Man, God sure knows the meaning of irony.
Remember last April? At the same race, Michael Schumacher grunted fire down Fernando Alonso's neck relentlessly for twelve laps, the young Spaniard holding on to take the win, and go on to win the season in style. With an immaculately poetic dispensation of justice, roles were reversed entirely on Sunday, with the German soaking up the pressure in the far-slower car, and keeping the perfect squeeze on Fernando.
Last year's San Marino column: Redsurrection
What a difference a season makes. Last year began with Michael on a high, fresh from his seventh World Championship win and ready to pick up the title yet again. Except, in 2005, the rest of the grid didn't get Ferrari's 'move over' memo, and fought back. Suddenly the scarlets were fighting to stay in the race, and Renault and McLaren were battling for the title. Now, with the blue team consistently finishing first, faster, and more reliably than anyone else on the grid, Fernando Alonso is an obvious favourite every raceday, and Michael Schumacher is constantly skirting retirement rumours.
But San Marino is a different ball game, yes? This is Ferrari-land, where the prancing horses come out to play in a bloody sea of scarlet, the tifosi up in arms, jubilantly goading them ahead. Nearest to the factory churning out the world's most desirable racecars, the Grand Prix at Imola has a habit of raising the red morale. Which is why it's important to not get too carried away. Yes, Michael won the race, but let's not start talk of a Ferrari comeback just yet, especially after falling for the same circuit last year. Not just yet.
What we ought to really do, however, is call off all the blasted retirement talk. Michael Schumacher ain't going anywhere, and Sunday just showed that the seven-time champion has enough drive to go all the way, and is going to fight every race, guns blazing. Well, as much as the Ferrari lets him blaze, anyway. The car might have looked extremely zippy to begin with, but the speed dropped off as the race went on, and it took a helluva beautiful drive to keep the scarlet nose out in front.
Things began well on Saturday, as the Ferrari dominantly slotted to pole position, the German's 66th -- finally breaking Ayrton Senna's long-standing record. The ambassador of San Marino has always done well on the track, and the front of the grid seemed right. Not only was he driving with a new engine, but with a severely souped-up Ferrari, one with more horsepower and a freshly developed fuel compound. Applause was on the cards.
The Hondas surprised with their pace, taking positions two and three, with sudden Barrichello fans (does such a breed exist? Why?) leaping from the woodwork to proclaim Rubens' return (an ambitious usage of the word, surely) to form. Felipe Massa neatly drove the Ferrari Two into fourth place, and, with the McLarens and Renaults not among the first two rows of the grid, the rabid fans around the track had valid reason to be bullish.
The start was a neat one, with not much to see besides Massa and Alonso leapfrogging Barrichello (yes, a devastating comeback by the Brazilian) as they went into turn one. Super Aguri driver Yuji Ide, excitedly nudged Christian Albers' Midland, providing a spectacular safety car-provoking incident as both driver retired.
The race resumed uneventfully, with Michael, Jenson, Felipe and Fernando all keeping roughly the same pace. But the Ferrari out front soon hit top-gear league, setting ten successive fastest laps at breakneck speed, each time lapping within himself and building up a slight cushion. The prancing horses seemed to be running light, on a three-stop strategy, like the Hondas.
On the other hand, Alonso was running heavy, aiming at a two-stopper, yet startlingly managed to keep himself constantly in the window of opportunity. His pace matched Massa and the Hondas throughout. Until, that is, the Hondas became a bit of a joke. First, Barrichello's pitstop went awry, with over 15 seconds stationary in the pit lane, effectively ending his dream of points. The next lap saw a delayed stop for Button, with wheel-nut woes and traffic trouble. But that wasn't the end of it.
Coming in for his second stop, several laps down, the nozzle didn't leave Jenson's car as he was signalled to drive away, the signal changed to stop, the driver didn't care, and, as a result, he was smacked firmly on the head with the lollipop. A hilarious spanking, (tragic for the Brit, agreeably, but hey) and as the driver finally flew off, several members of the pitcrew flew all over place. The Honda's viable dream of a podium position was dashed completely.
