Reversal of fortune: Schumacher pays back Alonso
Fortune, it is said, is a capricious thing, always able to change sides over the course of time.
That maxim was proven true at Sunday's Formula One San Marino Grand Prix, where Michael Schumacher's win turned the tables on last year's race result and made prospects for the rest of this season a lot more interesting.
In 2005, eventual world champion Fernando Alonso kept defending titleholder Schumacher at bay over the closing laps in Imola, Italy, taking a victory that turned Renault from pretender to contender and built momentum toward eventual drivers and constructors' crowns. This time around it was Schumacher holding off Alonso to break Renault's 2006 dominance and establish himself and Ferrari as serious contenders once again.
It wasn't necessarily that Schumacher emerged victorious that was impressive. After all, he'd led more laps at Imola's Autodromo Enzo y Dino Ferrari circuit than the rest of the field combined going into the event and already had six wins to his credit there. It was how he won, keeping what has been the season's dominant car behind him with a commanding performance in a Ferrari that hadn't shown itself as top-shelf material this year in race trim until now.
"We had an amazing weekend," Schumacher said during the postrace news conferences. "The result shows that work pays off and that the effort put in by everyone -- the team and our partners -- has delivered its reward. There was obviously some struggle at some moments, but in general over the weekend we were very competitive.
"Luckily this is a circuit where we know from another year -- last year -- that overtaking is almost impossible unless you make a mistake. If you close the door and you do the job in the right way then you don't give a chance, really, to the driver behind."
Schumacher kept the door sealed and was the race's dominant force besides, surrendering the lead only during the gap between his three pit stops and those of his competitors after making a lightning start to seize the lead. Alonso opted for two stops, taking his last a few laps earlier than scheduled in hopes of passing Schumacher through superior pit performance after closely trailing his rival for several laps.
It didn't work.
"I just waited for my opportunity and at the end it didn't come," Alonso said. "Also, we came in [to the pits] much earlier just to try to overtake Michael and it didn't work -- maybe the opposite."
Schumacher's rapid getaway after the lights went out was all the more impressive because Renault is justly renowned for its launch-control software and has what is generally considered the sport's quickest car off the mark.
He also benefited from improved tires from Bridgestone and a new fuel from team provider Shell. It also didn't hurt matters that he started from pole position, his record-setting 66th, breaking a record shared with the late Ayrton Senna.
Ironically, it was at Imola that Senna claimed his 65th pole on April 30, 1994, 24 hours before his death during the race. The driver in second place when Senna crashed on that dark May day, with the closest view as Senna's car speared off track, was Michael Schumacher.
Schumacher's win on Sunday and the 10 points accompanying it cut his arrears in the driving standings to 15 markers and Ferrari's deficit in the constructors table to 21, hardly insurmountable barriers with nearly three-quarters of the season remaining. He trailed Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren-Mercedes by 14 points after four races in 2003, when he won his sixth of a record seven world titles.
Still, Renault shouldn't be too downcast over the result after winning this season's first three races; Alonso now has two wins and two second places to his credit in 2006.
Teams that have started the year with three straight wins are 15-0 in the constructors' title race since Formula One's 1950 debut. However, Ferrari's marked improvement and positive test results bode well for the rest of the year.
"We've had good testing in Barcelona and I think we should be pretty good from now on," Schumacher said. "It's honestly getting very close between the top teams for maximizing their performance so it should be good."
A cheerful outlook from a seven-time world champion doesn't bode especially well for the rest of the grid. Renault and its title-aspirant ilk would do well to bend to their task with a renewed vigor before the red object in the rear-view mirror gets any closer than it already appears to be.
Around the paddock
The Imola circuit will become the latest on the F1 calendar to have a facelift after this race. A new pit lane will replace the current, somewhat claustrophobic setup, a new media center will be built, the paddock complex will be redesigned and the track layout will be tweaked at an approximate total cost of $12 million. Silverstone, currently embroiled in yet another ownership/organization controversy, and Hockenheim are among tracks which have been upgraded in recent years Drink up, tifosi: Ferrari has secured sponsorship from drinks maker Martini, which returns to Formula One after a 27-year absence, according to the sport's Internet site.
Michael Kelley is a contributor to Formula One coverage for ESPN.com
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