After an incident-filled Grand Prix, with no fewer than four safety car periods, Fernando Alonso pulled further ahead in the chase for the world championship with an emphatic victory in Melbourne.
There was drama even before the start when Juan Pablo Montoya spun his McLaren heading for the grid, and then Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault stalled at the front of the field. The Italian was pushed into the pits as the Colombian gratefully resumed his rightful place for a fresh start, and straight away pole man Jenson Button defended his lead resolutely from an attacking Alonso, who fell back into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen and duelling McLaren partner Montoya. However, there was mayhem elsewhere. Exiting Turn One Christian Klien spun across Felipe Massa’s bows, taking out Nico Rosberg in the process too. It was Massa’s second big shunt of the weekend. Further round, Jarno Trulli clouted David Coulthard’s Red Bull in Turn 6, the Toyota spinning into retirement.
That was the first time the safety car was deployed, and it stayed out until the end of lap three. At the restart Button was unable to keep his Michelins warm enough and soon fell easy prey to Alonso, but when Klien’s Red Bull turned itself sharp left into the wall on the approach to Turn 9 on the fifth lap, the safety car came back out for laps seven to nine inclusive as more debris was cleaned up.
When racing resumed on lap 10, Raikkonen also exploited Button’s tyre problem to snatch second place, with Montoya, Mark Webber and Ralf Schumacher heading the chase.
It was soon clear that Alonso had the legs of Raikkonen, whose front wing had a damaged endplate. It was also clear that this was another race that Button was not going to win.
Montoya led the first pits stops, on lap 18, followed by Button and Ralf Schumacher on 19 and Alonso on 20. Raikkonen pitted from the lead a lap later, handing the advantage to Webber. The Australian thus led his home race on Sir Jack Brabham’s 80th birthday, but that little present lasted only until lap 23, when his Williams rolled to a halt with transmission failure.
Alonso thus resumed the lead, with Nick Heidfeld up to second for BMW Sauber and yet to pit, Raikkonen third, non-stopping Michael Schumacher fourth and Montoya heading Button.
Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher pitted on lap 25, the younger German dropping to fourth, the elder to sixth. Now Michael came alive, and had slashed Button’s advantage by the 33rd lap. But in the final corner he ran wide, and in a flash the Ferrari bounced out of control and hard into the outer and then inner wall. As the track was yet again strewn with debris, there was a mass of pit stops as the safety car was again deployed. Alonso, Raikkonen, Montoya, Heidfeld, Button, Ralf Schumacher Schumacher, Tonio Liuzzi and Fisichella all came in from the top eight placings, and as Raikkonen’s car received a new nose, Montoya lost time waiting in the queue.
Tonio Liuzzi, who had driven a storming race for Toro Rosso which included forcing his way past Michael Schumacher in a scrap for eighth place on lap 12, alleged that Jacques Villeneuve moved him onto the grass exiting Turn 1. The Italian had a sizeable accident, hitting the outer wall before his STR1 shot back across the road to hit the inner wall as well.
The race resumed for the last time on lap 41, and for heady moments it was a repeat of the previous restart with cars fighting all over the place. Now Raikkonen could fight more, but Alonso had the Midlands as a cushion and soon opened up enough of a lead over the McLaren. In the melee Montoya had lost ground and now found himself behind Ralf Schumacher, who had unobtrusively moved up to third place for Toyota, despite a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane. Heidfeld meanwhile was down to fifth, with Button struggling with tyre temperature problems to keep his Honda ahead of Fisichella’s Renault. On lap 46 Montoya nearly repeated Schumacher’s accident in Turn 16, his McLaren bouncing down the grass before suddenly slowing as he passed the McLaren pit. Electrical failure had intervened.
That was almost the last of the drama, and Alonso led Raikkonen home by 1.8s. Ralf Schumacher fell way back but was never threatened for third by Heidfeld. Button, however, had Fisichella all over him and the Italian took fifth exiting the final corner on the last lap when Button’s Honda engine let go in a big way, pluming smoke and then flame. The team ordered the frustrated Englishman to stop before the finish line, in order to avoid getting a new engine penalty in Imola.
Dull it wasn’t, but Fernando Alonso’s victory demonstrated once again that Renault are currently in a class of their own.
Fernando Alonso, Renault:
“This was a very different race to the other two so far this season. In Bahrain, I was fighting with Michael all the way; in Malaysia, it was Jenson I was battling for second place. But today, it was quite comfortable. There were no fights, and I was very relaxed for a lot of the race. I had a good lead after the first pit-stops, but I lost it during the second safety car. However, I managed to get a good gap on each re-start, and that made life quite easy for me. I was very happy with the balance all the way through the race, so I just needed to make sure I didn’t take any unnecessary risks and I am pleased we were able to save the engine performance for the next race. So far, we have shown we are strong in all conditions on all tracks. But Imola is a very different challenge, and we must have a calm approach, because we know it will be more difficult than ever.”