Brilliant, superb, outstanding, nail-biting, nerve-wracking, fantastic. Just some of the adjectives that can be used for the San Marino Grand Prix. Ironically enough it is only due to the total butchering of the once over-taking friendly Imola circuit by the introduction of those hideous post ’94 chicanes that gave this race such an exciting finish. Had this been the pre ’94 track Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari would have simply swept up behind Alonso through the flat out Tamburello sweeper, cruised around the outside at Villeneuve, outbraked him on the inside at Tosa and vanished into the distance. Nowadays the atrociously designed chicanes at Tamburello and Villeneuve disrupt the flow so much that overtaking at these corners is now virtually impossible even if you are in a car that is 2 seconds a lap faster such as the Red Baron was in on Sunday.

Winner, Fernando Alonso admitted that his strategy was to slow right down on the entry and beginning of these corners to slow Schumacher and rely on the Renault’s better traction and acceleration to keep him at bay. The sort of tactics you would expect at the Hungaroring, not the once majestic and flowing Imola. It is even more ironic that this emasculation of the track named after Enzo Ferrari’s son, Dino, cost the Ferrari team it’s first victory of the year and allowed Renault to keep it’s unbroken victory record this season. Schumacher however, was the sensation of the race. After his qualifying mistake left him 13th on the grid he was stuck behind his brother until the first stops. The German then unleashed a blistering series of laps to climb from 10th to 3rd before he stopped on lap 27. He then closed remorselessly on Button in 2nd and passed him for the lead on lap 47 after Alonso had made his final stop. He came out from his final stop just 1.5 seconds behind Alonso and this set the stage for the final, nail-biting 12 laps. This is not to take anything away from Alonso. He showed all the skill, speed and intelligence that we knew was there, soaked up a massive amount of pressure on worn tyres without cracking to claim his first hat-trick of wins and give him a comfortable lead in the championship. Even if Schumacher won every race for the rest of the year and Alonso finished second, it would take Schumacher till the second last round to take the lead in the championship. It is not very likely that either driver will have such reliability and even less so that they will finish every race in that order, especially now that McLaren have found qualifying speed so we look to be in for a very, very interesting year. It would be interesting to know where Raikkonen would have finished had the McLaren not broken a drive shaft. He was, after all, pulling away in the lead quite nicely from Alonso when his car let him down. How hard was he pushing? Did the McLaren have the same raw pace as the Ferrari? Assuming he was on a similar fuel strategy to team-mate Wurz (he pitted third last on both occasions) one would conclude that he would have finished well ahead of Alonso. What if Schumacher had not made the mistake in final qualifying and started somewhere in the first couple of rows? The battle-royal between him, Alonso and a reliable Raikkonen would have been an absolute beauty. Maybe in Spain…If, if, if…F1 is if spelt backwards.

These three drivers team-mates had totally opposite weekends. Giancarlo Fisichella in the Renault had his recent woes continue with a failure on the Renault that pitched him off the road at Tamburello and into the tyre barriers. He has not finished a race since his win at Melbourne. Rubens Barrichello in the Ferrari lasted just 17 laps before an electrical gremlin put an end to his day and in the McLaren, Alexander Wurz had all the reliability that Raikkonen didn’t and finished a strong fourth. An exceptional drive for someone who has not started a race since he finished 7th in Malaysia in 2000 in the uncompetitive last Benetton. Will Montoya be back for Spain? Who knows, but if Wurz is to stand in again an even more competitive showing is likely so that is something else to look forward to.

BAR seemed to make just as much of a leap back to the right end of the grid since Bahrain as Ferrari with Button starting and finishing in 3rd and Sato starting 6th and finishing 5th. On paper a fine effort, however, Button’s car was found to be underweight after the race and fuel was removed from a “hidden” compartment. Whether this was an innocent mistake by the team or deliberate cheating is now the subject of an FIA enquiry and the teams placings at Imola are still under question. If the team is found guilty of deliberate cheating, a team official had advised the scrutineers at the weigh-in that the car was empty of all fluids prior to the extra fuel being found, then even harsher penalties are likely to be applied. The last two teams to be found guilty of deliberate cheating, Toyota in the World rally Championship in 1996 and Tyrrell in F1 in 1984 were both disqualified from the championship and banned from competing for the remainder of the year. The results of the enquiry should be made public on Wednesday so watch this space.

