Bahrain 2006: Alonso triumphs in desert duel
12 March 2006
Fernando Alonso got his Formula One world title defence off to the perfect start with ten points from the opening round of 2006 in Bahrain, but the Spaniard had to overcome the threat of a rejuvenated Ferrari team to take top honours.
As had been predicted from the moment that tyre stops were reintroduced to Formula One, the 'pass' came in pit-lane, but that unfairly obscures the efforts of both Alonso and his Renault crew, as well as those in vain from Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, that made the race a nail-biter.
Aware that no polesitter had been beaten at the Sakhir circuit, Schumacher started strongly, making the perfect getaway to leave no-one in any doubt who would be leading through turn one. Behind him, new team-mate Felipe Massa dutifully moved to slot in to second spot, only to make a second distinctive move across the track to block the fast-starting Alonso, who had followed the Brazilian through from fourth place.
Starting alongside the reigning world champion, Jenson Button made a poor getaway, holding up those immediately behind him, and eventually finding himself passed not only by Alonso, but also by Juan Montoya and Honda team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
Schumacher pulled away immediately, opening up a 1.4secs gap on his nearest challenger by the end of the first lap, although the margin probably reflected the fact that Alonso had made short work of Massa and was now into second spot. Behind the sixth-placed Button, Giancarlo Fisichella headed Mark Webber, Christian Klien and David Coulthard, the Italian's qualifying problem seemingly cured by a wholesale change of electronics.
Further back, however, things were not quite so clear cut, with an incident at the tight first corner catching both Nick Heidfeld and rookie Nico Rosberg out. The BMW Sauber driver was another to make a poor getaway and, finding himself on the inside line, came to a virtual standstill as the 22-car field funnelled around turn one. Rosberg was also trapped on the same line, and could not his Williams slowed sufficiently to avoid contact with the BMW, losing his nose and spinning into the bargain. Tiago Monteiro, meanwhile, started from pit-lane after struggling with driveshaft problems on his way to the grid, and brought up the rear for the opening lap.
The Portuguese wasn't last for long, however, as both Rosberg and the second Midland entry of Christijan Albers headed for the pits at the end of lap one. While the German returned to the fray, however, Albers was not so fortunate, Midland's grand prix debut getting off to a disappointing start.
Although several drivers looked racy in the early going, few made up as much ground as McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen. Confined to the last row of the grid after breaking his suspension in the new-look qualifying session, the Finn made short work of the Super Aguri twins immediately ahead of him, and continued to pick off the midfield at random, to be lying in twelfth spot by lap four, a gain of ten places. He then got caught up behind a stubborn Jacques Villeneuve, which slowed his progress slightly, and allowed those already in the points positions to make gains of their own.
The two Honda drivers appeared intent on limiting their advantage, however, with Button and Barrichello passing and re-passing on successive laps in the early going, before the Briton eventually seized the initiative and set off in pursuit of Montoya. Barrichello, meanwhile, saw his Honda debut go from bad to worse, as third gear soon went AWOL and restricted the Brazilian to an ignominious slide down the order to an eventual 15th place finish.
The incidents continued to flow, with Massa ending his hopes of challenging for a podium by spinning while attempting to re-pass Alonso. In truth, the Brazilian was never close enough to challenge the Renault man, but had his 248 swap ends under braking at turn one, narrowly missing the nose of his quarry as Alonso turned in. The incident - and Massa's ensuing need to change a badly flat-spotted tyre - freed the Spaniard of pressure, however, allowing him to begin inching towards Schumacher, who was by now several seconds up the road.
The key to the race now appeared to be on the relative fuel loads chosen by the two leading teams, and the respective pace of R26 and 248. Many suspected that Ferrari had opted to run both its men light in qualifying in an order to get to the front, while Renault was thought to have gone the opposite route, fielding the heaviest cars in the timed session in order to be able to run longer on race day. The number of laps between Schumacher's stop and Alonso's would therefore be indicative of the likelihood of competition between the two world champions.
Schumacher finally relinquished the lead on lap 15, Ferrari turning him around in 8.2secs and returning him to the fray in fourth spot behind Alonso, Button and Montoya. As had been predicted, it was four laps later that the Renault peeled off but, despite a fractionally quicker service, Alonso was only able to rejoin in third, as Montoya assumed control.
Raikkonen was now up to sixth, benefiting from the rash of early stoppers ahead of him in the midfield, and clearly heading towards a one-stop strategy having taken advantage of the 2006 rules that allow all those outside the top ten qualifiers to add as much or as little fuel as they like ahead of the race. His progress on what was now known to be a brimming tank was all the more impressive, and underlined the sort of performance being shown by the McLaren late in winter testing.
Team-mate Montoya wasn't quite showing the same potential, but held the lead of the race until lap 23, when an 8.8secs stop allowed him to return in front of Button, forcing the Button to reprise his stalking of the Colombian, eventually leading to a replica pass into turn one to match the Briton's first attempt on lap eleven.
