Fernando Alonso staged a brilliant demonstration of cool nerve yesterday to beat the Michael Schumacher fair and square in Bahrain.
If Bernie Ecclestone was into writing screenplays, he could hardly have bettered this one. Schumacher started from pole position and sped straight into the lead. Behind him, Alonso attacked immediately but was initially repelled by Felipe Massa, who had started the second Ferrari from the front row. Alonso quickly dispensed with the upstart Brazilian, however, but the pair nearly became intimate in the first corner at the start of lap eight as Massa's red car snapped sideways on him under braking and inadvertently swooped backwards across the Renault's bows with all four tyres smoking. Excellent televisual stuff!
Alonso hit the brakes harder and just avoided Massa, but that allowed Schumacher to get away. By the time he refuelled for the first time on lap 15 the German was more than six seconds clear, and even though Alonso went four laps longer, Schumacher still kept the lead.
In the second stint, however, Alonso stayed much closer. The pair got back into first and second places by lap 24, after Juan Pablo Montoya had squeezed 23 laps out of his McLaren's first fuel load. Now Alonso pressed home his attack, and this time the deficit to Schumacher was just over a second when the former champion refuelled again on the 36th lap.
Again, the Renault ran longer, stopping on lap 39. This time the longer stint was crucial. Alonso's well-oiled pit crew got him turned around in 7.7 seconds and he swept back out just in time to pip the Ferrari into the first corner. It was, however, nip and tuck. Schumacher is not a man to be cowed and kept pushing to the outside in an attempt to snatch the inside line for the following left-hander, but Alonso showed that he is no wallflower either by holding both his line and his nerve. This was motor racing in the grand manner, mano a mano, as we used to see with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, two top sportsmen at the height of their game. It was also as gentlemanly as these things can ever be.
A little further round the lap Schumacher slid wide after locking a front brake, and that enabled Alonso to open a lead of just over a second. That came down to as little as four-10ths of a second at one stage as they worked the lapped traffic, but the Spaniard was always in control and his body language as he clambered from the cockpit afterwards spoke volumes. This was Imola 2005 all over again.
"This was a good, fighting win," he beamed. "There was a funny incident in the early stages, and I came very close to going out when Massa spun, but I looked after the tyres at the start of the stints, so that I had something left at the crucial moment, and I was very confident that we would be able to do it. This is the perfect start to the season."
Schumacher described his result as "excellent" and added: "I'm certainly not complaining about finishing second. If someone had told us during the winter months that this is the way we would have finished the first race, I wouldn't have believed them."
On paper, third place might seem like a defeat for the third title favourite, Kimi Raikkonen. But this was a triumph of strategic planning for McLaren as the Finn had to start from last place on the grid after his suspension failure in qualifying. They gave him a full tank of fuel in preparation for only one pit stop, and he took his lumps in the early going as lighter cars ran rings round him. By the time those hares had made their first of two stops, Raikkonen had climbed as high as third when he came in on lap 30, and that was enough.
Jenson Button had recovered from a terrible start to occupy the place, having fought successfully with Montoya, and seemed a likely podium finisher. But Raikkonen just got back in the race ahead of him and over the remaining 17 laps after Button's final stop the Englishman had no answer. They finished less than a second apart, but Raikkonen always had things under control.
It was the clutch that let Button down at the start, but he left Bahrain feeling confident. "We may not have a podium but we have a very competitive car and if you look at the lap times when we weren't in traffic we were genuinely as quick as anyone out there. I think we go to Malaysia feeling extremely positive."
Fifth place fell to Montoya, sixth to Mark Webber, but the other star of the day was the Australian's rookie team-mate Nico Rosberg. The reigning GP2 champion stuffed the start by hitting Nick Heidfeld's BMW in the first corner, and then lost 45 seconds in the pits. But after that he made full use of what is clearly a very good combination of car, engine and tyres to streak up the field. True, his fastest laps came right at the end of his fuel stints which were out of kilter with most of his rivals' after that early stop, but this was an impressive debut that made his spectating father, the 1982 champion Keke, a proud man.
On a day when Toyota's aspirations crumbled with lowly finishes for Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli (14th and 16th), Christian Klien took the final point ahead of Massa and his Red Bull team-mate David Coulthard.
If this was a preview of what we can expect for the rest of the year - with a four-way fight between Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Honda - F1 fans are in for a roller-coaster season.
1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 29min 46.205sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +00min 01.246sec; 3 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +00:19.360; 4 J Button (GB) Honda +00:19.992; 5 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes +00:37.048; 6 M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth +00:41.932; 7 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth +01min 03.043sec; 8 C Klien (Aut) RedBull-Ferrari +01:06.771; 9 F Massa (Br) Ferrari +01:09.907; 10 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Ferrari +01:15.541; 11 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +01:25.997; 12 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber +1 lap; 13 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 14 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota +1 lap; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +1 lap; 16 J Trulli (It) Toyota +1 lap; 17 T Monteiro (Por) Midland-Toyota +2 laps; 18 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +4 laps. Dnf: Y Ide (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda (22 laps); J Villeneuve (Can) BMW-Sauber (28 laps); G Fisichella (It) Renault (36 laps); C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota (57 laps). Fastest lap: N Rosberg 1min 32.408sec (lap 42). Championship standings: Drivers': 1 Alonso 10pts; 2 M Schumacher 8; 3 Raikkonen 6; 4 Button 5; 5 Montoya 4; 6 Webber 3; 7 Rosberg 2; 8 Klien 1. Constructors: 1 Renault 10pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 10; 3 Ferrari 8; 4 Honda 5; 5 Williams-Cosworth 5; 6 RedBull-Cosworth 1.