Fernando Alonso has blown the 2007 Formula 1 World Championship wide back open again, after triumphing in a European Grand Prix that had so much drama it could even have been scripted by visiting film director Quentin Tarantino.

In fighting his way past Felipe Massa courtesy of an inspired move in the closing stages at the N?rburgring, the Spaniard has closed to within just two points of non-scoring team-mate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers' standings. What's more, with McLaren seeing off the threat of a seemingly dominant Ferrari and only seven grands prix remaining on the calendar, there promises to be no let-up in the drama until season's end.

With the rain clouds moving in fast as the drivers set off for their formation lap, there was a sense in the Eifel Mountains air that anything could happen, and the afternoon would produce one of the most memorable Formula 1 races in recent history.

Pole-sitter Kimi Raikkonen held the lead off the start as Massa went all the way around the outside of Alonso into turn one and almost took his team-mate too for good measure. Behind them all hell let loose as the two BMW-Saubers collided, with Nick Heidfeld nudging Robert Kubica into a spin and the unfortunate Hamilton getting caught up in the ensuing m?l?e. Having got up as high as fourth place from his tenth grid spot, the world championship leader was then forced to tour around the remainder of the lap to the pits with a punctured left rear tyre, but with the rain now fairly hammering the circuit the opening lap drama was far from over yet.

David Coulthard was the next to go for a trip across the gravel trap, to be followed by Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button, but as the cars came around to complete the lap and head for the pit-lane it was leader Raikkonen who provided the biggest shock by firstly missing the final chicane and then, worse still, inadvertently straight-lining the pit-lane entrance, requiring the Finn to complete another lap on slicks in the torrential conditions before being able to change tyres.

With about half the drivers electing to pit - amongst them Massa, Alonso, Hamilton and Heidfeld - Giancarlo Fisichella paid the price for carrying on round as he lost his Renault and was lucky to recover. In yet another bizarre twist, the new race leader - by some 19 seconds - was rookie Markus Winkelhock in the Spyker, stunning his home fans having started from the pits on intermediate rubber.

With the conditions worsening and little to no grip in turn one, even on the inters, Button flew off into the gravel on lap three, to be followed seconds later by Winkelhock's team-mate and countryman Adrian Sutil, Scuderia Toro Rosso duo Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi - the latter almost collecting both the newly-deployed safety car and rescue digger in the process - Anthony Davidson just stopping short of hitting the chippings in his Super Aguri and, most notably of all, Hamilton.

The McLaren-Mercedes ace, however, had kept both his head and his engine running amidst all the chaos, and after being lifted out of the boonies by the digger was able to rejoin the fray ? la Michael Schumacher and live to fight another day, albeit a lap down and in 17th place. With Massa too almost losing it into turn one, the decision was wisely made to red flag the race, with it re-starting under clearer skies some 20 minutes later...but with rain once again threatening.

As the action got underway once more - with the first lap behind the safety car - fans watched the almost incredulous sight of Winkelhock on extreme wets leading the field around, ahead of Massa, Alonso, Red Bull pairing Mark Webber and Coulthard, Heikki Kovalainen, Raikkonen and Alex Wurz, with Button, Rosberg, Speed, Liuzzi and Sutil all consigned to watching from the sidelines.

With only Winkelhock, Heidfeld and Trulli on Bridgestone's extreme wets, the latter pairing pitted under the safety car to swap over onto intermediates, but a bigger surprise was to see Hamilton - who had been permitted to unlap himself under the safety car and therefore undertake the first representative flying lap of anybody in the drying conditions - come in to change over to dry tyres.

At the re-start Winkelhock got the initial jump, and it was a feisty-looking Alonso who was all over the back of a tardy Massa for second. The Spaniard's attempt to squeeze in-between the Ferrari and the Spyker, however, failed to come off, leaving the Brazilian in the lead as Coulthard dived up the inside of team-mate Webber into third into turn one just behind.

As the two RBR machines continued to duel ferociously over the final podium spot, the next major action came down at the Dunlop Curve, as Hamilton found it had probably been a little too soon to make the switch over onto dry rubber by skating straight ahead. Though he was able to rejoin, the lap he had gained back on the leaders had been thrown away, leaving Lewis with it all to do all over again.

With Raikkonen now lying sixth, the Finn's next target was countryman Kovalainen, though the Renault ace was not willing to give up without a fight, re-passing the Ferrari after Raikkonen had finally found a way through. Indeed, there was seemingly something in the Renault water as Fisichella similarly went all the way around the outside of Barrichello for ninth place at the final chicane.

A new fastest lap from Hamilton proved the track was now finally dry enough for slicks, prompting the drivers to begin peeling into the pit-lane, though any hope Alonso may have had of leapfrogging Massa were lost to front wing adjustments during the Spaniard's stop.

With Raikkonen nipping past Webber into the first turn after the Australian ran straight on immediately upon rejoining the race, battle was back on again at the front with the Finn just six seconds adrift of his leading team-mate. The Renaults were the biggest losers of the stops, with Kovalainen and Fisichella coming in fifth and sixth respectively and rejoining down in eighth and eleventh, while Heidfeld exiting the pits right alongside team-mate Kubica would undoubtedly have been the catalyst for a rather nervous moment for BMW Motorsport Director Dr Mario Theissen...