Alright, enough about the other cars. The only possible reason to mention Honda when speaking of this phenomenal race can be to get them out of the way, to bring us to the duel of the season, Champion Current versus Champion Emeritus, as Fernando Alonso started the charge on Michael Schumacher.
Contrary to popular belief, Michael stayed out till lap 20 -- this was no three-stop strategy. Alonso burnt up the rubber for the next few laps, finally pitting to rejoin 9.1 seconds behind Schumacher. And then came dismay for the Imola crowds: Michael's second stint was very poor indeed, the new set of Bridgestones not responding at all as the Renault galloped up to him, catching the Ferrari at about 1.5 seconds a lap! Fernando Alonso justifiably had the top step of the podium in sight; the car was flying.
With the Spaniard stubbornly taking up room in his rear view mirrors, Schumacher switched to a defensive drive, dropping the speed by about 3 seconds a lap but not giving the driver behind him any room at all. He staved off the challenge as the Renault growled violently, but it was surely just a matter of time. The pitstop window was coming right up.
Tired of trailing behind Michael, the Renault team decided to splash-n-dash Fernando in an attempt to make up the place through the pits. The Ferrari came in a lap later, stopping 0.4 seconds longer than Alonso. But it was not to be. Schumacher exited the pits cutting a couple of seconds ahead of the Renault, and Ferrari had pulled off the crucial manoeuvre with perfect timing. Stirring stuff, and cheering voices were made hoarse across Imola.
Schumacher's third set of tyres was a definite improvement, but Alonso's car was still the faster one. The Spaniard soon clambered onto Michael's rear-wing, and plied on the pressure. With 20 laps to go, the other cars were all rendered irrelevant as the titans raced to the finish.
A stunning masterclass of perfect driving technique, Michael drove a flawlessly tight line, giving Alonso no room whatsoever while slowing down the pace through the turns. He passed back-markers and braked dangerously late, forcing the hungry champion to move off the line. This was a breathtaking display of immaculate driving, an extension of last year's race as Michael grit his teeth and refused to give way, showing off racecar nuances gleaned from long years on the tracks. The 37-year-old driver was visibly fired up and basking in the bare-knuckle fight, as was Renault team boss Flavio Briatore, watching from the pit lane.
Rumours are crowding the pit lane about Schumacher possibly moving to Renault next year, a scenario that would put him in the fastest car on the track, and reunite him with Briatore's team, for whom he won his first two championships. This is the kind of race that makes a difference: Michael gave it his all, and, while the Ferrari struggled, it didn't give way. Had it cracked under the extreme pressure, Michael might actually have considered the blue uniforms for next year. As it stands, one hopes for a Michael-Kimi scarlet alliance in 2007, but more on that later. For now, all that we can be sure of is Michael's incredible determination. This is one driver who's still got It. And what a glorious 'It' it is.
Alonso, constantly pushing Michael to the hilt, kept looking down the inside of the Ferrari, but there was never anything close to an opportunity. Had this been Juan Pablo Montoya, one could have expected an unrealistic lunge, but this young man knows better than to whittle away his championship lead. He growled and grunted, staying in breathing distance, waiting for a slip-up. And then, it came.
Michael squeezed Fernando off the line as they entered the Villeneuve chicane, the Spaniard hitting the kerb too hard and almost skidding into the gravel. It was a tiny error, but vital. Before Alonso could reaccelerate, the German had already flown into the distance, instantly taking the opportunity to pile on a flier of a lap. Suddenly, the gap that was steady at 0.3-0.4 seconds was up to 2.2 and, to a deafening roar from the incredulous tifosi under the omnipresent Ferrari flags, Michael Schumacher picked up his seventh Imola win.
As the podium was treated to his traditional jump after about a year-and-a-half, the spring was in his step and the grin on his face. Not to mention the wink in his eye. It's way too early to use words like resurrection, but the fact is that Michael Schumacher is 15 points behind reigning champ Fernando Alonso with 14 races to go. And if the Ferrari gets over that alarming mid-race niggle, we might just have a battle on our hands.