Australia 2006: Alonso's cruise among the chaos
2 April 2006
Fernando Alonso increased his world championship advantage with a second win of the year in Australia, but the real interest in the race was behind the runaway Spaniard.
While the Renault driver appeared able to pull away at will, having passed Jenson Button on the first of many restarts, the rest of the field seemed more willing to self-destruct as the event turned into something of a demolition derby.
The incident list began even before the lights went out, as Juan Montoya spun his McLaren-Mercedes as the field filed out of the final corner on the way to the grid. Stranded as the remaining cars avoided him, Montoya appeared destined to start from the back of the pack, rather than his earned fifth spot, but then received a reprieve when Giancarlo Fisichella stalled his Renault on the front row. Montoya was duly restored to fifth - or net fourth - as the field completed another parade lap, with Fisico pushed into pit-lane.
When the race finally started, polesitter Jenson Button came under the expected pressure from a fast-starting Fernando Alonso, but resisted the Spaniard through turns one to three, the Renault driver having already locked up at the first corner in an attempt to pass the Honda. A better attempt followed at three, but Button was wise to the outside line adopted by his rival and gently eased Alonso over the kerb in order to keep his place.
In their wake, the two McLarens showed just how flexible the Woking team is over the issue of team leadership, as Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen banged wheels and swapped places in search of the upper hand, while David Coulthard and Jarno Trulli got even closer, the Toyota spinning to a halt across the circuit following heavy contact between the two.
DC managed to continue, but the drama wasn't over for Red Bull Racing, as team-mate Christian Klien found himself involved in a first lap incident for the second successive race. Heading into one of the chicanes on the back side of the circuit, the Austrian made contact with Nico Rosberg's Williams and Felipe Massa's Ferrari, with the luckless Brazilian being fired into the wall - for the second time this weekend - and immediately out of the race. Rosberg, too, was wounded in the skirmish, returning to the Williams pit with his rear wing, and his race weekend, in tatters.
If Klien thought he had got away with his part in the incident, however, he had only to wait until lap five for retribution, the RB2 snapping viciously left under braking for turn nine, possibly the victim of suspension damage. Whatever the cause - and the Red Bull car bucked nastily over a bump before spearing into the wall - the outcome was a very damaged machine as it sustained at least two more impacts with the concrete before coming to rest.
Klien's off brought out the second safety car of the race, Bernd Maylander having only just parked the Mercedes back in pit-lane after the first lap debris-fest, but already the destiny of first place had been decided. Exiting the final corner ahead of the initial restart, Button's car refused to hold the road as intended, its tyres having cooled dramatically, allowing Alonso to get a run on him as he edged wide towards the grass. The Spaniard made no mistake into turn one this time around, having established track position as the cars flashed across the finish line.
Such was Button's loss of performance behind the safety car that the Honda also came under pressure from Raikkonen's McLaren but, again the Briton resisted. Montoya was less of a threat, having dropped back to sixth, behind Ralf Schumacher and Mark Webber, after a spin, but the Colombian was again on the rise, following Webber past the Toyota and then jumping the local favourite to re-establish himself in fourth spot.
The clear-up operation on Klien's car took three laps, enough for Button's car to drop away again ahead of the restart. This time it was Raikkonen's turn to take advantage, diving past the Briton at turn one, despite scrubbing his right-front under heavy braking. Button attempted to retaliate at turn three, but the Honda just wouldn't let him attack with any conviction, and another place was lost.
Alonso, meanwhile, was already away and gone, taking advantage of being able to pace the restart and opening a massive four seconds over his pursuers by the end of lap ten. Button was now coming under pressure from Montoya, while Webber and Ralf Schumacher held a watching brief in fifth and sixth, ahead of Nick Heidfeld's BMW and Michael Schumacher, who already appeared to be struggling with Ferrari's choice of hard Bridgestone rubber.
Looking back still further, former Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello's nightmare weekend was continuing, the Brazilian's Honda apparently unable to pass the second string Honda-powered entry of Takuma Sato, who had made a blinding start to lie 13th at the end of lap one. Despite running seconds slower than the rest of the field in qualifying, Taku manfully kept the SA05 ahead of Barrichello, as well as the recovering Coulthard and both Midland cars, with Fisichella slowly making up ground between them.
The Toro Rossos, who had battled with Midland in the opening two races, were showing much better this time, with Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed beginning to hound Schumacher Sr. Liuzzi showed a certain lack of respect for the seven-time champion by sticking his STR down the inside of the Ferrari for eight on lap eleven, while Speed closed in at a rate that suggested protests might be looming about the 'unfair' performance of the V10-powered team. Schumacher, however, refused to take the easy route, and would later admit that his place was under threat simply because of Ferrari's poor performance.
Speed's pressure lessened when he was caught and passed by the recovering Fisichella, and the advent of the pit-stops served to further shuffle the field. It was surprising, however, to see Montoya beginning the cycle, possibly because he was getting bottled up behind Button, but the tactic worked for the Colombian was ahead of the Honda when his rival emerged from his stop just a lap earlier.
With Fisichella joining Button in pit-lane on lap 17, suspicions that the front row pairing had been more lightly fuelled in qualifying played out, but Alonso and Raikkonen followed them in over the next two laps, suggesting that the difference may not have been as great as predicted.