The unfortunate Winkelhock would pull off with an engine failure after a sparkling debut that was surely beyond even the young German's wildest dreams, while Heidfeld once again got a little over-excited in the queue behind Coulthard for seventh, harpooning Ralf Schumacher into the final turn after the Toyota driver had run slightly wide on the entry, punting his aggrieved countryman out of the race.

The Finns were now irrefutably the main men on the move, with Raikkonen inexorably hunting down the two leaders and closing right onto the back of Alonso as Massa began to edge clear. A little further back, having dived past Wurz with a neat move down the inside into turn one Kovalainen began to harry Webber for fourth.

Unable to get past the Red Bull, Renault brought its young charge in for an early stop, while Takuma Sato's retirement brought Hamilton up into 14th place and, though he may have been a gaping 92 seconds in arrears, the fastest man on the track.

Fisichella's similarly early final pit-stop suggested Kovalainen's may not have been entirely opportunistic, while Raikkonen's charge seemed to have been blunted somewhat as he struggled to keep within two seconds of Alonso. Just a matter of laps later that drop-off in pace was explained as the Ferrari suddenly slowed and he failed to even make it back to his pit box, the Finn's appalling N?rburgring luck returning following retirements from the lead with McLaren in both 2003 and 2005 due to an engine blow-up and front suspension failure respectively.

There were no such problems for team-mate Massa, however, as he sailed serenely on and continued to open out an advantage over the chasing Alonso, up to 8.4 seconds prior to his final pit-stop. Raikkonen's demise promoted Webber, Wurz and Kovalainen into a scrap for the bottom step of the podium, while Hamilton's first target on his climb back through the field was Fisichella, who refused to yield into turn one but had no answer to the flying Briton's pace later on in the same lap as the McLaren fearlessly went all the way around the outside of turn eleven with two wheels brushing the grass and up the inside into the final chicane.

Trulli made the job somewhat easier for him a couple of laps later, and when the recently-refuelled Silver Arrow shot down the inside of Barrichello he was up into the top ten and off in search of Fisichella once more for ninth. With Kubica and Heidfeld 31 seconds ahead of the McLaren, Massa bearing down to lap him behind, Alonso cutting the gap on the Brazilian from 11.4 seconds to just six and 18 laps left to run, few doubted that the drama was far from over yet.

A little further back, meanwhile, Lady Luck seemed to be smiling on the perennially luckless Webber for once as he rejoined from his final pit-stop still ahead of Wurz and Kovalainen and looking good for a podium spot - only the second of his five-and-a-half-year career in the top flight.

With 15 laps to go Hamilton went a lap down, and his chances of scoring even a single point seemed to be fast fading away. Though he would remain in the wheeltracks of the race leader to show what might have been, that was small consolation for what had been undoubtedly the biggest rollercoaster weekend of his brief F1 career.

With eleven laps to go and the rain once again closing in, Alonso had the gap to Massa down to 4.4 seconds. Kovalainen was the first to blink, changing over to intermediates in a podium gamble and rejoining just ahead of team-mate Fisichella in eighth place. It did not take the Italian long to go past and steal away the final point, but just seconds later and with eight laps remaining, the heavens opened again.

With Massa visibly starting to struggle, the pit crews got into position, and there was further drama as the two leaders came in with Fisichella in-between them. As McLaren released Alonso there was a close call with the Renault, which was already motoring down the pit-lane, and the Spaniard narrowly and somewhat contentiously managed to muscle his way past and off in pursuit of Massa again.

Indeed, the gap at the front following the pit-stops was down to just 1.2 seconds, and with Alonso by far the more confident on the brakes in the treacherous conditions the race was on. The McLaren was swarming all over the back of the hitherto uncatchable Ferrari, and a failed attempt around the outside of turn one was only the prelude to a supremely brave move around the outside of turn five that put him on the inside line going into turn six, the exact same place where a mistake in qualifying had arguably cost Alonso pole position. Though the pair lightly touched wheels as Massa defended hard, the pass was made and Alonso was gone, reminding everyone just why he is the reigning double world champion with arguably the move of the season so far and one reminiscent of Michael Schumacher's on Jean Alesi in the closing stages of a similarly weather-savaged race at the same circuit twelve years earlier.

From there on, despite a brief fightback from Massa, Alonso sprinted away, with his eventual winning margin 8.1 seconds at the chequered flag. There was more drama further back, as Webber was increasingly struggling in the difficult conditions and coming under real pressure in the dying stages from Wurz in the Williams. Indeed, just as the Red Bull ace seemed to have it covered with a 0.6 second margin on the final tour, he made a small mistake into the last chicane and Wurz came desperately close to getting alongside the Australian, who was forced to hold the tightest of lines through the last corner to cross the finish line just three tenths of a second ahead.

The charging Coulthard was fast closing the pair down at the end, finishing a mere eight seconds behind in fifth to complete the best day of RBR's brief F1 history and launch the Milton Keynes-based squad up the constructors' leaderboard.

The battling BMWs held onto sixth and seventh at the close, with an unusually scrappy Heidfeld narrowly getting the verdict over Kubica, while Hamilton spent the final laps chasing down the duelling Renaults, and though he would succeed in depriving Fisichella of his ninth place, Kovalainen would not be parted from eighth and the Briton ultimately came agonisingly close to nicking a world championship point after a race that had everything from lights out to chequered flag.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...