Approaching half-distance, only Raikkonen, Coulthard and rookie Scott Speed had not stopped for tyres and fuel but, while the tactic appeared to be helping the Finn, the two red Bull-backed drivers were not getting quite as much fortune. Neither had the pace to match the McLaren, despite rumours that Toro Rosso's V10s would provide an unfair advantage for the former Minardi team. Speed was never able to match team-mate Tonio Liuzzi, but both were able to pass those around them on the grid at will on the straights.
Coulthard, meanwhile, found himself going wheel-to-wheel with the recovering Heidfeld, with both drivers taking turns to go beyond the kerbs in an effort to keep their foot in. When the Scot returned from his single stop, he again found himself in competition with the BMW Sauber, but managed to hold Heidfeld off, albeit at the cost of a flat-spot on his new rubber that eventually led to increasingly bad visibility problems and a slide to tenth in the closing stages.
Already out by that stage was Fisichella, whose engine problems had returned before lap five, leaving him unable to defend his own position, let alone attack those ahead of him. Hydraulic failure eventually robbed the luckless Italian of any forward momentum on lap 23, and he crawled home a frustrated man. Villeneuve joined him on the sidelines not long afterwards, BMW's debut going up in smoke just as it looked like points may be possible. The Canadian was holding his own on the fringes of the top eight when the P86 unit let go in the biggest possible fashion, with flames licking around the engine bay as JV climbed out.
The dual exit left two spots in the top eight up for grabs, although there were clearly certain teams not in contention for points this time around. Among them, Monteiro continued to show admirable consistency for Midland, while Super Aguri robbed itself of a double finish with a moment of pure comedy approaching mid-distance.
As Alonso peeled off to make his first stop, he was confronted by the sight of both SA05s heading for pit-lane together. Newcomer Yuji Ide had already had to serve a drive-thru penalty after his crew remained on the grid fractionally too long ahead of the start, but was destined for more misfortune when he was sent on his way without any fuel having been delivered to his car first time around. One lap later, the FNippon graduate headed back in for more, only to find team-mate Takuma Sato coming in as scheduled.
Ide was shunted aside while Sato was serviced, promptly stalling the SA05 in the process. Just as he thought he may be fired back up and refuelled, however, Ide found that Sato had also failed to take on fuel from what was plainly a faulty rig, and had to sit in the garage while the problem was sorted. Nine laps were lost before he could resume, but the Japanese was not destined to go much further, and eventually retired with 22 laps still to run. Sato went on to finish as last classified runner, four laps down in 18th.
Turning early disappointment into motivation for his subsequent performance, Rosberg was gradually making his way back up the order. Despite still having to make both his planned fuel stops, the GP2 champion was back into eleventh spot by lap 23, and soon after set his first fastest lap in F1. That was no fluke either, and a couple more followed, and would have left the rookie with something to show for his afternoon had it not been for the fact that he soon found himself in the hunt for points.
Although his second stop undid a little of the work carried out mid-race, Rosberg continued to be one of the most rapid men on track, claiming Coulthard's scalp on lap 49 to move into the points and then hunting down the second Red Bull of Klien to make sure of his place in history with an eventual seventh place. With team-mate Mark Webber largely anonymous on his run to sixth spot, it was definitely the German who stole the headlines at Williams.
Rosberg aside, the finishing order was largely set in stone by halfway, with Schumacher and Alonso out front, and Raikkonen, Button and Montoya squabbling over the final podium spot - early season reliability permitting. Contrary to expectations, however, the rate of attrition remained low, with just four retirements, allowing the battles to go all the way to the wire.
Having disposed of Montoya for a second time between pit-stops, Button was bale to assume fourth place on the Colombian's second temporary departure, and soon closed on Raikkonen, whose single stop was good enough to keep him in third spot. Although he got close, however, the Honda driver was never close enough to make a pass on the Finn, and had to settle for safe points rather than a return to the rostrum.
The battle for top spot was equally - if not more - enthralling, even if a pass for position was never likely to take place on track. Instead, it came down to what each driver could do on the laps they had 'alone' on track, and that decision eventually went the way of the youngest world champion.
Having stalked Schumacher for 39 laps, Alonso made his final stop for fuel and tyres knowing that he ought to be stationary for less time than his Ferrari rival. The difference in the end was a second - the same as it would be at the flag - but Alonso had to fight for the victory, emerging from pit-lane just as Schumacher passed the exit point.
The pair entered turn one side-by-side, with Alonso, crucially, on the inside. Refusing to be intimidated by Schumacher's reputation, the Spaniard held his nerve, rebuffing the German's attempted re-pass at turn two, before pulling out a vital gap. Only an apparent inability to use the brakes quite as firmly as the Ferrari man gave Schumacher hope in the closing stages, but it was never enough to retake the lead as Alonso maintained a comfort zone between them.
A successful debut for Formula One's new V8 era then, enlivened by passing in a year when many feared a return to 2004. In those days, Schumacher and Ferrari were rampant. This time around, with Renault, Honda and McLaren for company, the season looks a whole more interesting.