Alonso holds off Schumacher

Fernando Alonso absorbed the awesome pressure of flying world champion Michael Schumacher in the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola on Sunday to secure his third consecutive victory for Renault.

Alonso, the championship leader, was handed the lead when Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren expired early, but he had to keep composed to cope with the rejuvenated Schumacher in the closing stages.

German Schumacher, who suffered a disastrous start to the season with two points from the first three races, was right back on the pace in his new Ferrari F2005 machine and set up a thrilling fight to the finish.

He started from 13th on the grid after a mistake in qualifying, but Ferrari’s strategy of a long first stint, coupled with incredible pace in the middle of the race, allowed him to storm up to second by the finish.

Briton Jenson Button could do nothing to hold off Schumacher, but he was still satisfied finally to reach the end of a race, and displayed his team’s return to form with a satisfying podium finish in third.

Austrian Alex Wurz, who was called up to replace the injured Juan Pablo Montoya this weekend, coped with the pressure of his first race in four-and-a-half years and just missed out on a podium place when he came in fourth.

The McLaren driver, who usually tests away from the limelight, showed he has lost none of his racing talent as he worked his way up from seventh on the grid and held off a charging Takuma Sato, who had to settle for fifth.

Italian Jarno Trulli, of Toyota, had finished second in the last two races, but he could not stay on the pace in the cooler conditions and had to settle for seventh place behind Jacques Villeneuve.

There were finally smiles at Sauber for Villeneuve when the under-pressure Canadian held things together to score his first points for the team in sixth, while Ralf Schumacher made it two points scores for Toyota with eighth.

Raikkonen shot off the line from pole position at the start and held off Alonso’s Renault into the first corner as Trulli started well to pass Australian Mark Webber and move into fourth behind Button.

Sato also passed Webber, but lost the place again and dropped to sixth by the end of the first lap, and with two laps completed, Raikkonen had a lead of 2,6 seconds.

Italian Giancarlo Fisichella’s difficult season continued when he crashed his Renault out of the race heading into the Tamburello corner after just five full laps to post his third consecutive retirement.

Raikkonen then slowed on lap nine and handed the lead to Alonso before retiring in the pits to post his first retirement of the season after a weekend that had offered the potential for victory.

Minardi driver Patrick Friesacher, of Austria, stopped on the same lap as Raikkonen when his new car, introduced for its first race in Imola this weekend, ground to a halt and Christijan Albers also retired the team’s second car.

Brazilian Felipe Massa hit trouble when he lost a part of his Sauber’s front wing on lap 16 and had to pit. Then Rubens Barrichello pulled in the pits to retire his Ferrari on lap 18 after an electrical problem.

Sato took third from Webber as the pair headed into the first corner on lap 22 and Webber pitted with second-placed Trulli at the end of that lap before leader Alonso stopped at the end of lap 23.

At the end of the first set of stops, Alonso led Button by almost 10 seconds and Schumacher was up to third, albeit half a minute behind, after pitting much later than the lead runners, on lap 27.

Schumacher continued to push and closed in on the leaders by two seconds per lap in the middle part of the race, and by the end of lap 40 he was just 2,8 seconds behind second-placed Button and closing.

Alonso pitted for his second stop on lap 42, much earlier than his chasing rivals, and Schumacher then chased down Button for the lead, which he took from him with an impressive move at the Variante Alta on lap 47.

Schumacher then pitted on lap 49, one lap after Button, and returned to the track just behind Alonso, who had resumed the lead, to set up a thrilling 13-lap sprint race to the chequered flag.—Sapa-AFP


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