APRIL 25, 2005
SAN MARINO GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Just what the Bernard ordered
At the end of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, as Fernando Alonso crossed the finishing line just inches ahead of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, the Media Centre erupted into cheering. It has been a long time since we heard that kind of reaction because the race was so exciting. And, as the press represents the people around the world (despite the views of some of the sillier people in the F1 paddock) it is fair to say that across the globe there were race fans everywhere cheering what had been a marvellous battle. Formula 1 is good again. No, Formula 1 is great. The boys had done good. We had watched the greatest drivers of the day doing what they do best and it had been a wonderful show. Michael Schumacher might have had the faster car at the end of the race but Fernando Alonso did not panic. He defended his position without any of the sideswipes and lunges that we have often seen in F1 in recent times. He defended the position with an artfulness that was a pleasure to watch. He kept Michael Schumacher brilliantly in check, slowing the Ferrari driver deliberately in places where Michael needed to gain an advantage. It was very clever stuff. It also served to keep the slower cars ahead out of reach of the two leaders so that there could not be a scramble through traffic.
After the race Michael was able to say that he had the fastest car and perhaps that was true but that does not really take into account the fact that in the early laps of the race Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren was obviously faster. The question was how far Kimi Raikkonen was going to go before he pitted and there was all manner of speculation in this respect. Down at Renault there were some who were honest enough to admit that they had calculated that the McLaren was going to stay out longer than Alonso did. Fernando stopped on lap 23. Jenson Button stopped on lap 24. Michael Schumacher stopped on lap 27. Kimi Raikkonen would have stopped on lap 25. He would at that point have been 10 seconds ahead of Alonso on the road.
It all sounds marvellous but the fact is that the McLaren stopped with a driveshaft failure, so it really does not matter where it would have been.
In some ways it was a day of "if only" because British American Racing, which had looked so good throughout practice, was not quite on the ultimate pace in the race. It was close and the actual result did not reflect the speed of the car because as soon as Michael Schumacher had overtaken Button on lap 47, Jenson let him go and played safe all the way to the flag. He was going to be third and could only hope that Michael and Fernando would collide. Fernando was smart enough to make sure that did not happen.
It was a day of impressive achievements with most people getting very excited about the leap forward which has been made in recent weeks by Ferrari. It was very impressive that Michael Schumacher was able to drive the same lap times before his first pit stop (when the car was empty) as he was when he came out of the pits (when the car was full). At the end of the day Michael's fastest lap was seven-tenths faster than the nearest challenger (which was Jenson Button) while the rest were another four-tenths behind and all grouped together closely. Ferrari's progress in relation to the opposition since Bahrain was impressive but then again it ought to have been because, let us not forget, the team is doing more testing than everyone else because it refuses to agree to testing restrictions. In the heat of the moment one might forget this massive advantage but it would be wrong for us to praise Ferrari too much because in effect the opposition is fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The numbers speak for themselves. Ferrari did 5380 miles between Bahrain and Imola. The best of the rest (BAR) did only 3650.
But is Ferrari really the quickest car? Ultimately it does not matter. Trying to analyse outright performance is, of course, difficult because the track surface, the temperature, the traffic, the new engine rules and all the rest of it, but when all is said and done, it really does not matter. We must simply accept that there are five or six teams who are in the hunt for race victories and we are in for a good year.
Could we ask for more than that?
The race itself witnessed Raikkonen make a break at the start and after eight laps he was 3.5secs ahead of the rest. But on the ninth lap the car suddenly slowed. Alonso was ahead and only Button was close but he was drifting back until the gap stabilised after 13 laps and he then began to close in on Fernando. No-one else was in with a chance because Jarno Trulli had everyone bottled up behind him. In the midfield Michael Schumacher did not seem to be able to do anything much. Rubens Barrichello disappeared from eighth place on lap 17 with an electrical problem. That aside there was little to report early on. Giancarlo Fisichella's misfortune continued after a poor qualifying and he was running 11th when something broke on the car and he was dumped into the sandtrap and then the wall at Tamburello.
Felipe Massa was stuck in neutral at the start and so had to make up ground and so was the only man doing any overtaking early on but he then ran into the back of Coulthard and had to do it all again with a new nose.
The pit stop sequence resulted in Michael Schumacher, Alex Wurz and Takuma Sato all getting ahead of Trulli and Webber, who got himself boxed in by Sato in a nice move on lap 22. Webber then came out of the pits with Trulli in front of him again and in the end he made another mistake and lost out to Villeneuve. By then the tyres were shot and Webber struggled home a disappointed ninth behind Nick Heidfeld. It was not a good day for Williams.
But for most of the teams there was reason to celebrate. During the second stint Schumacher's pace was obvious as he closed up on Button, taking 20secs from the BAR in 13 laps. Alonso stopped earlier than expected and so for a while Button and Michael diced for the lead. In the end Jenson fell victim of traffic, which allowed Michael to box him in and get ahead at the top chicane. The two men then pitted but Alonso was still ahead and although Michael closed the gap in impressive fashion once he arrived behind the Renault he was stuck and the final cat-and-mouse game began.
It was marvellous motor racing and as the crowd (rather small, sadly) cheered at the finish it was time to take a step back and look at what had happened.
It was a good event for many reasons. For Renault it was a fourth consecutive victory. For Ferrari it was a revival. It was the same story for BAR-Honda. For Toyota it was decent damage limitation as the team stays second in the Constructors'. For McLaren there was promise of better things. For Williams it was a pretty depressing day with the race pace not as good as had been hoped. But the traffic and a couple of mistakes made things seem worse than perhaps they really are. For Sauber the team was able to head off back to Switzerland with three points in the bag and Jacques Villeneuve had done a lot to get the monkey of criticism off his back (and not before time).
Alexander Wurz also did a pretty good job for McLaren after four years of being a test driver. Fourth place was a good effort. Red Bull had a good weekend with the announcement of a Ferrari engine deal but the keen observers will have noticed that F1 debutant Tonio Liuzzi showed David Coulthard the way around for the entire race. It may not have resulted in any World Championship points but the Italian had made a very impressive debut and it is clear that he is only going to get better. Such assurance is impressive in a young driver and it is fair to say that we will be hearing a great deal more from him in the years to come.