Italy 2006: Schumacher rides emotion to 90th win
10 September 2006
Michael Schumacher suffered the highs and lows of motorsport life in one afternoon at Monza as, having racked up his 90th race win in front of the adoring tifosi at Monza, he announced that the time had come to bow out of Formula One.
Even after the stewards had intervened to increase the gap between Schumacher and title rival Fernando Alonso at the start, penalising the Spaniard for allegedly blocking Ferrari's Felipe Massa during qualifying, the afternoon still revolved around the pair, despite the fact that they never ran together on track during the 53 laps.
At the front, Schumacher duelled for victory with McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen - the man widely expected to fill the German's seat at Ferrari next season - while, further back, Alonso had to battle his way through traffic and appeared poised to limit his losses with a podium place - only for his engine to expire in front of his rival's fans.
While Raikkonen got the better start to lead into the first chicane, Schumacher almost lost out to the fast-starting Nick Heidfeld, the BMW Sauber driver ahead into the corner, but backing off enough to allow Schumacher back through. While Heidfeld subsequently fell back through the order on the opening laps, however, new team-mate Robert Kubica was going the opposite way. Taking advantage of the German's loss of momentum, he ended the lap in third place, having started sixth, and would run at the head of the chasing pack almost throughout.
Raikkonen continued to lead Schumacher to the first round of pit-stops, the gap between them fluctuating around a second or two, but the die was cast when McLaren called its man in first. Schumacher had a lap more to make good his advantage and, when both cars were back on track, it was the Ferrari which was ahead. From thee, Schumacher wasn't headed, although Raikkonen kept him honest through the second round of stops, before easing back at the end to ensure he took second place.
Behind them, Alonso was up to seventh at the start, taking advantage of team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella's politeness at the opening corner, but soon found himself stuck behind Jenson Button's Honda. The Briton was happy to have qualified on the third row but both he and team-mate Rubens Barrichello complained of a lack of straight-line speed, having had to revert to their Turkey-spec engines when the 2008 unit failed to live up to expectation on Friday.
Alonso remained mired behind the Honda until the first round of pit-stops, but a quick turnaround from the Renault crew ensured that he was ahead by the mid-point. The order was confused by the split in strategies between the one- and two-stoppers, with Fisichella and Barrichello heading the former in making up ground. Heidfeld was among those making a couple of stops, and regained a couple of places - at the expense of Alonso and Button during his first. Unfortunately, he had done it by exceeding the speed limit and had to make an extra unscheduled call that dropped him out of the reckoning.
By the time the strategies converged, with less than a third of the race remaining, Schumacher and Raikkonen continued to run well ahead of their pursuers, now headed by Alonso after the Renault crew got him out ahead of Kubica. The pair pitted at exactly the same time, and with the R26 on the tail of the BMW Sauber, but exited side-by-side as the Swiss/German team released its charge into the path of the accelerating Alonso. With a wide pit exit, the Spaniard was able to nose ahead and, in a mood not to be messed with, secured third spot by the chicane.
The pit-stop had also got Alonso ahead of Massa, the second Ferrari unable to run at the same pace as its sister after dropping behind Kubica at the start. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, however, his determination to make up as much ground as possible eventually paid its price. Heading past the pits for the 44th time, the first wisps of smoke quickly became an eruption, with oil and debris quickly being thrown from the rear of the pale blue machine. The only consolation for Alonso and Renault will be that the failure removed the questions of 'what if?' had the points difference to Schumacher been affected merely by the penalty the Spaniard claimed had made him decide that F1 was 'no longer a sport'.
Alonso's exit largely removed the last vestige of interest in the race, as Schumacher cruised to victory and Raikkonen likewise to second spot. Having survived the Spaniard's cloudburst despite running under his rear wing at the time of explosion, Kubica had a similarly easy run to the flag, as Massa, trailing the pair of them, locked up into the chicane and stripped a tread from his right-front Bridgestone, forcing him into an unscheduled pit-stop that dropped him out of the points. Although he battled back up to Heidfeld's tail, the Brazilian was destined to go home empty-handed.
With one man apiece rendered scoreless, it was left to Fisichella to limit Ferrari's gain, and the Italian drove a sensible event to convert a one-stop strategy into fourth spot from ninth on the grid. Although generally quiet on the day, Fisichella managed to keep the damage to five points, enough for the Scuderia to head to China leading the constructors' championship for the first time, but only by three markers.
Fisichella's afternoon only got some added spice in the closing when he came under pressure from Button's Honda. The Briton had reported improved handling in the latter stages, and was right on Fisichella's rear wing as they sprinted for the flag, missing out by just 0.6secs. The second Honda, of Barrichello, came home sixth after running a similar gameplan to Fisichella, but was nearly ten seconds adrift of his team-mate as he completed a satisfactory end to a tough weekend for the Brackley concern.
The final points were also being fought over to the line, with Heidfeld and Massa harrying Jarno Trulli throughout the closing stages. Although Toyota team-mate Ralf Schumacher was anonymous on the day his brothers called time on his career, Trulli made the most of a one-stopper to move quietly into the top eight and take home a couple of points, while Heidfeld held Massa at bay across the line.
Mark Webber managed to get his Williams home for a rare finish, the last unlapped runner on a day when the Grove team's reliability gremlins struck young team-mate Nico Rosberg. The German was the first of five retirements on the day, reporting a lack of drive after several trips across the rough Monza kerbs.
He was followed to the sidelines by Super Aguri's Sakon Yamamoto, whose hydraulics let him down, Pedro de la Rosa, due to engine failure, Alonso and Tiago Monteiro, who gave the rechristened Spyker MF1 team an introduction to the downside of grand prix racing by pulling up with the sort of brake problem that no driver wants at Monza, in particular.
The race, and Kubica's momentous podium debut, were overshadowed by events before and after, with Schumacher betraying a few hints of the announcement to come as he soaked up the adulation and atmosphere having crossed the line. A slow walk across the pit-lane to hug his crew and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo - who rarely visits Monza on race day - and a prolonged salute to the tifosi from the circuit's unique podium suggested that there was more to come. Monday's 'papers will confirm that there was.