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Redsurrection Sunday at Imola
April 27, 2005
Who had the fastest car at the San Marino Grand Prix?
The answer seems simple: the man who pushed up from 13th place to finish second. But it is untrue.
What about the fellow who staved off the epic challenge and won the race in his bright blue car with fabulous torque? Nope.
Well then, the foot-in-mouth Brit in the Honda who raced to third after firmly affecting the world champion's chances for victory? Not quite.
So is this a trick question, and you're being tested on whether you missed Villeneuve's Sauber blazing through a certain section of tarmac? Ha. Get real.
The fact is that Ron Dennis has given the talented Finn the wheels of a lifetime. The new McLaren, extremely conspicuous by its seemingly Beelzebub-inspired horns, is an awesomely fast vehicle, well capable of shredding timesheets and usurping poles at will.
Kimi Raikonnen has finally hit upon the much-awaited Mika inheritance -- a car capable of toppling contenders for the title. However, the mousy blonde has also inherited his legendary mentor's luck -- unfortunately, it happens to be the bit from his last season. Kimi's last season was killed by DNFs galore, and this one has started on equal unfooting. The young superstar stalled in Melbourne, got a flat tire in Malaysia, and now begins the retirement tradition at McLaren. While leading the race, no less.
But all is not reliability worry with Ron Dennis. The fact that his tennis-playing Colombian is out of commission is one of the finest bits of news for the man with the scowl, while it may ironically hurt his wallet somewhat.
Alex Wurz drove a tidy little no-frills race to finish in a quite adequate fourth position, something Juan Pablo might have madly tried to supercede, especially when incensed by a Ferrari lapping him.
Now if only they can ensure that the Kimster's engine doesn't give way in every other race, and can bribe the medical board enough to declare Montoya unfit for a few more circuits than is true, McLaren will have cause to smile.
But enough pipe dreams. San Marino began, as is becoming the norm for races this engine-conserving season, with an unbanged whimper. The cars stayed essentially in formation, save a few good leapfrogs: the aforementioned Raikonnen's jump into the lead, Sato taking Webber before the Australian took back his sixth place, and a startlingly spry Jacques Villeneuve making up good room. Button closed on Alonso for second place, as Michael stayed behind little brother for 13th place.
Meanwhile, 'Kimi The Luckless' sped into a discernible lead, but lap 9 saw his engine slowing and the field fly by as he drove sullenly to the pits.
Alonso and Button drove in a league of their own, opening up a big gap from Trulli and the rest of the pack. The scarlets were looking very unimpressive, Barrichello struggling to get past Jacques' Sauber and the World champion not being able to get past the Toyota of Ralf Schumacher.
On lap 18 began the pit stops, and while the tifosi cheered in inevitable optimism, they had absolutely no inkling of what was to happen next. Rubens was the first man to stop, and a lap later he revisited the pits to retire. Then stopped everybody else on the track, but hardly anyone managed to dramatically alter anything in terms of pit stops.
Except, that is, Michael Schumacher. As jaws universally dropped, every car pitting ahead of Michael gave him clearer room on the track, to race. The lap times tumbled dramatically, and Car No 1 was suddenly scorching past a couple of seconds faster than the race leaders. Consistently.
Now Ferrari's strategy was clearer; Mike qualified with an immensely heavy car, and was waiting for everyone else to pit before he went in for his fuel, a good six laps after anyone ahead of him. Suddenly, the mammoth seas of red supporters screamed in unison: Michael was at Number 3!
The F2005's Bridgestone-vindicating pace is simply phenomenal. We caught a glimpse of it at Bahrain, but this was truly stunning stuff. Qualifying virtually next to Karthikeyan, Schumacher drove a really heavy car well within himself, nursing his engine and his tyres till he got the obviously inevitable chance to burn up the revs. Setting fastest lap after fastest lap with a lightened car is run-of-the-grid, but gasps here were brought on by the way Michael flew with a full-load, still running a comfortable two seconds a lap faster than anyone else on track!
While Schumacher was wistful about his qualifying error, and how he considers his 'one goof up a year' limit one too many, the fact is that if he'd started from higher up the order, we'd simply have been treated to a display of brute force. Here, however, a more special afternoon was on the cards.
As Maranello's favourite colour threw itself libidinously into fiery pursuit, the world got goose pimples. After a season beginning with an annoying discard of form and talent, suddenly things were beginning to seem real again - that car belongs at the head of the field. And Michael was taking no prisoners. The most unenviable man of the afternoon, Jenson Button stayed out longer than scheduled just to slow him down, but in a breathtaking who's-boss maneuver, Schumacher charged past the Honda as it contemplated lapping the Williams cars.
That masterful overtake over the impossible hilltop Variante Alte chicane must rate among the best passes in recent history. Achtung, pretenders -- Ferrari is back.
Button fell back, his car scooping up chunks of humble pie and heading towards a surefire third place as the race leaders, after their last pit stops, suddenly had 1.5 seconds separating them.
With 12 laps to go! Fernando Alonso had Michael Schumacher breathing hotly down his neck, and, in a far superior car with braking that can only be described as beautiful, the World champion was doing his best dragon impression. The Ferrari's remarkable pace looked unstoppable, and it seemed only a matter of moments before Schumacher caught the Spaniard. Which it was.
However, like we're used to saying with Schumacher, passing him was a whole different ball of wax. Alonso has been, over the last couple of months, heralded as the successor to the Schumacher legacy, and the most talented young driver in Formula One. He's won three races this year, but nothing he's ever done has been as impressive as holding off the Schuey-charge in the closing stages. He slowed the race pace drastically enough to avoid the backmarkers, and sponged up the pressure pouring down his forehead as scarlet constantly crowded his rearview mirror.
Alonso won the race deservedly, maintaining superb control under intense scrutiny, and while the season has some distance yet, he has shown he's a worthy heir.
But He isn't abdicating just yet.