Raikkonen top of class as title rivals are caned

Stewards penalise Alonso and Schumacher

Back in 1976, when James Hunt and Niki Lauda fought out the world championship, the season was such an up-and-downer that any Hollywood scriptwriter who had proffered the screenplay would have been laughed out of town.

Fast forward three decades, and we have something similar developing. First there was the reigning champion Fernando Alonso's opening spurt, Michael Schumacher's brief intervention, then Alonso's next winning streak, which was immediately followed by Schumacher's. Along the way the German got a spanking from the stewards after cheating at Monaco, then Renault had their mass dampers banned at Hockenheim and had their worst race of the year. Suddenly, Schumacher and Ferrari were breathing down their necks.

The next chapter was written here on Friday, when the Dutchman Robert Doornbos may (or may not) have blocked Alonso on a quick lap. Renault's director of engineering, Pat Symonds, might have been at pains to stress that Alonso is as calm as ever, but other evidence suggests that the pressure has been getting to him of late. There have been stories of arguments within the team. Then, when Schumacher cut him up in the pit lane in Germany, there was an angry response over the radio.

But what happened on Friday was uncharacteristic of the normally placid Spaniard. Having slipstreamed Doornbos down the pit straight, he gesticulated at him as he drew alongside, weaved gently in his direction before moving back on line, and then brake-tested Doornbos in the first corner.

Up they went to the stewards, who decided that such conduct was "unnecessary, unacceptable and dangerous." Led by the permanent FIA steward, Tony Scott Andrews, who wielded the cane against Schumacher in Monaco, they levied a penalty of one second on Alonso's fastest lap time from each qualifying session. On top of that, there was a similar penalty for overtaking under waved yellow flags. Exit one world champion, seat stinging.

Things thus looked bleak for Renault, especially as they had left their pesky mass dampers in the garage rather than risk doing well here with them and then having the FIA win their appeal against their own stewards on the matter in the court of appeal in Paris on 22 August. It was as if Schumacher (who was in any case expected to dominate here) had been handed a bye for the weekend.

Until... Well, until Jenson Button's engine blew up in Saturday-morning practice. The session was red-flagged, but both Alonso and Robert Kubica (the excellent replacement for Jacques Villeneuve at Sauber-BMW) reported that Schumacher passed each of them under the red flag, a definite no-no. Scott Andrews' signature pen went into overdrive, and the printers told the tale of another two-second penalty. This was getting confusing. Both men made it through Qualifying 1, but only just. Schumacher was 13th out of the 16 who went through to Q2, Alonso 14th.

They were first and second in Q2, but by the time their penalties were applied again, they dropped to 11th and 15th.

That left Felipe Massa to uphold the Scuderia's honour, but ultimately the little Brazilian lost out to Kimi Raikkonen, who pushed his McLaren to his 10th career pole, the Finn recording 1min 19.599sec to Massa's 1:19.886. With Rubens Barrichello and Button next up from Pedro de la Rosa and Ralf Schu-macher, things had an interesting look to them, but then there was the 10-place penalty Button faced for needing a new engine in his Honda. That dropped him from fourth to 14th, between Schumacher in 11th and Alonso in 15th.

The German and the Spaniard were not amused by events. "I prefer not to go into a long explanation, but I'm really angry," Schumacher said. "It is a shame to have lost positions but now is the time to stop talking about it," Alonso said. "With Michael penalised as well we have not lost so much." This time the two seem more evenly matched, but Raikkonen was adamant that McLaren-Mercedes were on a par with them.

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