Coming so soon after his emotional first triumph on his home ground, Fernando Alonso's first victory here yesterday afternoon must have seemed like another gift from the gods who keep smiling on him.
For 50 of the 78 laps he had no respite from the challenging McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen, after the Finn had thrust his way past Mark Webber as they climbed the hill to Casino Square on the second lap. That move, on the most curved section of the barrier-lined track, gave the lie to the belief that nobody overtakes in this race. The brave do.
For those 50 laps it seemed that Raikkonen's audacious pass might yet bear fruit. He and Alonso pitted almost together the first time, Raikkonen on lap 22, Alonso on lap 24. Later they did actually stop on the same lap, the 49th. Each time Alonso kept the advantage, but discounting the plentiful trains of lapped traffic that were such a feature of the race, this never amounted to much more than half a second.
"For sure, starting from pole things became little bit easier. Kimi was pushing quite hard," Alonso conceded, in the understated way that race drivers have, "but I knew it was impossible to overtake. It was not an easy race; you have to keep your concentration, not touch any barriers and push to the limits. The laps before and after the pit stops were the most important and I wanted to have the tyres in condition for those laps. When I saw it was impossible to open a gap over Kimi I just said, 'Okay, I will control the tyres and when it comes necessary to push I'll be ready.'"
While that strategy worked perfectly and allowed the Spaniard to open his world championship points lead to 21 over the disgraced Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen's plan exploded as a faulty heat shield ignited his Mercedes-Benz engine on the 51st lap.
Two laps earlier, just after he had led the race as Alonso and Raikkonen stopped, the unfortunate Webber pulled off in the last part of the lengthy pit lane exit, where it heads up to Casino Square. It seemed that his Williams-Cosworth engine had devoured itself, but an exhaust failure had fried the wiring loom. The safety car was deployed as the car was manhandled away, and it was while he was running slowly behind it that Raikkonen's problem occurred. "It's particularly hard to retire when you know you are in a good position to win," he said.
These two key misfortunes settled second place on Raikkonen's team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, who had struggled with oversteer while trying to keep the three leaders honest. He finished 14.5sec adrift of Alonso, and well clear of the third-place finisher, who turned out to be Superman disguised as Red Bull Racing driver David Coulthard. He donned a red cape to visit the royal box, as the energy drink company had been promoting the new Superman Returns movie all weekend. Watched by his own Lois Lane, the television presenter Karen Minier, the Scot took the final podium place to give the emergent team its best-ever result, after Rubens Barrichello had been obliged to make a second pit stop to serve a drive-through penalty after speeding in the pit lane, and Jarno Trulli's Toyota expired from third place after 63 laps.
"I was carrying a lot of fuel for the last very long stint, and had to control the car on very worn tyres, but fortunately there were some drop-outs so this was a great reward for everyone in the team," he said. "This was a dream result, and Monaco is the sort of place where you can get one like that. I couldn't do much more than run around in formation and see whether a few other cars would have problems, but we were in the right place to benefit at the end. It's been a tough start to the season for Red Bull, so it's a good place to have a bit of a celebration." There were no celebrations for Jenson Button, who endured the worst race of his Formula One career in a troubled Honda and could do no better than 11th place.
"After qualifying where we did yesterday, this was always going to be a struggle for me," he admitted. "I lost rear tyre grip and had to stop a lot earlier than I wanted to because of that. At the stop we put scrubbed tyres on and took a lot of front wing off. After that the car was doing okay.
"All in all, this was definitely a race to forget for me but at least we are taking away a lot of information. Even though Rubens was fourth today we certainly didn't get the best out of the car this weekend and we still have a lot of work to do to catch up with the front-runners." It was not the Englishman's most convincing performance.
Schumacher, meanwhile, salvaged something from his awful weekend, after starting from the back where the stewards placed him after deciding that he had deliberately blocked the track at the Rascasse corner in qualifying to try to conserve his pole position. He benefited from the retirements, set the fastest lap after climbing up to challenge Barrichello in the closing stages for fourth place, and this time managed to negotiate Rascasse 78 times at high speed without once coming close to repeating his qualifying "error".
Monaco Grand Prix details
Monaco Grand Prix (Monte Carlo) 78 laps: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 43min 43.116sec; 2 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes +00:14.567sec; 3 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Ferrari +00:25.598; 4 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +00:53.337; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 00:53.830; 6 G Fisichella (It) Renault +1min 02.072sec; 7 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber +1 lap; 8 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota +1 lap; 9 F Massa (Br) Ferrari +1 lap; 10 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 11 J Button (GB) Honda +1 lap; 12 C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota +1 lap; 13 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 14 J Villeneuve (Can) BMW-Sauber +1 lap; 15 T Monteiro (Por) Midland-Toyota +2 laps; 16 F Montagny (Fr) Super Aguri-Honda +3 laps; 17 J Trulli (It) Toyota +5 laps. Not classified: C Klien (Aut) RedBull-Ferrari 22 laps; N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 27 laps; K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 28 laps; M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth 30 laps; T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri - Honda 32 laps.
Fastest lap: M Schumacher 1min 15.143sec (lap 74).
Leading Championship standings: Drivers: 1 Alonso 64pts; 2 M Schumacher; 3= Fisichella, Raikkonen 27; 5 Montoya 23; 6 Massa 20; 7 Button 16; 8 Barrichello 13; 9= Heidfeld, R Schumacher 8; 11 Coulthard 7; 12= Villeneuve, Webber 6; 14 Rosberg 4; 15 Klien 1.
Manufacturers: 1 Renault 91pts; 2 Ferrari 63; 3 McLaren 50; 4 Honda 29; 5 BMW Sauber 14; 6 Williams 10; 7= Red Bull, Toyota 8.