What is the perfect riposte when you lose your world championship lead? Take it right back, of course. And for 25 laps of the Grand Prix of Europe here yesterday, Kimi Raikkonen was on course to do precisely that as he led comfortably from the Schumacher brothers, Ralf and Michael.
But in order to finish first, first you have to finish, and in the battle of Munich v Stuttgart it was BMW that came up trumps for Schumacher Jnr as a Mercedes-Benz engine failure handed victory to the young German on the manufacturers' home turf. Just to rub it in, a second place for Juan Pablo Montoya gave Williams-BMW a clean sweep and moved them past McLaren-Mercedes into second place in the constructors' championship.
It might not have been quite the race everyone expected, after the closeness of the qualifying times, but Raikkonen's demise lit a slow-burning fuse that led to further explosions of drama. First, Montoya and Schumacher collided on the 43rd lap, while fighting for second place. Then, at the chicane on the 57th lap, David Coulthard retired after spinning into the gravel, having come desperately close to running into the back of Fernando Alonso, who was so nearly caught on the final lap by the recovering world champion.
The top six drivers had not been so close in qualifying all year, but the second-fastest, Michael Schumacher, felt compromised by having to start on the dirty side of the grid, and went to the grid in pensive mood. Having redeemed himself for his Canadian Grand Prix qualifying error by taking his first pole position on Saturday, Raikkonen made a perfect getaway and soon began building a nice lead over the fast-starting Ralf Schumacher. The world champion's misgivings about his side of the grid proved correct and he dropped down to third place.
With metronomic precision the Finn extended his lead with each successive lap, so that by the time he made his first refuelling stop on the 16th lap he was almost nine seconds ahead of Schumacher Jnr and 10 ahead of Schumacher Snr. As the champion also stopped to refuel on that lap, so Ralf was handed the lead for Williams-BMW with no immediate pressure, and underscored the strength of his third-fastest qualifying time by going until lap 21 before he needed to refuel.
That was still not sufficient to keep Raikkonen out of the lead, but Schumacher Jnr was only 4.8sec behind the McLaren when Raikkonen's Mercedes-Benz engine scattered itself shortly after the Finn had begun his 26th lap. Somewhat remarkably, he was the first retirement of the race.
Having coasted to a smoky halt, the former championship leader pushed a marshal away and sat quietly by the side of the track, contemplating a failure that might ultimately cost him his shot at the championship crown. Eventually help arrived in the form of a scooter rider, and, after scaling a fence, Raikkonen waved philosophically to the crowd as he went back to listen to the apologies of Mercedes-Benz's senior management.
Meanwhile, Montoya gradually reeled in Schumacher Snr, until they were side by side on the run down to the Dunlop Curve on lap 43. In a moment reminiscent of his controversial collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997, Schumacher ran up the kerb and hit Montoya's Williams-BMW as it moved into second place. The Colombian continued unabashed, but Schumacher spun and sat stranded, his Ferrari's rear wheels spinning helplessly in the gravel. By the time three marshals pushed his car from its dangerous spot on the corner's apex, he had dropped to sixth.
"Michael was quick on the straights but in the corners he was very slow," Montoya said. "He was on the inside and I was on the outside. I thought I gave him plenty of room. I wasn't going to give him all the track, but I thought it was all right." There was a stewards' inquiry, but even Schumacher believed that Montoya had given him sufficient room, and no action was taken. As the Williams technical director, Patrick Head, remarked, had action been taken it would effectively have been a declaration that overtaking is no longer allowed in Formula One.
Now it was a Williams one-two, with Barrichello's Ferrari following lamely in their wake and Alonso and Coulthard locked in a hard battle for fourth. But there was one final sting in the tail for McLaren. On the 57th lap Coulthard suddenly had to swerve round Alonso approaching the chicane, and spun spectacularly into retirement.
"Alonso braked 10 metres earlier than he had the lap before," Coulthard said. "He was dealing inconsistently with problems, as his rear tyres looked completely worn out. I have my own views on the incident which I will discuss privately with Alonso, but at the end of the day it's for the stewards to decide."
Williams's haul of points from a race in which McLaren went home with none sparked speculation of a late challenge for the championship. "No, I don't think so," said the ever-cautious Sir Frank Williams, who never likes to reveal his cards in public. But you can bet that with Ferrari only 13 points ahead everyone within the team believes that they have a serious chance of challenging them long before the season is over.
Ultimately, it was a day of vindication for Ralf Schumacher, who crashed out of the lead here in 1999. In a swipe at all the criticism he has endured of late, he said: "It just proves that a bad driver can win races."
1 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1hr 34min 43.622sec
2 J-M Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +0:16.821
3 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +0:39.673
4 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +1:05.731
5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +1:06.162
6 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar +1 lap
7 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda +1 lap
8 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 10 A Pizzonia (Br) Jaguar +1 lap; 11 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Cosworth +2 laps; 12 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Cosworth +2 laps; 13 J Wilson (GB) Minardi-Cosworth +2 laps; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps.
Did not finish: D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 56 laps completed; C Da Matta (Br) Toyota, 53; J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda, 51;18 J Trulli (It) Renault, 37; O Panis (Fr) Toyota, 37; K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 25.
Constructors' Championship: 1 Ferrari 96pts; 2 McLaren 78; 3 Williams 76; 4 Renault 54; 5 BAR 17; 6 Jordan 10; 7 Sauber 9; 8 Jaguar 7; 9 Toyota 4.Reuse content