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Germany 2006: Schumacher shrinks points gap

30 July 2006


Michael Schumacher closed the world championship gap to just eleven points by inflicting another crushing defeat on his rivals, this time on home soil at Hockenheim.

With Felipe Massa the only driver to be able to live with the seven-time world champion's pace, Ferrari eased to its second 1-2 in three races, putting Schumacher firmly back in the hunt for another crown, now lying just over a win behind a lacklustre Fernando Alonso. Once Kimi Raikkonen's under-fuelled McLaren peeled off on lap ten, Ferrari had the race in the bag, with the real interest being on who would join Schumacher and Massa on the podium.

Going to the grid, there was the suggestion that McLaren's 'aggressive strategy' had actually been forced upon the Woking team by a faulty fuel rig, which delivered less than expected in the final phase of qualifying and allowed Raikkonen to set his stunning pole time. The downside, however, would be that the Finn would have to lap at a similar pace throughout his opening stint if he was to make starting ahead of the Ferraris count for anything.

Raikkonen made the necessary getaway and easily led Schumacher and Massa into turn one, with the real action taking place in their wake, as Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello finding their Hondas being passed by the two Renaults, Button falling two places to the blue machines.

Although turn one did not provide its traditional first lap incident, the crowd did not have to wait long, as the field decided to come together at the 'new' hairpin. While Button wasted no time in regaining one place from Alonso with a clean move into the tight right-hander, Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard came together, the impact launching the Scot momentarily into the air. There was also contact between the two BMW Saubers, resulting in both having to pit at the end of the lap, Jacques Villeneuve with a damaged wing and Nick Heidfeld with a rear puncture.

Even before the white machines had limped in for attention, however, the race recorded its first retirement, Nico Rosberg misjudging a passing move on the entry to the stadium and slamming into the barriers. Heidfeld would soon join his fellow German on the sidelines, the tyre problem having caused more damage than initially suspected, while Sakon Yamamoto's Super Aguri debut reprised that of predecessor Franck Montagny in last but a handful of laps, the Japanese succumbing to a broken driveshaft after starting from pit-lane.

Pedro de la Rosa made it four early exits, as his McLaren ground to a halt on lap three, but team-mate Raikkonen was still in front, albeit heading a Ferrari 2-3 as the rest of the field faded into the distance. In their wake, however, Button showed the improved performance of his Honda by passing Fisichella to reclaim fourth and head the pursuing pack.

Raikkonen had built up a three-second advantage over Schumacher by lap eight, but had only two more tours to go before being forced in for fuel. To make matters worse for the Finn, a sticky right rear wheel nut delayed his exit from the pits to 15.2secs, dropping the McLaren to eighth and casting some doubt over its podium potential.

Raikkonen and McLaren would have been surprised to see no-one else stopping as early as they did, with everyone else opting for a two-stop strategy. Six laps passed before the next 'frontrunner' stopped, with Button calling in to the Honda garage, but, with Ferrari easing away at the front, the two different gameplans at least promised to add some intrigue to the afternoon.

Massa was the first Scuderia runner to call in, stopping on lap 19, one ahead of Schumacher, but both returned to the track in the same position as they had left it, setting the tone for the rest of the day. And any hope Renault may have had of having qualified with more juice on board evaporated when Fisichella and Alonso mirrored Massa and Schumacher in the timing of their stops.

The surprise of the race to this point was Mark Webber, the Williams driver rising as high as third during the pit-stops, having previously jumped into the points from the start. By the time the Australian pitted, it was lap 28 and Raikkonen was planning his second stop of the afternoon. Webber dropped to fifth after his stop, but remained firmly in the mix for a possible podium, with Button and Raikkonen, as Renault struggled to make any impression on the top three.

While Mercedes had its hopes pinned solely on Raikkonen and his unique strategy, BMW was already licking its wounds by one half-distance, Villeneuve having followed Rosberg into the wall in the stadium section, albeit entering the main straight, suggesting suspension failure. The German drivers, Schumacher Sr aside, were also struggling and Ralf Schumacher's day got worse, with a drive-thru' penalty following an early stop to investigate possible damage from his clash with DC on lap one. The German would go on to make four stops in all, leaving him eleven seconds out of the points by the end.

Webber moved back into podium contention by passing Fisichella on lap 39 - a move unthinkable in recent races - and was soon threatening Button as Williams finally got a handle on its Bridgestone rubber. Back up to third when the Briton made his final stop, Webber dropped to sixth when he called in, and appeared on course for a solid points finish before his now customary ill-luck struck again, this time reducing the FW28 to a crawl just nine laps from home.

Raikkonen and Button remained as the Australian's biggest rivals before his retirement, and their respective strategies meant that they were battling for position despite not being close on the road until the latter stages. Button held the upper hand after his second and Raikkonen's third call for fuel, but the Finn had the greater pace, particularly after the Honda developed graining, and was able to sweep past the Briton - aptly in front of the Mercedes grandstand - on lap 57.

Neither Renault was a podium prospect, with Fisichella and Alonso running most of the afternoon in fifth and sixth, although the Spaniard threatened to drop out of the top eight altogether at one point. Once the final round of pit-stops had shaken out, however, the world champion emerged ahead of his team-mate - a shrewd tactical move if, indeed, that was the case - but almost threw it away with a wild grassy moment entering the stadium section that threatened to allow not only Fisichella, but also the closely-following Jarno Trulli through.

The Toyota driver had made great gains after his enforced back row start, reprising his USGP run but having to settle for seventh as Alonso grasstracked his way back onto the tarmac and team-mate Fisichella played the perfect rear-gunner role to keep his fellow countryman at bay. Webber's untimely exit, meanwhile, allowed the under-fire Christian Klien to inherit the final points spot, having seen off Ralf Schumacher, Red Bull team-mate Coulthard and STR's Tonio Liuzzi along the way.

Such was the gap between second and third, Ferrari was able to relax its pace in the closing stages, allowing Schumacher Jr to unlap himself and become the last runner on the same lap as his brother, who cruised imperiously towards a fourth German GP victory. Behind the Toyota, Liuzzi put Red Bull loyalties behind him as he slammed past a slowing Coulthard into the Mercedes complex for tenth, while STR team-mate Scott Speed claimed sandwiched the veteran in twelfth, despite a bumpy entrance to the stadium section on lap 45.

That off, to add to his qualifying shunt on Saturday, appeared to have set Speed behind Christijan Albers, but the Midland team didn't have the pace to keep the V10-powered STRs at bay, leaving Albers to head team-mate Monteiro home in 13th and 14th as the final classified finishers.

Schumacher and Massa arrived in parc ferme some while before Raikkonen completed the podium party, giving the German the chance to soak up the adulation of the fans, and reflect on the fact that an eighth world title may now be more of a possibility. With Alonso salvaging fifth, the points gap tumbled to eleven with six races remaining. More importantly, however, the Spaniard can no longer rely on finishing second to the Ferrari, as he could when the season returned to Europe.

Game on!


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