The race was tense and close, but almost incidental to the Monaco weekend. Of greater importance was an incident in the dying seconds of qualifying, an incident that called into question once again Michael Schumacher's ultimate status in this sport. A great driver? Unquestionably. A great champion? That's a different thing.
Stirling Moss once said that while he counted Senna as Juan Manuel Fangio's equal in terms of genius at the wheel, still he could not speak of them in the same breath. Why? "Oh, because of some of the stunts Senna pulled. 'Dirty driving' we used to call it in my time suppose it sounds a bit old-fashioned in today's world. The thing is, Fangio would never do anything like that. For me, he is the best driver the world has seen but he was even greater as a man."
On Saturday afternoon, Schumacher was fighting for pole position more crucial at Monaco than anywhere else and with a couple of minutes to go in the session, he thought maybe he'd done it. Then, suddenly, Fernando Alonso was putting in an even quicker lap three-tenths up at the second timing split whereupon Schumacher 'made a mistake' at Rascasse, the tight right-hander towards the end of the lap.
It was a curious thing to behold. A tiny lock-up, and then the Ferrari unaccountably failed to turn properly, coming to a halt, its nose just short of the barrier. Suddenly the track was half blocked, yellow flags were waving and what would have been Alonso's pole lap was lost.
This was a "mistake" even a novice wouldn't have made. All at once folk began recalling controversies from Schumacher's past: the accident with Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994, which resolved the world championship in Schumacher's favor. The unsuccessful attempt to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the road at Jerez in their title-decider there three years later. And other unsavoury incidents, too.
"You can't win seven world championships and behave like that," Villeneuve said after this latest transgression. "You just can't. It's unacceptable and it shows that every time he did something like that in the past, and people gave him the benefit of the doubt...well, I think today just made it obvious..."
There was condemnation throughout the paddock for what Schumacher had done. At the press conference he said he had got it wrong, said folk didn't realize how difficult it was to drive an F1 car around these tight streets, but, as Jackie Stewart murmured, he looked thoroughly ill at ease.
Alongside him, the normally cheery Alonso looked thunderous, but somehow kept his cool. "After dominating all weekend, to lose my best lap because of...an accident is not really a good moment," he said. And, no, there was no eye-contact with Schumacher.
Out in the paddock, others were rather more trenchant, a couple of former world champions among them. "That was the cheapest, dirtiest, thing I've ever seen in F1," said Keke Rosberg, whose son Nico was one of those impeded by the parked Ferrari. "Schumacher should leave F1, and go home. I think he's underestimated our intelligence by trying to claim it was a driving mistake I mean, give me a break! He just parked the car in the middle of the road, and tried to stop Alonso from completing his fast lap. The FIA has to penalize him I just hope they're brave enough to do what they need to do. And he should get out of the Grand Prix Drivers Association today and never speak the word 'safety' again."
"I thought it was just too obvious," said Stewart. "When it happened, I said, 'That's not an accident or a mechanical failure'. And when you saw the slow motion replay, there was no doubt. If he'd taken the front wing off, it might have been OK!
"What Michael did was totally unfair he must have been fully aware of what was going on: I'm sure Ross [Brawn] was telling him that Alonso was on a quick lap and he also knew there were only seconds to go in the session. I don't think it damages the reputation of the sport but I certainly think it reflects on Michael, and on Ferrari. It really wasn't the best thing you could see from a man who's considered the best racing driver in the world..."
Flavio Briatore, Alonso's team principal, and also the man whose Benetton team took Schumacher to his first two titles, kept his comments brief. "For me, this was disgusting, OK? Disgusting..."
Time was when Schumacher's questionable ethics were a byword in F1, but in recent years, when dominant cars took him to five further world championships, he had kept his nose pretty clean. Now a whole new generation of fans, who knew nothing of the bad old days, saw him in a different light. Those who were around 10 and 15 years ago simply concluded that no, the man had not changed.
The FIA stewards, after hours of deliberation, announced that Schumacher would start the race at the back of the grid, alongside teammate Felipe Massa, who had crashed in qualifying before setting a time. In a statement, Jean Todt responded with predictable outrage.
