Italian Grand Prix: Schumacher's crucial victory gives him edge in title race

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher took a huge step closer to his dream of recording a sixth Formula 1 World Championship title by winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, despite race-long pressure from the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya

Italian Grand Prix: Schumacher's crucial victory gives him edge in title race

Montoya made a brave bid to take the lead on the opening lap, with a sensational round-the-outside attempt at the Roggia chicane, but Schumacher just fended him off on the exit and kept his lead.

"It was tight," said Schumacher. "Already at the first corner I had a lock-up and almost didn't make the chicane. I had the option to go straight on, but I got through it although I almost lost a position. Juan came on the outside and we had a nice fight through the next two corners. It was very hard but very fair, I think what people wanted to see. In the end I won the fight and it was vital to win the race."

Montoya said: "Michael went for the inside and I went for the outside. He braked a lot earlier than me so I made a lot of ground, but when I came out of the chicane I was a lot tighter than him to make sure I didn't hit him. He had better acceleration."

The Colombian then fell back slightly over the first stint, and was 4.9s behind when the German pitted on lap 16. Montoya stayed out two laps longer, with his mechanics making a slight change to the front wing on his stop.

Montoya was happier with his second set of tyres, and began to relentlessly close in on Schumacher, until they were split by just a second after the final round of stops.

The Colombian's charge faltered on on lap 39, when the pair came up to lap Hainz-Harald Frenten (Sauber). Schumacher quickly passed the German, but Montoya was found himself stuck behind the Sauber for nearly half a lap, losing over a second in the process.

This seemed to dampen the Colombian's enthusiasm somewhat, and he slowly dropped back from Schumacher, allowing the world champion to back off in the closing laps and cruise to victory.

"The second stint wasn't as good for us, but better for Juan," admitted Schumacher. "I had already opened up a bit of a gap, and then Juan chose to come in early to use the opportunity of a couple of laps to get in front of me, but in the last laps of the stint I was able to maintain the lead."

Montoya admitted that he settled for second after getting stuck behind a second slow backmarker. "In the last stint, we were pretty close, but twice I lost a lot of time in traffic. After the Jordan [Fisichella], I decided to pace myself to get to the end. But it would have been very hard to pass Michael anyway."

Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) also had to withstand his fair share of pressure on the way to third. He was passed by the fast-starting Renault of Jarno Trulli into the first chicane, although regained third when the Italian dropped out with a hydraulic problem on the opening lap.

The Brazilian kept pace with the lead duo through his opening stint, and it looked for a while as if he might aid his team-mate by challenging Montoya. Unfortunately for Rubens, his second set of tyres upset his car's balance, and over the stint he dropped away from the leaders.

This put him into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren), who ran consistently in his MP4-17D, although he couldn't match the pace of the leaders. Raikkonen emerged from the final pit stop just a second behind Barrichello, but could never quite get close enough to make a move in the closing laps - despite some help when Frentzen baulked Barrichello for half a lap, much to the Brazilian's chagrin.

"My first set of tyres was the best," said Barrichello. "I had a little too much understeer early on and I also lost time with Trulli, and almost crashed into him when he slowed down suddenly with his problem. Then I was running quite fast, but since the second set I wasn't so competitive and had problems with the rear tyres."

Marc Gene came home fifth in his surprise outing for Williams. The Spaniard looked somewhat uncomfortable in the early stages, dropping back from the leaders as a large train of cars formed behind him. But he improved throughout the race, and come the final stint he was consistently the fastest runner on the track.

This closed him right onto the back of David Coulthard (McLaren). The Scot had spent much of the race closely trailing his team-mate Raikkonen, again running at a consistent if unspectacular pace. Sadly, an intriguing fight between the two ended when Coulthard coasted to a halt on the finish straight with engine problems on lap 45.

This promoted Jacques Villeneuve to sixth. The Canadian trailed Toyota's Olivier Panis in the opening stint, but quick pit work by his BAR team jumped him ahead of the Frenchman at the first stops. He was then aided when brake failure accounted for Panis, while BAR team-mate Jenson Button, who had harried Villeneuve for much of the race, dropped out when his gearbox lost several cogs.

Panis' retirement ended a promising day for Toyota, with Cristiano da Matta forced out of the race on lap four when his left rear tyre blew dramatically heading into the Parabolica.

Frentzen dropped out of seventh late in the race with a transmission problem, allowing Mark Webber to score two more points for Jaguar.

Hungary race winner Fernando Alonso (Renault) came home eighth after an eventful race, which began when he took the term 'flying start' all too literally. Starting from the back of the grid, the Spaniard was forced to swerve to avoid the stalled Jaguar of Justin Wilson, putting him on a collision course with Jos Verstappen's Minardi. Alonso was pitched up and over the Minardi, but was able to continue without too much delay.

Alonso then added to his dramas by running heavily over the chicane on lap 17, causing bits of his bits of his car's underside to fly loose. However, he was able to continue on to grab the valuable final point on offer.

Schumacher's 50th win for Ferrari provided some welcome relief to the Italian team following its dismal showing in Hungary three weeks ago. But with Montoya just three points back with two races to go, the championship battle is still very much alive.

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