Fernando Alonso led from start to finish in a slow-burner of a Chinese Grand Prix, helping to secure the constructors' world title for his Renault team.

The Spaniard sprinted away at the start while team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella kept both McLarens at bay, but it was an errant drain cover that effectively handed the regie the crown, taking Juan Montoya out of the race before half-distance.

Although the ensuing safety car, and another to clear the wrecked Jordan of Narain Karthikeyan, wiped out Alonso's lead, but the world champion kept his cool, and re-established his lead for a seventh win of the year.

Kimi Raikkonen eventually came home in second place, claiming fastest lap during his vain pursuit of the leader, while Ralf Schumacher took advantage of a late drive-thru' penalty for Fisichella - the Italian have illegally backed up the pack during the flurry of safety car pit-stops - to pinch the final podium spot. Fisichella was fourth by just 0.7secs.

The decision of Toyota, Red Bull and Sauber not to refuel Schumacher, Christian Klien and Felipe Massa under the second safety car paid dividends as they claimed third, fifth and sixth spots, but was bad news for the chasing pack of Mark Webber, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, who had found themselves bottled up behind the remaining Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello in the crucial period, and had to settle for seventh, eighth and ninth.

Barrichello eventually dropped to twelfth with tyre problems, but that was better than team-mate Michael Schumacher managed, the German capping a miserable day - and season - by spinning out under the first safety car.

Securing the front row of the grid was a big boost to Renault's championship aspirations, and Alonso made the most of his pole position by sprinting away as the lights went out, while team-mate Fisichella made it difficult for third-place starter Raikkonen to follow. The Italian soon had two McLarens in his mirrors, however, as Montoya vaulted past the slow-starting Button to apply maximum pressure on the back of the Renault into turns one and two.

Further back, the second BAR-Honda had also caught the stewards' attention, Takuma Sato desperate enough to make up for his lowly grid position to jump the start. The Japanese driver, in his last race for the Brackley team, was already passing Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber by the time the lights went out... eventually earning himself a drive-thru penalty that would negate the rise to twelfth he had achieved on lap one.

Alonso put the latest revisions to his Renault, including the one-off E-spec V10, to good use in the opening laps, pulling away from his pursuers by almost a second each time around. Fisichella, meanwhile, was not exactly holding the McLarens up, having trimmed the aero on his R25 for speed on the straights, but was clearly aiding his team-mate's getaway.

The early points positions were filled by Button, Coulthard, Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher, but there was no sign of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, the German having had to start from pit-lane in the spare car after being collected by Minardi's Christijan Albers on his way to the grid. The out-going world champion had risen to 17th by the end of the first lap, but was in for a slow day thereafter.

After the excitement of Suzuka, the opening stages in Shanghai suggested that a slow day was on the menu for all as, with the exception of successive fastest laps for Alonso, the rest of the field remained largely static. By the time that Jordan's Tiago Monteiro started the first round of pit-stops on lap 15, the Spaniard had built himself a 16-second buffer and appeared on course for an easy afternoon.

That optimism evaporated swiftly, however, as Montoya's McLaren inadvertently brought out the safety car. The Colombian's car remained on track after hitting what initially appeared to be debris on the side of the road, but later turned out to be a drain cover prised loose by the traction of tyres passing over it. Montoya had not got away unscathed either, the floor of his McLaren having been ripped open by the contact, exposing the radiator and suspension to damage. He pitted at the end of the lap for a replacement tyre, rejoining in the queue behind the pace car, but had to make a second stop under it to take on fuel, and survived only as long as the safety remained out as rising engine temperatures forced him into the garage.

Much as Renault would have secretly celebrated the demise of one of its rivals, it was too focused on the fact that Alonso's commanding lead would now be reduced to nothing by the safety car. In common with most others, both Alonso and Fisichella were ordered to make their first fuel stops at the earliest opportunity, rejoining in 1-2 formation ahead of Raikkonen - who was stationary a lot longer than his direct rivals - and the promoted Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and Webber.

