Fernando Alonso returned Ferrari to the top of the Formula One podium with a victory in the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring circuit this afternoon -- and that victory puts him back in the hunt for a third World Championship.
"We've been competitive, we've performed really well," Alonso said after the race. "It's a very strong result for the team, top three in qualifying and top three in the race."
But that victory came only with a little help from his friends -- or at least his teammate, Felipe Massa, as Ferrari appeared to have used team orders to decide the result of the race.
Massa, in the second Ferrari, took the race lead into the first corner as polesitter Sebastian Vettel first got a slow start off the line, and then focused all his attention on Alonso, who had started alongside Vettel on the front row.
"Normally we have very good starts, so I'm not really sure what happened today," Vettel wondered. "I had quite a lot of grip, I dumped the clutch, but got bogged down, so the first five to ten metres of the acceleration were poor. I was lucky I didn't stall the engine , but I lost the momentum."
On lap 49, though, Rob Smedley, Massa's race engineer, told him that Alonso was faster, and asked the Brazilian to acknowledge that fact. Massa understood the hidden intent of the message, though, and slowed down dramatically on the exit of the hairpin to allow Alonso to pass.
"Very, very magnanimous," Smedley told Massa just after Alonso and Massa had taken the chequered flag, separated by 4.191 seconds
"We drivers have to first of all think of the interests of the team and that is what I showed again today," was as much as the sombre Massa was willing to say after the race. Clearly not happy with the situation, he was nevertheless the epitome of the perfect team player, doing the "right thing" for the team.
"I'm very professional and I've showed in my career how professional I am," he added later while speaking with the press. "You are professional as well, you work for a company. I believe you are doing what you have to do, so I'm professional and today I showed how professional I am. That's it."
Alonso was far more combative in the post-race press conference, under intense and repeated questioning by the world's sporting press corps.
"Again, if this is the final thought of the weekend for you, I think it is because you didn't see the performance of the team and the performance from our car this weekend," he told the reporter from the News of the World in one exchange.
The team orders controversy indeed completely overshadowed the return of the Scuderia to form, from the wilderness of the midfield in which they had spent the past few races. Only Red Bull's Vettel was able to keep pace with the two red cars, and even he didn't have enough to make a serious attempt at the lead.
"The closer I got to the (Ferrari) in front, I began to feel tyres losing grip and starting to grain," the young German recalled. "I think for most of the race the Ferraris were probably a tenth or two quicker than us; it was difficult to keep up the pace. Towards the end we were able to push again a little bit."
At the flag, Vettel was still third, 0.930 seconds behind Massa: not a victory, but valuable championship points nevertheless.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton simply could not extract the necessary pace from his McLaren-Mercedes to threaten the Ferraris or Vettel's Red Bull-Renault. While Hamilton was able to jump the second Red Bull of Mark Webber on the first lap, that would be as close as he would get to the leaders during the race.
With a best laptime seven tenths slower than Vettel, the top three inevitably pulled away from the McLaren driver, even though the team now ran the new "blown diffuser" in the race as well as qualifying. At the chequered flag Hamilton, a two-race winner this year himself, was a shocking 27 seconds behind Alonso.
"It was a very tough race today," he mused. "The car didn't feel fantastic and the Ferraris and Red Bulls were very fast. We hoped the gap would be closer in the race than it was in qualifying, and it was -- but, even so, we've got to make up some pace on our main rivals."
Jenson Button, the other McLaren driver, didn't have any easier time of it. Unable to make a move at the start, he was stuck behind Webber for the first part of the race, until the Australian dropped into change into the prime compound on lap 13. Button stayed out for another nine laps on the softer rubber, and that paid off as he easily exited in front of the Red Bull at the end of his stop.
2.5 seconds separated him from his teammate, but he was in turn an easy 14 seconds in front of Webber, scoring a few more precious points for the championship.
The ill-timed initial pit stop doomed Webber's race, as he returned to the track in heavy midfield traffic, the Red Bull team seemingly having miscalculated the outcome of the stop. But he had to further drop his pace in the second half of the race as the Renault engine's oil levels were dropping precipitously, forcing Webber to drop his pace further.
Robert Kubica took seventh, adding to his steady points tally, but one lap down on the leaders.
Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher brought home some points for Mercedes in their -- and the team's -- home Grand Prix, but six points was scant consolation for the German manufacturer, which had been hoping for a strong showing in its first race at home.
Vitaly Petrov claimed the final point for Renault, holding off the attacks of Kamui Kobayashi in the closing laps.
The outcome of the race brought Alonso closer into contention for the World Championship, at 123 points to Hamilton's 157. Button is still second with 143, and the two Red Bull drivers have 136 points each.
However, whether this the real situation or not is still up for question. The stewards of the race assessed the maximum $100,000 penalty against Ferrari for the use of team orders, a penalty that the Italian team decided not to appeal. But the stewards also referred the incident to the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, which is due to meet in early September, at which time it will consider whether further sanctions should be applied against the team -- or against the two Ferrari drivers.
All this means that the controversy is unlikely to die down before the WMSC meeting in September.
In the meantime, though, there will be some on-track activity as well, as the F1 circus heads out to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix, running on the Hungaroring next weekend.