Montoya survives curse of McLaren

Just as they had at the Nürburgring in May, McLaren had a choice: bring their man in for a new tyre, or risk staying out. There were only a handful of laps left, but there had been only a handful in Germany, too, where Raikkonen had led into the final lap before the vibrations from a flat-spotted tyre finally led to the spectacular collapse of his front suspension within sight of victory.

Like the Finn, however, Montoya was at the head of the queue when the things that make a man were being handed out. No way was he going to stop just because a tyre might let go. When you have raced (and won) at 200 mph at the banked Indianapolis Motor Speedway you get a different perspective on things. Montoya was not bothered by the trifling details of Monza: the fact that it has one of the highest full-throttle loadings on the calendar, a lap speed close to 256 kph (159mph), or nasty little chicanes where you have to brake from 360 kph to 80 kph and bounce your car clumsily over silly kerbs.

In the end the gamble justly paid off, and Montoya deserved all the accolades that came his way. "Towards the end I had a severe problem with my left rear tyre," he said. "This left me with very little grip in the closing stages, and I just couldn't go on pushing, but it was enough to get me to the line in first place."

Behind Montoya, Fernando Alonso gave his all in a great chase that lasted all afternoon, while his Renault team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella was outpaced yet managed third, only five seconds ahead of Raikkonen.

As if his engine problem on Saturday had not been enough of a setback, yesterday afternoon, the Finn had one of those races where everything that could have gone wrong, did just that. First of all, he got trapped behind Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber-Petronas for the first 14 laps, before making his first pit stop on lap 25 when other drivers' fuel stops had elevated him to second place. The stop dropped him to fifth, but three laps later he had to stop again. The left rear tyre showed signs of stress in the area of its outer tread, so a new tyre was fitted and off he went again. Unbeknown to anyone outside the team, he had qualified with a very high fuel load, and now he did not need to stop again, but his chances of beating Alonso had already been stymied.

That unscheduled stop put him back behind Villeneuve, where he had started, but when the French-Canadian was unfairly and incorrectly shown blue flags, he had no choice but to let the McLaren through. Thereafter, Raikkonen charged back into contention to pass Jarno Trulli for fourth place by the 43rd of the 53 laps. But then he spun on his own in the second chicane on lap 45, and had to re-pass the Toyota two laps later. That killed his chances of challenging Fisichella, but it was a fabulous performance in adversity that showcased the depth of his talent, and he deserved the fastest lap.

For others there was greater disappointment. Behind the Toyotas of Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, Jenson Button found his BAR-Honda uncompetitive and was beaten to the flag by the Williams-BMW stand-in, Antonio Pizzonia.

Neither Ferrari was competitive, and Michael Schumacher found a different man in his team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who dished out a dose of the German's own medicine to discourage the his attempts to overtake. Barrichello would have stayed there, too, but also had to make an extra stop to replace a worn left rear tyre. With Schumacher later going off the road and finishing only 10th, and Barrichello taking 12th, this was assuredly Ferrari's worst home performance for a very long time.

Alonso took home eight points for his sterling afternoon's work; Raikkonen got only five, leaving their respective scores at 103 and 76. It is still possible that events might help him to reduce that 27-point deficit over the remaining four races, but it is looking increasingly unlikely. If Alonso repeats today's achievement of scoring three more points than Raikkonen in Belgium next weekend, it is to all intents and purposes over.

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