The Michael Schumacher-Fernando Alonso needle match picked up at the Nurburgring where it left off in Imola. The entire weekend was about the finely poised battle between the two of them. But sadly the battle was once again resolved in the pits and not on the track.
Feeling the pressure from Schumacher’s Imola win Renault adopted a more aggressive strategy for the Nurburgring race, fuelling Alonso lighter in qualifying so that he snatched pole for the first time in 2006. But he was a lone Renault against the Ferrari duo – Schumacher second, Felipe Massa third – as team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella once again failed to make the cut for the top ten.
The annual Nurburgring first-corner shunt was less destructive than usual, as Ralf Schumacher tipped Vitantonio Liuzzi into David Coulthard, thereby eliminating Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s most promising prospects for the race. Mark Webber capitalised brilliantly, moving up from 19th (due to a Cosworth engine change) to 12th.
After a brief safety car period to recover Liuzzi’s car Alonso kept his lead from Schumacher and Massa. Raikkonen moved past Jenson Button for fourth on lap four. At the start of lap five Juan Pablo Montoya sliced past Fisichella for tenth, and that was all the passing more or less done for the day.
The leading duo whittled their lap times down, each taking turns to go a couple of tenths faster. Raikkonen, even with the new Mercedes engine, was not quite able to reel in Massa.
On lap 14 Webber’s luck ran out again with hydraulic failure on his Williams – the European Grand Prix would claim an unusually high number of retirements.
Alonso’s short-fuelled strategy was confirmed when he pitted on lap 17, followed closely by Massa. Schumacher stayed out one lap longer but wasn’t able to capitalise on Alonso’s less-then-optimal strategy – yet. Raikkonen took up the lead from Button, but as the Alonso-Schumacher train caught the Briton he ducked into the pits on lap 21.
Raikkonen lasted until lap 23 – six more than Alonso – before pitting for fuel, but he resumed more or less as close behind Massa as he was before. The status quo having been re-established, the tedious wait for the second round of pit stops could now begin.
Fisichella and Montoya stopped on laps 27 and 28 respectively – Montoya’s crew didn’t get his refuelling hose connected quite quickly enough and Fisichella sneaked ahead, the pair queued behind Jacques Villeneuve’s BMW. Although they ran close together, none looked likely to pass any of the others. On lap 29, Button’s Honda gave up the struggle.
Nor did Schumacher, up front, behind Alonso – though it was rapidly becoming evident that he wouldn’t need to and his pit crew would take care of it for him. Schumacher sat on Alonso’s tale with visibly less effort. Come lap 38, Alonso was in again for fuel and Schumacher ran three laps longer, easily reeling off a series of quick laps to take the lead.
The battles for the remaining places were no more exciting. Raikkonen slowly caught Massa who in turn was slowly catching Alonso – but no-one took a look at anyone else. Nico Rosberg, having started last and pitted on laps 33 and 49, was coming under pressure from Montoya when the Columbian’s engine blew eight laps short of its second Grand Prix distance. Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota did likewise on the same lap.
Thus Schumacher took a win that had looked far closer than it actually was, the strategic battle utterly superfluous given that the Ferrari, on a warm day just as in Imola, was patently faster. The inability of Fisichella, sixth, to get half as much out of the Renault as Alonso is plainly hurting them. Massa was able to take his first podium ahead of Raikkonen.
Barrichello led home a three-car train including Fisichella and Rosberg, with Villeneuve eighth having comprehensively outclassed Nick Heidfeld. Trulli had run seventh after the safety car but faded to ninth, out of the points again but at least making it to the end of a race.
Heidfeld, Scott Speed, Tiago Monteiro and Christijan Albers rounded off the classified finishers. Both Super Aguris failed to finish, including new boy Franck Montagny in for Yuji Ide, and Christian Klien parked his Red Bull on lap 28.
Schumacher’s double win bodes ill for Alonso ahead of his home Grand Prix just one week away. On the strength of Ferrari’s form, he’ll have to fight hard just to keep Massa behind, and will be hoping that Fisichella brings his Renault up to the sharp end as well.