Alonso resists Schumacher's challenge to claim hat-trick

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Fernando Alonso raised three fingers to the Italian tifosi at the end of the San Marino Grand Prix, but it was a gesture born of elation and relief rather than malice.

Fernando Alonso raised three fingers to the Italian tifosi at the end of the San Marino Grand Prix, but it was a gesture born of elation and relief rather than malice.

For the final 12 laps of the race the Renault driver had been stalked by the red menace of his greatest rival, Michael Schumacher. The champion finally had the right package of car and tyres, and his pace staggered rivals. Having snatched the lead from Jenson Button on the 46th of the 62 laps, Schumacher set after Alonso, his 2005 nemesis.

When battle was engaged, on the 51st lap, Alonso was nursing a 1.3 second lead after refuelling for the second time on the 42nd lap. Schumacher had refuelled on the 48th. But he took on a light load that scarcely affected his Ferrari's performance and within a lap Alonso was facing his worst nightmare; the greatest currently active driver sitting only the twitch of toe on brake pedal from his gearbox.

If you have the right car, you can win with relative ease, as Alonso demonstrated in Malaysia and Bahrain. But this one was much tougher, a crucible test of his mettle and nerve. It is never easy to overtake at Imola, but the Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres had grip to spare, in complete contrast to the previous races, and instead the Renault struggled on its Michelins.

On the 53rd lap Schumacher nosed alongside in the Piratella corner and Alonso made sure he kept the door closed. At Acque Minerale Schumacher had another look and was similarly, but discreetly, discouraged. At the Tosa hairpin six laps later Schumacher came tantalisingly close to finding a gap, but again Alonso was equal to the task.

To add to Alonso's problems, they were closing on the battle for 10th place between Mark Webber and Vitantonio Liuzzi. The last thing Alonso needed was traffic, so he did the smart thing and went just fast enough not to make an issue of it. And he did that lap after lap, with the sang froid of a master. The final lap came and went, and he was still 0.215sec in front, equal to Schumacher's challenge.

"I think this was my best win in Formula One so far," he said when it was all over, "because it was different to all the others. I didn't have a gap to allow me to be conservative, and I knew Michael was catching up from behind and that meant I had to push all the way through.

"In the end it worked perfectly," he added, "and things were very close in the final laps, but I was 99 percent sure he would not be able to overtake here. Three in a row is a fantastic feeling and I'm really looking forward to Spain."

It was understandable that Schumacher had mixed feelings. "I am happy in one way and excited after such a race," he said, "but on the other hand I am disappointed after making a mistake in qualifying this morning [he started 13th on the grid after sliding off the road]. If not for that this would have been the perfect day for us." However, as he pointed out, second place was a brilliant turnaround in fortune for a team that was in disarray in Bahrain. No doubt about it, Ferrari and Bridgestone are back with a vengeance.

Button, too, was equivocal. Third place gave him his first podium of the year and his first points, but BAR-Honda had come to Imola quietly convinced they had found eighth-tenths of a second a lap, and here they were finishing 10 seconds adrift.

"It looks like we are very much back in the game," Button said. "It was an incredible race and a great feeling to be as strong as we were in the early stages. We lost out towards the end when I got a bad run up the hill and Michael was able to get beside me going into the Variante Alta. Fighting him in that position could have put me out of the race, so I decided to play safe and ensure we got home and dry with a podium."

The dramatic fight for the lead overshadowed other great performances. After early leader Kimi Raikkonen retired with a driveshaft failure, McLaren-Mercedes stand-in Alexander Wurz did a fine job to take fourth in his first race since 2000, while Jacques Villeneuve shut up his critics with a strong drive into sixth for Sauber-Petronas.

The highly impressive Liuzzi blew away team-mate David Coulthard, and further underlined his promise by setting the seventh fastest lap on his debut. There was disappointment for Ralf Schumacher, however, who was docked 25 seconds and dropped from eighth place after an unsafe release from a pit stop.

"This was a magnificent race," technical director Ross Brawn said, and for once everybody was in agreement with Ferrari.

San Marino Grand Prix (Imola) 62 laps: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 27min 41.921sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:27:41.923; 3 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:27:51.925; 4 A Wurz (Aut) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28:08.926; 5 Takuma Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda 1:28:15.928; 6 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-Petronas 1:28:45.925; 7 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:28:51.923; 8 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:28:51.929; 9 N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:28:52.923; 10 M Webber (Aus) Williams-BMW 1:29:04.923; 11 V Liuzzi (It) Red Bull-Cosworth 1:29:04.928; 12 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1 lap; 13 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Cosworth 1 lap; 14 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan-Toyota 1 lap; 15 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan-Toyota 2 laps. Not Classified: G Fisichella (It) Renault 5 laps; K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 9 laps; P Friesacher (Ger) Minardi-Cosworth 8 laps; R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 18 laps; C Albers (Neth) Minardi-Cosworth 20 laps. Manufacturers' standings: 1 Renault 46; 2 Toyota 28; 3 McLaren-Mercedes 23; 4 Ferrari 18; 5 Williams-BMW 14; 6 Red Bull-Cosworth 12; 7 BAR-Honda 10; 8 Sauber-Petronas 5.