With Raikkonen's tenure in the lead lasting just one tour, the local crowd got the sight it craved as Webber took over at the front. The Australian was thought to have gone to the line with more fuel than anyone in the top ten bar Trulli, who elected to add extra fuel to its allocation after retiring in part two of qualifying, and Schumacher, for whom Ferrari was able to adopt a free strategy after he failed to make the final cut.
Just how far Webber could have gone was never discovered, however, for the Williams driver enjoyed just three laps out front before grinding to halt with suspected gearbox failure. It was heart-braking for Webber, and his fans, and frustrating for Williams, which racked up its fourth retirement in two races.
Webber's exit promoted Alonso back into the lead, but now with a massive 15-second advantage over Raikkonen, such was the Renault's pace. The gap continued to grow too, as the Spaniard lapped at anything up to 1.5secs faster than the rest of the field through half distance.
With Alonso and Raikkonen seemingly locked into position, attention switched to those behind them, particularly Button, now down to fifth place having also lost out to Nick Heidfeld's BMW, and the chasing Michael Schumacher, who had taken advantage of a pit speed drive-thru for brother Ralf to move into sixth spot. Slightly happier with his Ferrari, and aware that Button was struggling - with what later turned out to be a badly grained tyre - the German was in hot pursuit. It was a ragged pursuit, however, with Schumacher taking to the grass more than once in his efforts to get on terms, and the string of 'moments' eventually got the better of him as the 248 caught a bump behind the kerb at the final corner, being flung into the wall and instant retirement.
Debris on the track again prompted a call for the pace car, cutting Alonso's advantage at a stroke. The Spaniard need not have worried, however, for Raikkonen used the reduced pace to stop for repairs, a damaged front wing endplate apparently the cause of his speed deficit to Alonso. Whatever the cause, McLaren appeared to forget to tell Montoya that his team-mate was heading in, and the Colombian's frustrating afternoon continued when he had to queue up for service behind Raikkonen. A sticky wheel change only compounded Montoya's misery, dropping the second McLaren to sixth, behind Button and Ralf, while Raikkonen resumed in third, and with only the still-to-pit Heidfeld between himself and the leader.
Of greater concern to Raikkonen, however, were the two Midland-Toyotas that Alonso had managed to lap before the advent of the safety car, and the Finn's fears were well-founded as the Renault streaked away at the restart, while the rest of the field was forced to wait for Monteiro and Albers to clear the start-finish line before making their move.
This time, however, the world champion's advantage was cut short, for Liuzzi's strong race came to a sudden end when the Toro Rosso driver found himself added to the list of casualties after a heavy brush with the wall. The safety car completed its walk-on part with a fourth call, albeit brief, while the field sorted itself out once again.
Alonso again made the most of running at the front to establish a cushion over his pursuers, coming round six seconds clear at the end of lap 41, with the rest of the points places seemingly settling down for the run to the flag. The Australian public - which again flocked to grand prix despite its proximity to the Commonwealth Games - was not be disappointed by the closing stages as two more potential point scorers saw their hopes dashed.
Montoya was the first to, his McLaren simply stopping after a rough trip over the same kerb that had accounted for Schumacher. Although JPM got away with a wild ride, catching the tankslapper that followed, it appears that the electrics took offence at his treatment of the car and sidelined him in front of the pit gantries.
The Colombian's demise confirmed Heidfeld in fourth place, pending another BMW failure, while Ralf Schumacher's afternoon looked set to result in a surprise podium for Toyota. It was behind the two Germans that gains were to be made, however, with Button moving up instead of down for once, and back into fifth place. The Briton was still struggling for pace, however, and now had Fisichella all over the back of the Honda, the pace car interventions having allowed the Italian to close in and reignite his desire, having lapped at anything up to two seconds a lap slower than his team-mate. Fisico claimed that understeer was making his car undriveable, but his pleas fell on deaf ears at Renault.
Jacques Villeneuve made it two BMWs in the top eight after a solid drive to overcome the engine change penalty that dropped him to 19th on the grid, while Barrichello's afternoon suddenly looked a little brighter, despite the Brazilian complaining again about the brakes on his RA106. Just outside the points, Speed was coming under pressure from Coulthard, the Scot being implored to make a move on his young American rival as Red Bull sensed a possible point on offer should another car hit trouble.
Despite fastest laps being set by both the front two in the closing stages, it appeared that Toro Rosso and RBR would have to settle for a near miss - until the crowd was treated to one last piece of drama. Coming through the final chicane, Button's tortured car finally decided that it had had enough, belching smoke and then flame in Fisichella's face. The Briton still appeared to make a bid to fight the Italian to the line, but his charge came up metres short, the Honda apparently calling it quits with the flag in touching distance. Only afterwards did it transpire that Button had been forced to abandon a clutch of points in order to avoid a ten-place grid penalty ahead of Imola....
It was a strange decision - and one not entirely welcomed by the driver, who stalked back into the garage - for Alonso extended his advantage over the field to 14 after taking victory. The margin is identical to the total having been accumulated by his nearest rivals, now Raikkonen and Fisichella, the Renault man repeating his three-race total from 2005.
There was further drama after the flag had fallen, as Speed was penalised for passing Coulthard in the midst of team-mate Liuzzi's accident. The move apparently came under yellow flags, and saw the pair reversed - much to the American's vocal displeasure.
Alonso's winning margin had been cut to just over a second by the Finn at the flag, but the ease with which Alonso pulled away will be a worry to the rest of the field as it heads into the three-week break prior to the start of the European season. Gratitude for action in the pack was widespread....