As a motor racing fan looking for entertainment the Italian Grand Prix was a horror show of the problematic 2005 regulations. In the end Juan Pablo Montoya won, having never really been pushed, but he bravely drove the final laps with a failing left-rear tyre at speeds of over 350 kph.
Championship hopeful Kimi Raikkonen’s story was one of a promising race compromised by the tedious and questionable rules. An engine problem in practice relegated Raikkonen, the rightful pole sitter, to eleventh. Refuelling strategies and the aerodynamics of the cars held him back there until lap 14. And the ‘no tyre change’ rules kept him from ever tackling the leading trio.
Despite the worries of a first-corner pile up it was a surprisingly uniform start to the race – the ten pairs of cars motored down to the first chicane line abreast in almost perfect traction-controlled symmetry. Montoya led and maintained a two-second gap over Alonso. While Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello scampered past Jarno Trulli. Michael Schumacher did likewise but cut the chicane at turn two and relinquished the place a few laps later.
Raikkonen, running with eight laps more fuel than his team mate, sat back, saved fuel and let the race come to him. By lap 19 he had risen to sixth by dint of other people’s stops when his chase of Ralf Schumacher for fifth was interrupted by Fernando Alonso exiting the pits after a long 11-second stop. Alonso parried Raikkonen’s first attempt at turn two, but on the next lap they both out-braked each other at the first chicane, bouncing over the kerbs. Raikkonen finally nipped around the outside of Alonso at the next bend.
Having held out on his stop until lap 27, Raikkonen then took on board enough fuel to see him through to the finish. Alas, he came limping back into the pits almost straight away with a badly damaged left-rear tyre, the outermost groove clearly blackened and damaged. Having changed the tyre, he resumed the race stuck behind Villeneuve again.
This effectively destroyed the battle for the lead. Montoya and Alonso were into conservative mode, as was Giancarlo Fisichella who had risen from a poor qualifying position to third via the fuel strategies. Jenson Button’s early third-placed promise dissolved, while team-mate Sato was robbed by his pit crew, who misread a malfunctioning refuelling rig reading and erroneously believed they had failed to refuel his car, and called him in for an unnecessary second stop.
The worst befell the Ferraris, who suffered the indignity of slipping from sixth and seventh on the grid to tenth and twelfth at the flag. Barrichello, like Raikkonen, stopped for a replacement left-rear tyre and Schumacher had a late off-track excursion. For the first time since 1999 he is now mathematically out of the world championship battle.
If Montoya thought he had it all wrapped up with a few laps to go, he reckoned without his McLaren’s repeated reliability problems as his left-rear tyre developed the same problem as Raikkonen’s. With shades of the European Grand Prix he held on for the final few laps but, unlike his team mate, made it to the flag unscathed. Alonso was unable to overhaul the ailing McLaren but eight points for second place gives him the chance to clinch the title in Belgium.
Raikkonen’s final ignominy was a self-induced spin at the second chicane on lap 43. This dropped him to fifth behind Jarno Trulli, but a smart move at the Parabolica meant he finished fourth, chasing down Fisichella for the last podium position, and amazingly only 22 seconds behind the winner. Ralf Schumacher in the second Toyota was sixth ahead of Antonio Pizzonia, standing in for Nick Heidfeld at Williams, and Button.
The Italian Grand Prix dealt another fatal blow to Raikkonen’s championship hopes, ironically on a weekend where speculation was rife about the Finn’s move to Ferrari as a putative partner to Valentino Rossi in 2007. Spa-Francorchamps, the next venue, where he won brilliantly in 2004, may be a form track for Raikkonen, but he needs unprecedented unreliability for the Renaults to stand any chance of being champion now.