Europe GP 2003 - Schu towers as lord of the 'Ring.

They say that the Nurburgring crowd is only happy if a Schumacher wins, and it left the 2003 European Grand Prix happy even if it was Ralf, rather than Michael, that took the chequered flag after an eventful race.

The two 'local boys', were in the heart of the action from the off and, even when Mercedes-powered Kimi Raikkonen led by the proverbial country mile, most of the support was for the cars in second and third place.

They say that the Nurburgring crowd is only happy if a Schumacher wins, and it left the 2003 European Grand Prix happy even if it was Ralf, rather than Michael, that took the chequered flag after an eventful race.

The two 'local boys', were in the heart of the action from the off and, even when Mercedes-powered Kimi Raikkonen led by the proverbial country mile, most of the support was for the cars in second and third place.

The Schumachers started from second and third on the grid, with Michael ahead of Ralf, but it was the younger brother who led the pursuit of Raikkonen in the early stages, having got the better of the world champion off the line. Neither could do much about the McLaren ahead of them, however, as Raikkonen took off smartly from his maiden F1 pole position and disappeared into the distance.

A surprisingly clean getaway shuffled the order only slightly by the end of the opening lap, with Jacques Villeneuve coming off worst of all by dropping to the tail of the field behind both Minardis and only just ahead of Nick Heidfeld, who opted to start from the pit-lane after being unable to record a qualifying time on Saturday.

Ahead of what was to become a frantic scrap for 16th, the order looked much as it had on the grid, with only Jenson Button getting the better of a baulked Mark Webber and Ralph Firman climbing several places showing much difference.

By the end of the opening lap, Raikkonen had opened out a gap of 1.2secs back to the Schumachers, who headed Rubens Barrichello, making use of the clean side of the track to pass Juan Montoya for fourth, the two Renaults, Olivier Panis and David Coulthard. Three laps later, the gap had grown to three seconds, as Raikkonen banged in successive fastest laps, and extended further still to over five seconds by lap seven.

With the lead group strung out and unable to pass one another, the attention switched back to the battle between Villeneuve, Heidfeld and the Minardis, which raged over 14 laps as the luckless Canadian yo-yo'd up through the quartet. Having made a poor start, which saw him on the outside of turn one and passed by both Jos Verstappen and Justin Wilson by turn three, the 1997 world champion passed both Italian cars by lap nine, only to spin at turn two in his haste to rejoin the disappearing group ahead of him.

Rejoining last of all, Villeneuve managed to repass Verstappen - who, along with his team-mate had fallen prey to Heidfeld's Sauber - but then whacked another BAR front wing on the unforgiving marker cones at the revised chicane and had to pit for a replacement - having first had to crawl around a full lap as the offending item only broke after he had passed pit entrance!

By the time Villeneuve made his stop, the earliest of the regular pit-callers had begun to take on fuel and tyres as the race distilled into a battle between the two-and three-stoppers. The Jordans and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were among the first to stop, while most of the field began to stream in, earlier than expected, around lap 16.

By this point, Panis had already compromised his good qualifying position by locking up and spinning at turn one, rejoining twelfth, to provide the only other incident of the early stages.

The opening round of stops failed to produce any major change of position, but did increase Ralf's advantage over his brother. Having recorded two successive pole positions in Monaco and Canada, third place might have been seen as something of a disappointment for the young German but, when he managed to complete a full four laps more than either Raikkonen or brother Michael in his first stint, the performance took on a whole new light. The Williams crew turned Ralf around in 7.7secs, including a tweak of extra front wing, and he was able to rejoin with a comfortable advantage over the leading Ferrari.

This left him ideally placed to assume control of the race when, just five laps later, Raikkonen approached the Dunlop hairpin with a plume of smoke billowing from his left-side exhaust. Pulling off just beyond the corner, the disappointment was clear to see in the Finn's body language, as he rejected all offers of assistance from the marshals and retired to ponder what was looking set to become a major deficit in points.

As the attending journalists sharpened their pencils to prepare 'Mercedes hands Schumacher advantage' headlines, the second round of pit-stops began to cycle through as the race passed half-distance. Pitting earlier than their Williams rivals, the period proved to be crucial for both Ferrari pilots, with Michael Schumacher emerging immediately behind the battle for fifth between the two Renaults - Alonso now ahead of Trulli - and David Coulthard. The German's 'misfortune' meant that, when Ralf rejoined from his stop five laps later, the gap between them had grown again.

More importantly, however, team-mate Barrichello's stop proved to be over a second longer than Montoya's and when the stagger had unwound, the Colombian found himself running in third place. More to the point, the Williams-BMW was immediately lapping faster than the #1 Ferrari ahead of him and closing in on a possible move for second.

The opportunity arose on lap 43 as, approaching the Dunlop corner, Montoya moved to the outside to take a run at Schumacher. Ordinarily, contact between two cars in that position would result in the one furthest from the apex rotating but, in this case, it was Schumacher who found himself at a disadvantage as the Ferrari looped into a gentle spin as Montoya went through.

