Much hope and expectation rested upon Ferraris' shoulders as the F1 circus headed for the sponsors' dream venue - Monte Carlo. With three wins in a row under his belt few would have betted against another Michael Schumacher triumph on a circuit where he has dominated so many times before.
Early indications from the first practice and qualifying sessions reinforced the expectation that there would be little to stop a Ferrari walkover.
It came as a surprise, therefore, during final qualifying, when the two F2003-GAs, despite looking good on the track, languished down in fifth and seventh places. The long faces amongst the Ferrari crew clearly indicated that this was not a fuel-related result. The impossibility of overtaking on this perplexing circuit makes a good grid position essential. It is not easy to win this race from the third or fourth row.
The early part of the race saw a surprising turn of speed from the two Williams. Pole-sitter Ralf Schumacher led away from teammate Montoya, Raikkonen and Trulli before we then saw the first Ferrari, that of Michael Schumacher. Rubens languished down in 8th place.
All eyes were on the first pit stops, which would give an indication of the fuel strategy for each team. In the event the Williams came in on laps 21 and 23, the McLarens on laps 25 and 27 and the Ferraris on 29 and 31, indicating that everyone was running a two-stop race.
A few blindingly quick laps from Michael had enabled him to leapfrog brother Ralf and Trulli during the first round of stops and he rejoined in third place behind the leading Montoya and Raikkonen. But then began a very poor middle stint for the Ferraris with Michael sometimes two seconds a lap slower than the leading duo. Even the normally guarded Ferrari PR-speak let it shine through that the Bridgestone tyres were not a match for the Michelins of the Williams and Mclaren teams.
The second round of pit stops brought no change at the front. Montoya kept a narrow advantage over Raikkonen, who was clearly not going to take any undue risks and spoil his Championship lead. There was much at stake for Montoya, who from being the shining star of 2002 has since been cruelly overshadowed by even younger newcomers like Raikkonen and Alonso. This was a win he clearly needed and wanted and Raikkonen must have sensed that he was not going to be parted from it come what may.
In the closing laps Michael Schumacher began to edge up on the leaders but there was no prospect of improving on his position unless someone in front made an error. His gloomy face at the podium ceremony said it all. Rubens, with an apparently healthy car, rounded off a disappointing weekend by finishing 8th, which was one position lower than he started from.
True to form there was not a single passing manoeuvre throughout the
entire race, other than at the start, but no doubt everyone on the yachts,
the balconies and the paddock clubs went home happy, having had a nice
weekend in the sun. Roll on real racing again!
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