve, Nick Heidfeld and Fisichella rounding out the top ten at the end of the opening lap. Further back, Mark Webber had vaulted from 20th to twelfth, and Takuma Sato from 19th to 14th, while Juan Montoya joined Barrichello in slipping backwards. There was no sign of Rosberg's eventual ascent at this early stage, however, the second Williams having only passed Franck Montagny.

The field was quickly brought under control, however, as the safety car appeared to mop up the remains of Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso, which had been involved in a collision with the Red Bull of David Coulthard at turn one. The incident was neither man's fault as the corner produced its usual first lap funnelling effect. Ralf Schumacher appeared to make contact with the rear of Liuzzi's car, turning the Italian through 90 degrees and into DC. The STR entry struggled on with right rear and wing damage, but failed to make it to the end of the lap, Liuzzi spinning at the fast chicane and stalling, his race done. Coulthard, meanwhile, made it back to the pits for a new nose, but called it a day two laps later after reporting wayward handling on the RB2.

The clean-up operation last just two tours, with the safety car releasing the field again at the start of lap four, Alonso managing to back the two Ferraris up at the Veedol chicane before flooring it and opening up enough of a gap to hold his advantage to the first turn. Both McLarens were quickly on the move, however, Raikkonen jumping Button and Montoya getting past Fisichella, belying what many thought to be heavier fuel loads in the silver machines.

The retirement list grew further before the first round of pit-stops, Webber's flying start negated by hydraulic problems that left him with little control over his FW28.. When the stops did come, however, it was Alonso that blinked first, posing the question as to how much further Schumacher could run. The answer, surprisingly, was just one more lap, the German following team-mate Massa's lead and calling in at the end of the 18th. Without enough time to build an advantage in clear air, the Ferrari was unable to vault its Renault rival, with Alonso, if anything, enjoying a bigger cushion than before.

Of the leading qualifiers, it was Raikkonen - who had inherited the lead when Schumacher stopped - who ran longest, the Finn stretching his fuel to lap 23, after both Hondas and Villeneuve's BMW had refuelled. Fisichella, Montoya and Ralf Schumacher all went longer still, while Rosberg didn't stop until lap 34, beyond half distance, prompting speculation that Williams was attempting a single-stop raceplan.

When the various strategies had shaken out, Alonso continued to lead from Schumacher, Massa and Raikkonen, but Button had vanished, the victim of mechanical failure on lap 28. Rosberg had got as high as fifth before his top, but dropped back to tenth after it, allowing Rubens, Villeneuve, Fisichella and Montoya through. Further back, Christian Klien had also disappeared, the second Red Bull coasting to a halt and ending a frustrating weekend for the Austrian, while Franck Montagny's debut went up in smoke, literally, when his Super Aguri cried enough.

With Alonso and Schumacher trading fastest laps, often within seconds of each other as they flashed across the line comfortably ahead of Massa, the race appeared to building towards a climax at the second set of stops, passing up front being at a premium. This time, Alonso stopped before both Ferraris, taking 8.8secs over his final top-up. Schumacher, however, had three laps more fuel in the tank, and made full use of the run in clear air, banging in two further fastest times to give himself a vital advantage. Ferrari refused to take it carefully at the subsequent stop, turning the German around in a shade under seven seconds, and returning him to the fray well clear of the Renault, which had also endured a slow out-lap.

Raikkonen took up the cudgels for another three laps, but there was no-one likely to deprive Schumacher of a home win unless mechanical gremlins intervened. Although Alonso briefly picked up the pace and trimmed the initial seven-second gap to the German, he equally quickly fell back, to the point where Massa and Raikkonen became threats for second.

Pit-stops also played a part in other battles and, while Barrichello managed to hold his slim advantage over Ralf Schumacher as they pitted together, Fisichella will have grinned to himself after emerging in front of qualifying nemesis Villeneuve as they did the same.

The Canadian was thereafter no trouble to the Renault driver, who soon found himself closing on the Barrichello-Schumacher Jr battle, with Rosberg latching on to the back of the group on the run to the flag. Contrary to expectations, the German had to make a second stop, dropping him out of a potential fifth place, but he refused to go quietly, hounding Fisichella to the end.

Rosberg initially appeared to be on course for a single point, his late stop putting him back on track just ahead of Villeneuve, but when Montoya and Ralf pulled off with engine problems within half a lap of each other, the points situation opened up to include the lead BMW as well, promoting Rosberg to seventh as due reward for a tigering drive from 22nd and last.

Almost a full lap further up the road, Schumacher Sr was following up his Imola win with an equally emotional triumph in front of his countrymen. Although Alonso got to within four seconds at the flag, it was more as a result of the German babying his equipment in the closing stages than responding to the pressure from behind. Massa and Raikkonen stuck with the Spaniard, with the McLaren man even getting close enough to have a look at the final podium spot on the last lap.

No-one had an answer to Schumacher and Ferrari, however, with technical director Ross Brawn's assertion that a lap or two more fuel could play a big part in the outcome. Although he only took two points off Alonso this time around - as he had in Italy - there can be no doubt that Schumacher is now Renault's biggest rival. And there are more than enough races for him to continue taking two points at a time of the championship leader.....


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