First it was the World Cup. Now the Italians have defeated the French again as Ferrari proved too fast for Renault on the latter's home ground here yesterday. Fernando Alonso trailed Michael Schumacher home by 10sec in the French Grand Prix, after the German had eased off following a brutal demonstration of the advantage that his tyre supplier, Bridgestone, have suddenly pulled out over their Michelin rivals.
Renault knew they were on the back foot when the Ferraris annexed the front row of the grid despite having only just made qualifying following mechanical problems in morning practice. As Schumacher won as he pleased, Alonso had to rely on Renault's decision, taken just before his first pit stop on lap 17, to switch from a similar three-stop refuelling strategy to two stops. This enabled him to leapfrog past the second Ferrari driver, Felipe Massa, with whom he had fought a tense first-corner battle.
"It was very close with Massa," Alonso confirmed. "I was nearly in the grass and had to back off, but Felipe was correct. None of us wants to give away his place. After that I tried to overtake, but we had to wait for the pit stops."
Massa chuckled. "I was a little bit in front of him, and knew that he had more to lose than I did... But it was fair," he said.
Alonso added: "We expected to have better consistency from our tyres, and everything worked as planned. After the stops I had a lot of fuel in the car, and at the end of each stint the tyres were not in perfect condition because I had to push hard at the beginning of each one with a heavy car, but still it worked nicely. We were two or three-tenths of a second down on Michael all through, but to be second on a difficult weekend for us was really a perfect result."
That might sound like whistling to keep spirits up, but this is a season in which fortunes have ebbed and flowed between Ferrari and Renault, and you need to score well in those races that you cannot win. This time Schumacher could win, and he did so decisively as he took the 88th victory of his career.
It was arguably one of the dullest, but it also yielded his 150th podium finish, and enabled him to set yet another new mark by becoming the only driver in history to win one particular race eight times. His delight afterwards was tangible as he waved an Italian flag and embraced Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt.
"We had a good start and drove our race from there. We were not sure how the race would go because our problems on Saturday morning prevented us doing any longs runs. But I have to say that the car, the tyres, the whole package just really worked superbly. It's a great result. I'm sorry that Felipe couldn't keep his second place, but nevertheless third place means more points.
"We have clearly made up ground, and everybody here is giving everything for the last seven races. The championship is far from being over. What matters is how the car and the package match a circuit, and we are confident ours will be a good match at Hockenheim."
Alonso remained philosophical after the significant defeat. "I'm not surprised at all by Ferrari's resurgence. Indy was a strange race, and maybe that was us [Michelin] being too conservative. Here we were close, but not quick enough, the same as we had been at Nürburgring and Imola. After them everybody thought they'd win all the races, but then we won four consecutively so hopefully that's going to happen from the next race on."
As far as Jenson Button was concerned, Schumacher and Alonso might as well have been speaking a foreign language. The Briton, who never featured in the race, metaphorically held his head in his hands as Honda's pathetic form continued.
French Grand Prix (Magny-Cours, France, 70 laps): 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 32min 07.803sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:32:17.903; 3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:32:30.303; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:32:34.903; 5 K Raikkonen (Fin)
McLaren-Mercedes 1:32:40.603; 6 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:32:52.803; 7 P de la Rosa (Sp) McLaren 1:32:56.903; 8 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-BMW +1 lap; 9 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull +1 lap; 10 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso +1 lap; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber +1 lap; 12 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull +1 lap; 13 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso +1 lap; 14 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth +2 laps; 15 C Albers (Neth) Midland +2 laps; 16 F Montagny (Fr) Super Aguri +3 laps. Not Classified: 17 J Button (GB) Honda 61 laps completed; 18 M Webber (Aus) Williams 53 laps; 19 J Trulli (It) Toyota 39 laps; 20 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 18 laps; 21 T Monteiro (Por) Midland 11 laps; 22 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri 3 laps. Fastest Lap: M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:17.111 (lap 46).
World Drivers' Championship: 1 Alonso 96pts; 2 M Schumacher 79; 3 Fisichella 46; 4 Raikkonen; 43; 5 Massa 42; 6 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren 26; 7 Button 16; 8 Barrichello 16; 9 Heidfeld 13; 10 R Schumacher 13; 11 Coulthard 10; 12 Trulli 8; 13 Villeneuve 7; 14 Webber 6; 15 Rosberg 4; 16 De la Rosa 2; 17 Klien 1; 18 Liuzzi 1.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Renault 142pts; 2 Ferrari 121; 3 McLaren 71; 4 Honda 32; 5 Toyota 21; 6 Sauber 20; 7 Red Bull 11; 8 Williams 10; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 1.