"Ferrari notes with great displeasure the decision of the stewards. We totally disagree with it. With no real evidence, the stewards have assumed Michael is guilty."
On Sunday afternoon, then, the grid looked like this: Alonso now on the pole, an impressive Mark Webber next to him, the McLarens of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya behind. Schumacher started from the pit lane, his car fuelled to the hilt.
The start was relatively orderly, with Alonso leading off, and Webber besting the McLarens into the first turn. But it was clear that Raikkonen was intent on getting after Alonso, and on the second lap he somehow squeezed past Webber up the hill from the first corner.
For a long time, Alonso and Raikkonen traded fastest laps. The gap between them was less than a second, with Webber and Montoya next up, then a long silence before Barrichello's fuel-heavy Honda came by, with a gaggle of cars behind it, all quicker, all unable to pass on the tight streets.
"Once I realized I couldn't get away from Kimi," Alonso said, "I just concentrated on managing the tires. Yes, there was pressure, but unless I made a mistake, he wasn't going to overtake me."
That was the crux of it. More than any great driver since Alain Prost, Alonso is immune to pressure. After the first stops, Raikkonen remained close at hand, and both Webber and Montoya moved in, too, making it a four-car train. But even when the leaders caught, and lapped, a bunch of squabbling backmarkers, Alonso never looked like making a slip.
On lap 44, sadly, Webber's Williams-Cosworth suffered exhaust failure and stopped on the hill, shrouded in smoke and flame. Out came the safety car, and while they tooled around behind it, Raikkonen's McLaren-Mercedes experienced a heat shield failure. In terms of a challenge to Alonso, the Monaco Grand Prix ended right there.
Afterwards, his first thought was to dedicate the win to Edouard Michelin, who drowned in a fishing accident on the Friday before the race. Then Alonso talked about the championship situation. "No points for Kimi, only five for Michael...we're building a nice gap..."
Schumacher, fifth, set the fastest lap as he chased down Barrichello in the late stages. A great driver? Always. A great champion? Depends on how much you value ethics.
2.075-mile road course
1. Fernando Alonso, Renault, 78 laps at 93.644 mph avg. speed; 2. Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren-Mercedes, 78; 3. David Coulthard, Red Bull-Ferrari, 78; 4. Rubens Barrichello, Honda, 78; 5. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 78; 6. Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, 78; 7. Nick Heidfeld, BMW-Sauber, 77; 8. Ralf Schumacher, Toyota, 77; 9. Felipe Massa, Ferrari, 77; 10. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Toro Rosso-Cosworth, 77;
11. Jenson Button, Honda, 77; 12. Christijan Albers, Midland-Toyota, 77; 13. Scott Speed, Toro Rosso-Cosworth, 77; 14. Jacques Villeneuve, BMW-Sauber, 77; 15. Tiago Monteiro, Midland-Toyota, 76; 16. Franck Montagny, Super Aguri-Honda, 75; 17. Jarno Trulli, Toyota, 72; 18. Christian Klien, Red Bull-Ferrari, 56 (hydraulics); 19. Nico Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, 51 (exhaust); 20. Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren-Mercedes, 50 (heat shield);
21. Mark Webber, Williams-Cosworth, 48 (exhaust); 22. Takuma Sato, Super Aguri-Honda, 46 (electronics)
TIME OF RACE: 1h 43m 43.116s
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 14.567s
FAST QUALIFIER: Alonso, 1m 13.962s
FAST LAP: M. Schumacher, 1m 15.143s (99.428 mph)
LAP LEADERS: Alonso, 1-23; Webber, 24; Alonso, 25-78
CAUTION PERIODS: 49-52, mechanical failure
POINT LEADERS: 1. Alonso, 64; 2. M. Schumacher, 43; 3. (tie) Fisichella, Raikkonen, 27 5. Montoya, 23; 6. Massa, 20; 7. Button, 16; 8. Barrichello, 13; 9. R. Schumacher, 8; 10. Heidfeld, 8
NEXT: Great Britain, June 11 (1:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS)
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