Button and Coulthard, meanwhile, had gone the other way, dropping down the order after the unfortunate decision to pit just one lap before the safety car was called. Jarno Trulli suffered likewise, the trio occupying seventh, eighth and 15th in the revised order.

The safety car remained on track for nearly 15 minutes, around three too many for Michael Schumacher, whose miserable afternoon ended with an embarrassing spin while still running at a controlled pace. Attempting to generate some heat into his rapidly cooling Bridgestones, the Ferrari pilot found the back-end of the F2005 swapping ends with the front as he attempted to fall back into line behind Massa's Sauber, and pirouetted into the gravel. The walk back to the pits was a long and ignominious one.

With a lap of the restart, Alonso had already eked out nearly three seconds' advantage over his team-mate but, again, the Spaniard was not to enjoy the benefits of his pace for long. Just nine laps had elapsed before the safety car re-appeared, this time to clear up the remains of a sizeable Narain Karthikeyan accident. The Indian, like Schumacher, claimed to have been the victim of cold tyres - both drivers use Bridgestones - understeering wide at the increasingly-fast right-hander onto the back straight and then finding that there was no grip on the artificial turf laid down beyond the edge of the road. Jordan and tyre barrier made sizeable impact, bouncing the luckless Karthikeyan back into the middle of the road. Several other cars had to take avoiding action, but the Indian was able to climb out unaided - fortunately, as there were few people in attendance to help him.

Again, Renault instructed both drivers to stop but, as the Spaniard came in, his Italian colleague reduced his pace dramatically, a move designed as much to keep the pack under control as to ensure that his pit bay was clear. Alonso duly rejoined in front of the field, but Fisichella, ironically, dropped behind Raikkonen, who was able to take on less fuel this time around. The Italian's tactics would also come back to haunt him...

Again, the field circulated for almost a quarter hour behind the pace car but, this time, there was no repeat of the incidents that followed its first appearance, as the field got away cleanly at the restart. Only the hapless Sato found himself in trouble, coasting to a halt with no drive in his BAR following a gearbox failure.

Team-mate Button was also making waves, but more for his reaction to Webber's tactics behind the safety car than anything else. The Australian appeared to drop back a lot further than the five car lengths stipulated in the 'anti-stacking' laws, preventing either from having a shot at Barrichello's Ferrari on the restart, and effectively scuppering their chance of a good points haul.

Webber's actions were compounded by the tactical decision taken by Toyota, Red Bull and Massa to leave Schumacher, Klien and Massa on track during the safety car, eventually finding themselves in second, third and fourth positions when racing resumed. All would need to make a second fuel stop, but their teams reckoned that the speed advantage in the meantime should produce enough of a gap to ensure at least a points finish. The reasoning looked sound as all three suddenly found themselves able to lap at a pace previously only attainable by the Renaults and McLarens, with Klien holding the fastest tour of all until the closing stages.

When the time came for the trio to stop for the second and final time, the tactic had clearly paid off, as they resumed in fourth, fifth and sixth places - with Webber and Button, having forced their way past Barrichello, restricted the final two scoring slots. Coulthard, meanwhile, had failed to find a way past the Ferrari when Webber and Button had, and trailed Barrichello for another lap, losing all touch with the BAR and also the chance to rack up his 500th F1 point. Barrichello subsequently made another pit-stop to check his increasingly flat-spotted tyres and would come home twelfth.

Back at the front, Alonso quickly resumed normal service, easing away from the pack to establish a cushion that would carry him through to the end. Team-mate Fisichella saw his hopes of silverware disappear when he was called to account for his pit-stop tactics, allowing Schumacher Jr into third. Although urged into hot pursuit by his engineers, Fisi came up 0.7secs short at the flag, while Schumacher took a surprise podium to cap the year for his team.

Assured of the constructors' title barring a disaster, Alonso turned down the wick in the closing stages which, combined with Raikkonen raising his game to fastest lap level, saw the gap between first and second reduced to just four seconds at the flag. The entire Renault team was there to meet the Spaniard, draping themselves over the safety fencing to welcome him across the line, before regrouping at parc ferme - where the Renault promptly caught light.

Hot stuff indeed.



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