King and pretender, they sat on the front row of the grid, Fernando Alonso slightly ahead of Michael Schumacher. It was the Spaniard's sternest test to date, but when the Bahrain Grand Prix was over here it was the pretender who had won his second consecutive race and the king's red steed that had failed him for the first time in 58 races.
As Alonso praised Renault's complete excellence in a victory that rekindled distant memories of the 1994 season when they were known as Benetton and it was Schumacher tormenting the late Ayrton Senna, they could take pride in their driver's performance.
"To see a driver control a race like Fernando did this afternoon is an impressive sight," the director of Renault engineering, Pat Symonds, said with the satisfied expression of a man savouring the ongoing shift in Formula One's status quo. "His performance is even more remarkable when you consider he did not even use all the revs available on the engine in the opening laps. He seemed capable of increasing his pace when necessary, without putting undue stress on the car."
If he reads those words, doubtless Schumacher will be even more angry than he looked after his new Ferrari F2005 - rushed to Bahrain to answer Renault's challenge - broke on the 12th lap after throwing him momentarily off-course with gearbox downshift problems. Was Alonso merely toying with him?
What we will never know was whether Schumacher's apparent ability to stick close to the Renault in those opening laps was also a product of a lower fuel load, or whether his Bridgestone tyres would have faded in the same way as his team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
Ferrari started one car at the front, the other at the back (both featuring black nosebands as a mark of respect for the late Pope John Paul II) after Barrichello's new machine required an engine change after qualifying. But after leaping into the midfield following a great start, the Brazilian faded to a humiliating lapped ninth place by the end of a race that was run in a sweltering 42C temperature. As the teams sought to protect their machinery, there was more dry ice on the starting grid than at a Cirque du Soleil performance.
Behind Alonso, Jarno Trulli again impressively brought his Toyota home second, and with Ralf Schumacher surviving several off-course excursions to finish fourth, the Japanese team enjoyed their best-ever result and maintained their runners-up position in the constructors' championship. The car in front may not yet be a Toyota, but more than ever it looks as if it will be in the not too distant future.
Kimi Raikkonen shrugged off all the recent allegations about his partying to take a solid third place, but the star of the race was his new McLaren-Mercedes team-mate, Pedro de la Rosa, standing in for the indisposed Juan Pablo Montoya.
After winning a long struggle with the BAR-Hondas of Takuma Sato and Jenson Button, and Barrichello's Ferrari, the Spaniard waged a fabulous duel with the Williams-BMW driver Mark Webber, who had earlier seemed set for Raikkonen's podium place. The Australian had faded after spinning under pressure from the Finn on the 34th lap, but rallied to defend fifth place as though his life depended on it.
Time and again De la Rosa seemed to have got the job done, but each time Webber just managed to put his Williams where De la Rosa wanted his McLaren to be. It was a synchronised ballet, conducted inches apart at unimaginable speeds and with no quarter given. Webber drove on the very limit of fair play, as befits a leading light in the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, but never once crossed the line.
Afterwards, though he had finally lost out to De la Rosa on lap 55 after 10 laps that encapsulated everything that is wonderful about this occasionally flawed sport, both men were pumped up and full of respect for one another. It must be hoped that Michael Schumacher stayed around long enough to watch it.
"We had to turn down my engine and I had flat-spots on my tyres after my spin so I couldn't see where Pedro was half the time," Webber admitted. "I might have been able to re-pass him when he got me, but when I turned in, my front tyres were finished. But it was a great battle."
De la Rosa could scarcely contain himself. "I gave it my all to win the battles against Sato, Button, Barrichello and Webber," he said, in one glorious afternoon wiping out all the disappointments that led to his Formula One racing career fading away at the end of 2002. "It was hard work, but worth every lap."
Joining Schumacher in purdah once again was Button, who lost a desperately needed top-six finish during his final stop on the 46th lap when his BAR's clutch failed. He only managed to creep to the end of the pit road after the team resorted to dropping the car off the jack to get it going again.
"When I tried to select first gear and pull away an earlier clutch problem recurred and that was it," the Englishman reported glumly.
As Button still waits for his first 2005 points, and Alonso extended his tally to 26, it was not only Michael Schumacher (24 points down) who left Bahrain last night with his title campaign in tatters and no immediate prospect of respite.Reuse content