With so many teams making great strides forward, someone had to go backwards, Someone was Toyota and Williams. Toyota started 5th (Trulli) and 10th (Ralf) but ended the day in 7th (Trulli) and 8th (Ralf) on the road. Ralf was then penalised 25 seconds for unsafe driving in the pits and this dropped him back to 11th in the final standings. Williams weekend started well with Webber a fine 4th on the grid and Heidfeld in 8th, about where the car should be on it’s current pace. Both drivers lost places at the start but Webber showed great fight to regain 5th place from Sato around the outside at Piratella on lap 1. From there he was stuck behind Trulli’s Toyota until the first stops. It was then that the team made a very bad mistake and called Webber in early for fuel. It meant that he pitted at the same time as Trulli who beat him back out onto the track even though the Williams team had short fuelled him. All this meant that once again he was stuck behind the Toyota until the second stops and as he then had to stop early, he came out with a heavy fuel load while every one else was running light on almost empty tanks. Webber eventually finished in a miserable 9th place behind his team-mate Heidfeld. More points could still be theirs however, with the BAR saga still to be finalised.

The other excellent performance of the weekend came from the Sauber boys. Massa would have started in eighth place had he not changed a down on power engine. Starting 18th effectively finished his weekend but it still gave us a spirited dice with Coulthard in the Red Bull. Villeneuve was finally allowed to set his car up in the seemingly bizarre fashion that he likes and his performance was transformed. Still not quite as quick as Massa, who has had a lot more time to get it sorted out, but he was breathing down the Brazilian’s neck all weekend. He started 11th and had a fine race to finish in a worthy 6th place, taking advantage of every opportunity given to him. Again it will be interesting to see how JV progresses if he is allowed to continue with this set-up.

As for the rest, Red Bull are slowly slipping down the grid as the larger teams get their acts together with both drivers qualifying only in front of the Jordans and the Minardis. Debutant Liuzzi got the jump on Coulthard at the start and there he stayed. It was a fine debut for the Italian as he qualified within a tenth of a second of his team-mate and led him through-out the race. The Jordans had their usual reliable run near the rear of the field with Karthikeyan again out-doing team-mate Montiero in qualifying as well as the race. The sleek new Minardis were never likely to finish and so it proved. The cars were simply too new to either qualify well and with limited testing none of the teething bugs had been ironed out. A lengthy test this week at Mugello should be a great help and we are likely to see a more representative performance in Spain next weekend. Not likely to be on pole though. Even with the new car their stated aim is only to beat Jordan in the Championship. They need a lot more money to do anything else.

RESULT/DRIVER CAR LAPS/GAP COMMENTS 1 Fernando Alonso Renault 62/1"27'41.951 Ave Speed 129.947 mph/209.085 kph 2 Michael Schumacher Ferrari +0'00.215 - 3 Jenson Button BAR +0'10.481 - 4 Alexander Wurz McLaren +0'27.554 - 5 Takuma Sato BAR +0'34.783 - 6 Jacques Villeneuve Sauber +1'04.442 - 7 Jarno Trulli Toyota +1'10.258 - 8 Nick Heidfeld Williams +1'11.282 - 9 Mark Webber Williams +1'23.297 - 10 Vitantonio Liuzzi Red Bull +1'23.764 - 11 Ralf Schumacher Toyota +1'35.841 Includes 25sec penalty-pit lane violation 12 Felipe Massa Sauber 61 - 13 David Coulthard Red Bull 61 - 14 Narain Karthikeyan Jordan 61 - 15 Tiago Montiero Jordan 60 - RETIREMENTS Christijan Albers Minardi 20 Hydraulic fluid leak Rubens Barrichello Ferrari 18 Electrical Kimi Raikkonen McLaren 9 Drive shaft Patrick Friesacher Minardi 8 Clutch Giancarlo Fisichella Renault 5 Accident

FASTEST LAP Michael Schumacher 1'21.858

LEADERS Fernando Alonso 46 (9-23,25-42,50-62) Kimi Raikkonen 8 (1-8) Jeson Button 5 (24,43-46) Michael Schumacher 3 (47-49)

POINTSCORE Alonso 36 Trulli 18 Fisichella 10 M.Schumacher 10 R.Schumacher 9 Coulthard 9 Barrichello 8 Montoya 8 Raikkonen 7 Webber 7 Heidfeld 7 Button 6 Wurz 5 Sato 4 De la Rosa 4 Klien 3 Villeneuve 3 Massa 2

Renault 46 Toyota 27 McLaren-Mercedes 24 Ferrari 18 Williams-BMW 14 Red Bull-Cosworth 12 BAR-Honda 10 Sauber-Ferrari 5

Sam Snape