Title race hots up as Raikkonen finds another gear

You could imbibe Red Bull intravenously, but it would barely give you the energy rush of the last 20 laps of the Monaco Grand Prix. If you had to nominate a race of the 21st century, this one would figure highly. Yet if you mentioned that to Kimi Raikkonen he would probably wonder what you were talking about. While half the field fell over themselves fighting it out in the closing stages, the Finn and his McLaren-Mercedes were literally in a race of their own.

The statistics say that Raikkonen beat Nick Heidfeld by 13.877seconds and that Mark Webber in the second Williams-BMW was another 4.607s behind. But they tell only part of the story. The Finn vied with Prince Albert and the Grimaldi family for ownership of the famous street circuit.

Starting from pole position he went straight into the lead from Renault drivers Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella, as Jarno Trulli beat Webber and Heidfeld. Despite running a greater fuel load than Alonso, Raikkonen left him faster than a train leaving a hobo until an incident occurred on the 24th lap when the lapped Christijan Albers spun his Minardi-Cosworth in front of David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher. The German hit the back of the Scot's Red Bull-Cosworth and as the track was momentarily blocked, the safety car was deployed.

At the time Raikkonen had been 5.5s ahead, but that actually played to his disadvantage. A combination of his lead and problems with radio reception meant that the Finn had actually passed the entry to the pit lane by the time it was obvious the safety car was coming out. Behind him, however, both Renaults came in. Alonso was stationary for longer than usual as the team decided to give him sufficient fuel to get to the finish without the need for another pit stop. Behind him, Fisichella had to wait until his team-mate was given his fuel.

As soon as racing resumed on lap 29, Raikkonen still had 5.6s in hand over Trulli, who also did not stop, while Alonso was third ahead of Webber and Heidfeld.

Now Raikkonen needed to open up a big enough gap so he could make his pit stop without losing the lead. In doing so he made it look easy. By lap 42, his schedule pit stop window, he had a lead of 34.7s and he only lost 20 of that in the pits.

"This is great," he said after securing his second win in succession. "To win is always fantastic, but Monaco is a special challenge. I was able to pretty much control the race and when the time was right I simply came into the pits, refuelled and still rejoined in the lead. Our world championship battle has gained momentum today." Alonso displaced Trulli when the Italian dropped to fifth following his stop on lap 39, but this was not going to be a race like others this season for Renault. Alonso's rear tyres were losing grip, and suddenly Webber and Heidfeld were all over him after they had swapped places during their final pit stops, on laps 58 and 57 respectively. Further back, there was a fabulous scrap shaping up as Fisichella was fighting to keep Trulli at bay. The Italian had Juan Pablo Montoya right on his gearbox [up from the back of the grid in a feisty drive that made up in some measure for the stupid brake test on Saturday morning that had seen the stewards make him start there], together with Felipe Massa and Jacques Villeneuve in their Saubers, Ralf Schumacher's Toyota and, closing fast, the Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and Schumacher Snr.

Villeneuve earned the anger of team owner Peter Sauber when he tried to pass Massa in the first corner on the 62nd lap and succeeded only in taking both blue cars off. Then Fisichella got hung out to dry by Trulli in the hairpin on the 64th lap, dropping way down the order. Eight laps later Heidfeld pulled off the move of the race to pass Alonso for second in the chicane, and after a bit of a kerfuffle there on lap 74, Webber followed suit a lap later. Now Alonso became the new target for Montoya, and the Colombian in turn had Schumacher Jnr, Barrichello and Schumacher Snr right on his tail.

Montoya just failed to get the job done on the last lap, but Schumacher Snr was shoved by team-mate Barrichello in the chicane, and came so close to brother Ralf that they very nearly collided after crossing the finish line sixth and seventh. The champion had already set the race's fastest lap, but his uncompromising move incensed Barrichello who later told him: "I am a team player and you aren't. You could have taken us both off with that move."

Williams's successful day makes it harder for BMW's Dr Mario Theissen to seek the divorce that would let him buy the Sauber team, but the day belonged to McLaren, whose car was far kinder to its tyres than principal rival Renault's while being a lot faster.

Raikkonen is 22 points behind Alonso, but there are still 13 races left in what is turning out be a wonderful year.

Say what you will about Max Mosley's war with half the paddock, the FIA president's determination to limit everyone to only one set of tyres per race has proved the key to the best season in years.

Monaco Grand Prix (Monte Carlo): 1 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 45min 15.556sec; 2 N Heidfeld (Ger) Williams-BMW +13.877sec; 3 M Webber (Aus) Williams-BMW +18.484; 4 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +36.487; 5 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes +36.647; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota +37.177; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +37.223; 8 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +37.5706; 9 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 10 J Trulli (It) Toyota +1 lap; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 12 G Fisichella (It) Renault +1 lap; 13 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan-Toyota +3 laps; 14 C Albers (Neth) Minardi-Cosworth +5 laps. Not classified: 15 V Liuzzi (It) Red Bull-Cosworth 59 laps; 16 P Friesacher (Aut) Minardi-Cosworth 29 laps; 17 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Cosworth 23 laps; 18 N Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan-Toyota 16 laps. Constructors' standings: 1 Renault 63pts; 2 McLaren 51; 3 Toyota 43; 4 Williams 35; 5 Ferrari 21; 6 Red Bull 14; 7 Sauber 7.

Comments