Ferrari won the game of tactics at the N?rburgring as Michael Schumacher took the lead from Renault's Fernando Alonso after the second pit stops and claimed his second consecutive win of the season. Alonso settled for second and Ferrari's Felipe Massa drove a strong race to reach the F1 podium for the first time in third.
It was a fine sunny day for the race, if a little windy, with a track temperature around 40 degrees at the start. Pole sitter Alonso got away cleanly when the lights went green, with Michael and Massa in formation behind. Further down the field Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso and David Coutlhard's Red Bull were first lap retirees.
Liuzzi spun -- his verdict was that he got a bump from Ralf Schumacher's Toyota -- and went into Coulthard. Limping his way back to the pits with front wing damage and a right rear puncture, Liuzzi's car gave up and stalled in the middle of the track. The safety car was deployed and Coulthard was in the pits for a front wing change.
The safety car was only out for a couple of laps and once it went in the race was a fairly static state of affairs. Honda's Jenson Button had got himself up to fourth and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen held station in fifth. Next was the Toyota of Jarno Trulli and Honda's Rubens Barrichello lost a couple of places to seventh.
Coulthard had rejoined but after only couple of laps more he retired for good. "We were able to replace the car's nose, but then we had another issue, which was probably caused when I had contact with Tonio on the first lap," the Scot said of his exit.
Jacques Villeneuve's BMW Sauber was eighth and teammate Nick Heidfeld ninth, while Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella rounded out the early top 10. Raikkonen snatched fourth from Button on the back straight and Fisichella nabbed Villeneuve at the first corner.
Mark Webber had got his Williams up to 12th from 19th, followed by the Red Bull of Christian Klien, Ralf's Toyota and Scott Speed's Toro Rosso. Nico Rosberg had moved his Williams from the back up to 16th, then came the MF1s of Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro and the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Franck Montagny.
Heidfeld was holding up quite a string of cars and had Montoya harassing him but the Colombian couldn't find a way past. Alonso was belting out fastest laps at the front but was not getting away from the Ferraris, which were close but not close enough to make any challenge on the Renault for the lead at that time.
Webber was the next to drop out when he went wide at turn 10 then the Williams pulled to a halt on the grass. "It was hydraulics, basically," was the Australian's opinion on the problem. "When I lost that I lost everything, gearbox, throttle, the lot. We still can't get to the flag."
Alonso, as expected, was the first to pit but wasn't so much lighter than the Ferraris as Massa came in the same lap and Michael the next time around. Massa lost out slightly as Alonso rejoined ahead of Trulli but the Brazilian came out behind the Toyota. Michael rejoined behind Alonso, although it was quite close.
Raikkonen was then in the lead, followed by Button, and Barrichello was next in the pits. Massa got past Trulli somewhere unseen and Button, Villeneuve and Klien all took their turn in the pits. Raikkonen peeled in shortly afterwards and rejoined back in fourth again. So the order was retained, with Alonso leading Michael and Massa.
Montoya had a quite a long first stint and came out the pits side by side with Fisichella but the Renault got ahead. The pair were behind Villeneuve, no doubt adding to Fisichella's ire with the Canadian, and all three tussled for position for a few laps but the formation held.
Button was the next retiree when the Honda pulled onto the grass down the straight at the pit exit. "I think it was the engine," said a subdued sounding Button. "It was tightening up across the line, there was smoke at the rear end and that was it."
Klien quickly followed suit, cruising onto the grass with a transmission problem, then Montagny did likewise with a hydraulic loss -- they were dropping like flies (whatever that actually means). Rosberg appeared to be on a one-stopper as he didn't pit until about half way through.
By then Alonso was gearing up for his second stop and that's when Ferrari's strategy paid off. Although Michael had only pitted a lap later than the Spaniard the first time, he stayed out another couple of laps longer at the end of the middle stint and really floored it. Roaring out of the pits after his second stop, Michael rejoined ahead of Alonso.
