Michael Schumacher and Ferrari returned to the winners' circle in style in San Marino yesterday, as the German reversed the 2005 result to lead home his title successor, Fernando Alonso.
Having broken the late Ayrton Senna's record for pole positions on Saturday, Schumacher increased his own record for victories (to 85) and his revenge was even sweeter than it looked.
Initially, the German built up a lead. When he pitted for fuel on lap 20, his arch-rival Alonso had worked his way up to second place - after starting only fifth having run a lot of fuel in qualifying. The Spaniard took over the initiative until his own stop on lap 25, and Schumacher just eased back ahead as he rejoined. Alonso then put Schumacher under massive pressure, and the second stops seemed certain to yield victory for Renault.
According to Schumacher, he then lost pace because of Bridgestone tyre graining and another problem on the car that he would not identify. He began lapping up to two seconds off the pace, but Alonso could do nothing as he found himself bottled up. Who would blink first and dive for the pits? As it transpired, both teams changed their strategy and refuelled earlier than planned. Alonso came in first, on lap 41.
Schumacher, meanwhile, suddenly lopped a whole second off his supposedly troubled lap time, catching the back-markers Nick Heidfeld and Scott Speed, whom he had previously been unable to reel in. Sandbagging during the second stint was a clever bit of strategic thinking to prevent Renault exploiting their clear performance advantage, and to persuade them to stop earlier than intended. And it worked.
Schumacher immediately covered Alonso by stopping at the end of lap 42, and was able to rejoin just ahead of him. Over the remaining laps they replayed their 2005 duel, albeit with the positions reversed. Schumacher could not pass Alonso then, and now Alonso could not pass Schumacher. When the Spaniard slid wide exiting the Villeneuve bend on lap 59, the duel was over.
"I hit the inside kerb and went wide on the exit, and then ran wide in the Variante Alta," Alonso admitted. "It is difficult to overtake here if the other guy doesn't make a mistake; I waited for that opportunity, but it didn't come. Qualifying with much more fuel than others was the right thing to do. In normal circumstances, on a normal circuit, we should have won the race. I was right on the limit, and Michael was very slow in the second stint but not so slow in the third. I came in early for my second stop, and it didn't work. Maybe it would have been better to come in as planned, but eight points was worth it today. I really pushed over the last five laps, using all the revs on the engine, but when I saw it was not possible, it was not the time to risk any more."
Both drivers unusually appeared tired afterwards. "We had an amazing weekend," Schumacher said. "I started OK but after the first stop I had some trouble with graining and the car never came back, never really performed the way it did in the beginning. It was a bit of a struggle. The moment I saw my lap times fall out the window, I knew he [Alonso] would be coming. But I knew from last year that overtaking is almost impossible here, so I prepared myself for the critical areas, and it worked out."
As Juan Pablo Montoya, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen completed the top five, Jenson Button's Honda team again failed to deliver after flattering only to deceive in qualifying.
From second on the grid he was one of the first to refuel after only 15 laps. There was a delay then with a wheel-nut problem, but his second stop was even more disastrous as he was signalled to rejoin before the refuelling hose had been detached. Being the lollipop man who controls a pit stop is no sinecure, and, as soon as he realised the problem, Honda's chief mechanic, Alistair Gibson, lowered the lollipop again, but Button was already moving. He was struck lightly on the helmet before stopping a few feet away from his pit. By the time the damaged hose was disconnected, and he was able to rejoin, his race was shot and he could salvage only seventh place.
"He [Gibson] has lifted the lollipop perfectly hundreds of times before and I know he'll make sure this never happens again," Button said. "Thankfully, no-one was seriously hurt and I know the boys will be back giving their all at the next race."
But with Button already trailing Alonso and Schumacher in the drivers' title table, and Renault leading McLaren and Ferrari in the constructors', the time for crisis talks at Honda is long past.
San Marino Grand Prix results
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 1hr 31min 06.486sec
2 F Alonso (Sp) Renault, 1:31:08.582
3 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:31:22.354
4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari, 1:31:23.582
5 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:31:24.010
6 M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth, 1:31:44.225
7 J Button (GB) Honda, 1:31:46.121
8 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:31:46.686
9 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:31:51.997; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:32:24.337; 11 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 1:32:26.161; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) BMW-Sauber 1:32:28.856; 13 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber +1 lap; 14 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 15 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 16 T Monteiro (Por) Midland-Toyota +2 laps.
Not classified: 17 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Ferrari 47 laps; 18 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 44 laps; 19 C Klien (Aut) RedBull-Ferrari 40 laps; 20 Y Ide (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 23 laps; 21 J Trulli (It) Toyota 5 laps; 22 C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota 0 laps.
Fastest lap: F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1min 24.569sec (lap 23).
Drivers: 1 Alonso 36pts; 2 M Schumacher 21; 3 Raikkonen 18; 4 Fisichella 15; 5 Montoya 15; 6 Button 13; 7 Massa 9; 8 R Schumacher 7; 9 Webber 6; 10 Heidfeld 5; 11 Villeneuve 5; 12 Barrichello 2; 13 Rosberg 2; 14 Coulthard 1; 15 Klien 1.
Constructors: 1 Renault 51pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 33; 3 Ferrari 30; 4 Honda 15; 5 BMW-Sauber 10; 6 Williams-Cosworth 8; 7 Toyota 7; 8 RedBull-Ferrari 2.