Raikonnen gamble fails at the last

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The Independent Online

Fernando Alonso has won three grands prix this year, and finished first in a fourth. An uncharitable distinction, perhaps, but apposite after yesterday's Grand Prix of Europe was snatched away from Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren Mercedes by a dramatic suspension failure on the last lap.

Fernando Alonso has won three grands prix this year, and finished first in a fourth. An uncharitable distinction, perhaps, but apposite after yesterday's Grand Prix of Europe was snatched away from Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren Mercedes by a dramatic suspension failure on the last lap.

Alonso and Renault appeared beaten as what had been a dull affair entered its final 10 laps. Like weary boxers who had each been down on the canvas, Raikkonen and Alonso seemed set to preserve their first and second places after each experiencing off-road dramas due to high tyre wear.

Raikkonen had actually lost the lead to Nick Heidfeld after 30 laps, slithering off in Turn Five. Having regained the lead as the young German pitted for fuel at the end of the lap, Raikkonen then had another moment in Turn One, running wide while trying to lap Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber Petronas.

That was the moment at which McLaren's fortunes turned, though the denouement would wait, agonisingly, until that final lap. The Finn had flat-spotted his right front Michelin tyre in the manoeuvre, and from the 45th lap he was in major trouble. Both his car's onboard camera and trackside lenses captured the fearsome vibration his damaged tyre was generating, and Alonso and Renault smelled blood. The Spaniard himself went off the road on the 45th lap, losing six seconds. The two pretenders were in good company; Michael Schumacher, in an undistinguished fifth for Ferrari, did likewise on the 50th lap.

His right front wheel now wobbling like an undamped gyroscope, Raikkonen faced a dilemma. The rules say you can only change a punctured or damaged tyre. A late pit stop would certainly lose him the race, and the FIA, the sport's governing body, might not accept that the tyre needed changing. Better to gamble - and pray.

"I had a well-balanced car until that flat-spot," Raikkonen said. "It caused terrible vibrations."

"He was able to cope with the inevitable blurred vision for over 15 laps," said the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis. "The team discussed with him his tyre condition and jointly we decided to go for the win. No member of the team, including Kimi, regrets this decision." McLaren are racers to the core, but their bold gamble came up one crucial lap short. Going in to Turn One on the final lap, with Alonso thirsting along right behind, Raikkonen felt his front suspension snap under the strain, and as his car pitched into a lurid spin before kissing the outer tyre wall, he missed Jenson Button's BAR Honda by millimetres.

Alonso could not believe his fortune. His Renault had been whacked at the start in a mêlée triggered in that same first corner after Mark Webber had braked too late in his BMW-Williams and had spun Juan Pablo Montoya's McLaren, obliging the two Ferraris to scatter and delaying Ralf Schumacher whose Toyota lost its nose on the back of Rubens Barrichello's car.

"I thought my car might have been damaged," Alonso revealed. "After a few corners it was clear that everything was okay, and then it was a case of pushing hard. Our strategy was definitely perfect. I was quite happy to settle for second before the last pit stop, then the team said that Raikkonen had a problem and that I should push - that was when I went off because I was just trying 100 per cent and made a mistake. But even so I was catching Kimi and then I saw him crash."

Alonso ducked through a cloud of debris, and headed home for a triumph that does wonders for his title hopes.

While Renault celebrated and McLaren set about picking themselves up after such bitter misfortune, Williams were privately gloating about a second place that makes it even less comprehensible why BMW's Dr Mario Theissen is so determined to take the team to the divorce court (the BMW Board meeting in Munich) tomorrow. Heidfeld drove another feisty race after starting from pole, and upheld team honours after Webber's misfortune, for which the Australian accepted a responsibility that some did not believe to be wholly his. Along the way Heidfeld fended off a strong challenge from Barrichello, whose podium finish gave Ferrari a measure of hope even though Schumacher Snr had struggled home behind David Coulthard.

For the Scot this was another great day, as he put the Red Bull race car into the lead (albeit for only two laps) during the first pit stops before finishing a strong fourth. "I'd said to the team beforehand that I was planning to stay on the inside of the first corner, as we've seen incidents there in previous years," Coulthard said. "We had a very good first sector and were competitive. I was disappointed that I made a mistake trying to get out in front of the Minardi in the pit lane. I came off the speed limiter fractionally early and picked up a penalty, which cost us a podium. But we've got to be satisfied with what we've done here today and I'm happy with the result."

Further back, Jenson Button most definitely was not, after finishing 10th for BAR Honda in a race where he had sought a podium . He fought imbalanced handling all afternoon, and admitted that the team's return to duty had been a struggle. "We thought that we would be reasonably strong here, so today's race has taken us by surprise," said Button. "We have a lot of work to do before Montreal."

So too do McLaren. Alonso's win stretches his lead over Raikkonen from 22 points to 32, while McLaren are now 23 points adrift of Renault. Some gambles you win, some you lose.

European Grand Prix (Nürburgring, Germany): 1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 31min 46.648sec, 2 N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams BMW 1:32:02.653, 3 Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:32:04.653, 4 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull Cosworth 1:32:17.653, 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:32:36.652, 6 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:32:37.657, 7 J-P Montoya (Col) McLaren Mercedes 1:32:44.649, 8 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:32:57.648, 9 V Liuzzi (It) Red Bull at 71.5secs, 10 J Button (GB) Honda at 95.7 secs, 11 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren Mercedes at 1 lap, 12 T Sato (Japan) BAR Honda at 1 lap, 13 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber Petronas at 1 lap, 14 F Massa (Bra) Sauber Petronas at 1 lap, 15 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan Toyota at 1 lap, 16 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan Toyota at 1 lap, 17 C Albers (Neth) at 2 laps, 18 P Friesacher (Ger) Minardi Cosworth at 3 laps DNF: 19 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota (33 laps), 20 M Webber Williams-BMW (Aus) (0 laps).

Williams Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Renault 76pts, 2 McLaren Mercedes 53, 3 Toyota 44, 4 Williams BMW 43, 5 Ferrari 31, 6 Red Bull Cosworth 19, 7 Sauber Petronas 7.