Fernando Alonso appeared second best to Kimi Raikkonen for 58 of the 59 laps of the European Grand Prix, but scooped his fourth win of the season when the Finn's right front wheel let go in spectacular style on the final lap.

Raikkonen had led from the start, jumping pole man Nick Heidfeld into turn one and, apart from the pit-stops and an uncharacteristic off mid-race, wasn't headed until a flat-spotted tyre eventually led to suspension failure under braking for the first corner on lap 59.

Alonso had been closing inexorably on the McLaren as the problem got worse, and the final lap would have been all about defence for Raikkonen, but the need to get past the Finn was removed by his dramatic exit. Alonso thus inherited the victory, holding a comfortable advantage over Heidfeld and Rubens Barrichello, who completed the podium.

David Coulthard took fourth for Red Bull, despite incurring a drive-thru' penalty for pit-lane speeding, while Michael Schumacher claimed fifth, despite running off the road in the latter stages. Giancarlo Fisichella, in sixth and closing on the Ferrari, had had to start from the pit-lane, and Juan Montoya had been the airborne victim of the traditional first corner shunt, before continuing to take seventh. Jarno Trulli, in eighth, was also penalised after his mechanics were late leaving the grid.

It was that sort of afternoon....

Despite suspicions that he may have been running heavier than either Williams in qualifying, Raikkonen managed to get the drop on poleman Heidfeld to lead into turn one, the pair among those to escape the traditional pile-up at the tight right-hander. Heidfeld's Williams team-mate, Mark Webber, however, proved central to it all.

The Australian, hampered slightly by his starting spot being directly over the finish line painted on to the road, made another slightly tardy getaway, and found himself swamped by rivals as he headed, centre road, into the corner. Webber later admitted that he had locked up while trying desperately to defend his position, but found that the FW27 didn't want to stop in time to make the turn, and collected Juan Montoya, who was taking what he expected to be the wide line.

While the Colombian was sent momentarily up onto two wheels, Webber continued to skate into the gravel trap. Remarkably, the Williams would prove to be the only casualty of the skirmish, despite JPM making a heavy landing, and the unsighted Ralf Schumacher making heavy contact with the rear of Barrichello's Ferrari, breaking the nose of his Toyota. Several others were delayed, including Michael Schumacher, whose notorious luck appears to have deserted him in 2005, and Takuma Sato, who required cosmetic surgery on the front of his BAR, possibly after tagging team-mate Jenson Button.

The Briton, meanwhile, briefly found himself elevated into the points, holding a tenuous eighth while, ahead of him, David Coulthard rose to the heady heights of fourth, despite having started on the outside of row six. Raikkonen, meanwhile, held sway at the front, with Heidfeld and Trulli lining up behind him. Championship leader Alonso was further back, behind the mercurial Coulthard, his chances of taking the fight to the leader looking slim.

Raikkonen continued to stretch away out front, the McLaren continuing its recent run of form while Heidfeld, Trulli, Coulthard and Alonso all ran at comfortable intervals. The Italian, however, was under investigation from the stewards, his mechanics having not cleared the grid with the required 15 seconds in hand, and would soon be called in for his drive-thru'.

Button's hold on a top eight position ended at about the same time, Barrichello muscling past the BAR man in a move that began in turn one and ended two corners later. Montoya then compounded the Briton's loss of momentum by firing through at the Dunlop hairpin, pushing Button back to ninth, where he fell into the clutches of the recovering Michael Schumacher.

Barrichello, having also picked off seventh-placed Vitantonio Liuzzi, then surprised many by making his first call for fuel on lap eleven, showing just how light he had had to be to achieve seventh on the grid. Heidfeld followed suit a lap later, but had opened up enough of a gap on his pursuers to slot back into fourth, between Coulthard and Felipe Massa, another to have benefited from the first corner reshuffle.

Raikkonen had 21secs in hand by the time he made his stop six laps further on, rejoining in third behind Alonso, and allowing Coulthard and Red Bull the honour of leading a grand prix for the first time together. The Scot stretched his fuel out to lap 20, and Alonso to 22, both running at the front before handing the initiative back to Raikkonen through the middle sector of the race. Coulthard, however, released his speed limiter fractionally early, perhaps desperate not to be slowed up behind one of the Minardis which was also leaving the pits, and was tagged for a drive-thru that dropped him to fifth.

Heidfeld has stepped up the pace between his stop and Raikkonen's and, with half-distance approaching was just a couple of seconds behind the Finn. Raikkonen then appeared to crack under the sudden pressure, catching a slide at the left-hander before the Ford Kurve but being fired out wide through the right-hander that followed. That allowed Heidfeld to sweep through into the lead, but the German's strategy meant that he had little time to enjoy the advantage before having to make his second stop.

While the German and Barrichello appeared able to run with just about anyone despite their three-stop ploy, Raikkonen's more common two-stopper kept him out front. All was not well with the Finn's car, however, with his bargeboard damaged by the off-track moment. The altered handling then caught him out as he attempted to lap the tardy Jacques Villeneuve, a massive lock-up preceding another trip across the kerbs and causing the flat-spot vibration that would such catastrophic effect later on. At the end of lap 37, however, the problem appeared less threatening, particularly as Alonso was some 15secs adrift, with both drivers - and the third-placed Heidfeld - still having one stop to make.

Remarkably, a track renowned for its attrition rates had still claimed only Webber by half-distance, but Ralf Schumacher quickly obliged in doubling the numbers as he made a mistake at Ford. Understeer pushed the Toyota driver out wide through the left-hander, before the kerbs then launched him into the gravel. Scratch one German.

That would be it in terms of non-finishers until the final lap, with the likes of BAR, Sauber, Jordan and Minardi all showing commendable reliability. The backmarkers were well off the pace, however, with Patrick Friesacher bringing up the rear three laps adrift. Minardi team-mate Christijan Albers was one place - and one lap - better off despite picking up a drive-thru for allegedly ignoring blue flags, a crime also committed by the better of the two Jordan drivers, Tiago Monteiro. The two yellow cars finished a lap down on the winner, the same as Villeneuve and Sato.

Raikkonen made his final pit-stop on lap 43, where the McLaren team paid close attention to the damaged bargeboard and the MP4-20's front brakes - but not the front right tyre that had taken such a battering in the abortive move on Villeneuve's Sauber. Alonso briefly inherited the lead, setting the race's fastest lap as he strove to close the gap on his main championship rival, but joined the list of those to run out of road, skipping across gravel and grass at Dunlop, before rejoining, his hopes of making up time apparently over.

The Spaniard and Heidfeld flip-flopped positions during their final respective pit-stops, and the top three appeared set in stone, despite Alonso immediately going on a charge. Unbeknownst at this time was the true state of Raikkonen's tyre - a problem that quickly became apparent when in-car footage showed the offending item running far from true and shedding random pieces of rubber at any opportunity.

The McLaren team decided not to throw away its chances of victory, however, preferring instead to keep everything crossed as the laps ticked down. Raikkonen's reduced pace, and Alonso's scent of victory ensured that the grandstands were kept on edge, the gap between the leading pair falling at over a second a tour when backmarkers allowed.

Raikkonen headed into the last lap with 1.5secs in hand over his rival, not enough of a cushion to allow him to nurse the tyres to the end, but, suddenly, the dilemma was removed. Unable to withstand any more vibration, the McLaren's suspension finally gave way, the offending wheel flapping around at the end of its tether as Raikkonen spun, narrowly missed one of the BARs and buried itself in the turn one gravel. It was a sad end to another strong, if not dominant, performance - and handed points leader Alonso the chance to more than recover the ground lost over the past two races.



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