The world champion found himself with his rear wheels beached in the gravel, but the nose of the F2003-GA still on the black ribbon of tarmac that it separated from the noisy crowd enclosures. Deeming himself to be in a dangerous position - and therefore eligible for assistance - Schumacher beckoned for the marshals to push him back into the race, which they duly did with the loss of 'only' four places.

The incident not only elevated Montoya to second, but also Barrichello to third and the battle between Alonso and Coulthard to fourth and fifth, Jarno Trulli having crawled to a halt a handful of laps beforehand. While the three leaders were spaced out and unlikely to challenge each other before the chequered flag appeared, Coulthard was all over the back of Alonso's evil-handling Renault.

The Spaniard was having to wrestle the R23 into each and every corner, causing Coulthard to believe that he could take advantage of the slightest slip. Alonso was not about to surrender meekly, however, and defended for all he was worth, causing Coulthard to lock up on more than one occasion into turn one, and take evasive action at the chicane on lap 58.

With typical timing - immediately following television pictures showing McLaren boss Ron Dennis consoling Raikkonen with the news that his title rival would only finish sixth - the conflict came to an unsatisfactory conclusion four laps from home. DC unexpectedly found himself closing on the Renault on the run to the revised chicane and, expecting Alonso to hold his line on the right-hand side of the road, prepared himself for a lunge to the left. Then, sensing that the Renault was edging that way under braking, the Scot reacted to the right, narrowly avoiding contact with Alonso's right rear wheel but, on touching the grass, finding himself taking a bumpy broadside ride into the gravel trap.

Unable to extract himself, Coulthard joined the likes of Panis (the victim of a second turn one spin), the increasingly luckless Villeneuve and Cristiano da Matta (engine failure), as well as Trulli and Raikkonen on the retirement list, while Schumacher Sr maintained his 'lucky man' reputation by moving up to fifth on the road after his push start.

That almost became fourth as the German caught and challenged the hobbled Alonso on the last lap, with just the Spaniard's lack of acceleration out of the final Coca-Cola Kurve preventing Raikkonen from surrendering another point in the championship race.

The battle, however, came in over a minute behind the Schumacher who would ultimately accept the crowd's acclaim, as Ralf maintained his cool to stroke the leading Williams-BMW to a comfortable victory. Sixteen seconds separated the German from Montoya in the runners-up spot, as Williams and BMW celebrated their renewed partnership with an historic 1-2. It was Schumacher's fifth career win and his first since last year's Malaysian Grand Prix - when his team-mate and brother also made contact....

It was an accomplished performance from a driver who, having been under-fire at the start of the year, appears to have found his feet again. Just 15 points now separate him from the championship lead, with another Michelin circuit to come in a weeks' time.

Behind Schumacher Sr, Mark Webber made the most of an anonymous afternoon to pick up more points for Jaguar, with Jenson Button and Nick Heidfeld filling out the top eight. The Briton's performance provided some succour for BAR, which had endured an otherwise torrid weekend, but was nothing compared to the joy Sauber would have derived from Heidfeld's eighth place after starting in pit-lane.

After a Canadian round that had failed to live up to the excitement and incident provided in the previous six races, the Nurburgring proved that Formula One still has the odd twist up its sleeve.

Race result:

1. Ralf SchumacherGermanyWilliams-BMW60 laps1hr 34min 43.622secs
2.Juan MontoyaColombiaWilliams-BMW+16.821secs
3.Rubens BarrichelloBrazilFerrari-Ferrari+39.673secs
4.Fernando AlonsoSpainRenault-Renault+1min 05.731secs
5. Michael SchumacherGermanyFerrari-Ferrari +1min 06.162secs
6.Mark WebberAustraliaJaguar-Cosworth+1 lap
7.Jenson ButtonBritainBAR-Honda+1 lap
8.Nick HeidfeldGermanySauber-Petronas+1 lap

9.Heinz-Harald FrentzenGermanySauber-Petronas+1 lap
10.Antonio PizzoniaBrazilJaguar-Cosworth+1 lap
11.Ralph FirmanBritainJordan-Ford+2 laps
12.Giancarlo FisichellaItalyJordan-Ford+2 laps
13.Justin WilsonBritainMinardi-Cosworth+2 laps
14.Jos VerstappenHollandMinardi-Cosworth+3 laps

RtdDavid CoulthardBritainMcLaren-Mercedes56 laps completed
RtdCristiano da MattaBrazilToyota-Toyota53 laps completed
RtdJacques VilleneuveCanadaBAR-Honda51 laps completed
RtdJarno TrulliItalyRenault-Renault37 laps completed
RtdOlivier PanisFranceToyota-Toyota37 laps completed
Rtd.Kimi RaikkonenFinlandMcLaren-Mercedes25 laps completed

Fastest lap:

Kimi RaikkonenMcLaren-Mercedes1min 32.621secs

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