Raikkonen was in the lead until he too pitted for the second time and the top three were then Michael, Alonso and Massa, the order which would hold to the chequered flag. Barrichello, Ralf, Villeneuve and Fisichella all went into the pits together and Fisichella beat Villeneuve to the exit, which presumably pleased him.
Sato trundled into the pits and retired to the garage with a similar hydraulic problem as teammate Montagny, and it turned out that Rosberg did have to stop again. He rejoined in eighth ahead of Montoya but before the Colombian could do anything about it his McLaren cruised to a halt.
"It was the engine, probably," Montoya shrugged. "We had a really bad start and were stuck in traffic all day. It was a tough race for us. I was very close to Nico and I thought I'd get him but when I went on the throttle it just let go."
Ralf had also stuttered to a halt and retired with an engine failure with clouds of smoke pluming from the back of the Toyota. Raikkonen was slowly reeling Massa in and Rosberg was attacking Fisichella but there were only five laps to go. Raikkonen got very close at the end but it was too little too late.
Michael crossed the line three second ahead of Alonso and, for the moment at least, confirmed that Ferrari's Imola competitiveness was no flash in the pan. Massa backed him up with a well driven third place and claimed his first podium finish. Somebody needed to take the fight to Renault and Ferrari has risen to the challenge.
"A great race, great strategy and a great performance from the whole team," said Michael. "I am happy for all of them and I think the result shows we are back, with car, engine, tyres and fuel all working superbly... I am also pleased for Felipe, getting his first F1 podium today and now I am looking forward to another good fight in Barcelona."
Massa, obviously, was very happy with his result. "I had a very good start and I could manage to put my car side-by-side with Michael but he was on the inside so he was able to go ahead," the Brazilian commented. "Really, it was a great start and I think the whole thing was perfect with the strategy too. The management of the race was very good."
Alonso may have missed the win but was not too disappointed. "It was a quite interesting race," he said. "I started from pole position and I was controlling the race with the pace. I knew there was an area for Michael, so we had new tyres at the first pit-stop. It was okay and I came in-front of Michael at the end. In the second pit-stop it was not so good because we stopped maybe three of four laps too early and that was too much."
"I think sometimes in a race you have traffic, but sometimes nothing helps when you are leading the race and second place is a fantastic result considering we were a little bit down from Ferrari's performance this weekend. Also, I think the tyres were not perfectly okay for this weekend, so even with everything, to get the eight points means that we have everything okay and we should win again."
Raikkonen came home fourth but really McLaren has been less than inspired the last couple of events. The Finn was chasing down Massa at the end but did not really make a big impression on the race. Barrichello was a reasonable fifth but Honda has also not lived up to expectations -- is Button going to change his mind again?
Fisichella crossed the line sixth, followed by Rosberg, who did a fine job to get in the points from the back of the grid. However, despite his feisty performance, Williams' reliability has been woeful so far. Villeneuve got the better of teammate Heidfeld this weekend and took the final point in eighth, while Heidfeld was 10th.
In between them was Trulli, another race to forget for Toyota, and Speed and the MF1s of Monteiro and Albers rounded off the finishers in 11th, 12th and 13th respectively. It was not a very exciting race but the results were quite intriguing -- no-one in their right minds would write Ferrari off and the reds are rapidly bouncing back.
However, Alonso only ceded two points to Michael, currently his closest rival, and the defending champion maintains a healthy 13 point lead over the German in the drivers' standings. But the gap is steadily coming down. Renault also holds 16 points over Ferrari in the constructors' and McLaren is eight points behind the Scuderia.
Is Ferrari back? Maybe not back to its previous dominance but it certainly looks like the Maranello squad is back in the title fight and it's about time someone gave Renault a wake up call. Final top eight classification: M. Schumacher, Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Barrichello, Fisichella, Rosberg, Villeneuve.