China 2006: Top Schuey!
1 October 2006
After two races without so much as a sniff of the points at the Shanghai International Circuit, Michael Schumacher finally found the fortune he was looking for as he won a race that really should have belonged to Renault.
Having been restricted to the outside of row three when rain in qualifying played into the hands of his Michelin-shod opponents, the German was able to turn the tables on race day, taking advantage of tyre-related dramas for main title rival Fernando Alonso to draw level at the head of the standings.
Alonso made the most of his pole position to romp away at the start of the race and, aided by obstinate team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, quickly stretched a sizeable lead over the rest of the field. That left the action to happen in his wake - at least until the first round of pit-stops - beginning at the very first turn, where Kimi Raikkonen took the outside line, despite the damp conditions, to dispose of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button surprised his team-mate by appearing down the inside to claim third.
Raikkonen then made short work of the second Honda to move into a podium position and, despite the suggestion that he was possibly the lightest of the leading runners, began to look like Alonso's biggest threat, particularly when he caught and passed Fisichella for second on lap 13.
True to form, the McLaren man was among the first to pit, but took on only fuel as the track continued to dry, hoping to take advantage of his wearing intermediate rubber. Whether he would have been able to do anything about Alonso remained undetermined, however, for, six laps later, the car was seen crawling to a halt, continuing Raikkonen's miserable reliability record.
Alonso, meanwhile, had stretched his lead to 13 seconds over his team-mate, and a whopping 25secs over Schumacher, who had received his first dose of fortune with the removal of one point-scoring rival. Even when the German was able to increase his pace as the conditions came to Ferrari, Alonso maintained a healthy advantage, and still had the cushion of having Fisichella between himself and his title rival.
Schumacher, however, was clearly best of the rest behind the Renaults, having disposed of both the Hondas in the space of five laps to move into third. Button continued to head Barrichello until lap 15, but was then struggling for grip, as his overheated rubber left the rear of the RA106 sliding. Pitting ahead of schedule allowed the Brazilian through to fourth, but his own scheduled stop - interestingly without a tyre change - saw Barrichello drop down the order too.
With a lot of the field looking to one stop to combat the changing conditions, lap 20 came and went with just four cars having pitted and, even then, Robert Doornbos' call had been necessitated by a first corner incident that cost the Dutchman his nose. Nick Heidfeld was making good progress in the best of the BMW Saubers, and was up to fourth, heading Mark Webber, Barrichello, team-mate Robert Kubica, Pedro de la Rosa, Felipe Massa and the recovering Button in the top ten. Raikkonen was the only casualty at this point, but the race had already seen its fair share of incident, with almost every driver finding the limits of adhesion, and some transgressing them.
Schumacher became the first of the frontrunners to pit, on lap 21, but followed Barrichello and Raikkonen's lead by taking on fuel only, despite - or more likely because - his rear Bridgestones already looking more like the slicks of old. The two Renaults followed over the next couple of laps, and this is when the race began to turn towards Maranello. Alonso was first in, with Renault opting to change the Spaniard's front tyres for a new set of inters, but, when Fisichella pitted from a short-held lead next time around, the team left his rubber alone.
Both blue cars got out ahead of Schumacher, but Alonso was almost immediately in trouble, unable to lap anywhere near his earlier pace. With both Fisichella and Schumacher able to run at anything up to four seconds a lap faster than him, the Spaniard was left to watch helplessly as his commanding lead was whittled away to nothing in just five laps, leaving Fisi to play the biggest rearguard role of the season.
Eventually, the situation became so bad that Renault decided to allow the Italian to take the lead for himself - having previously swapped positions with Alonso merely to keep the prowling Schumacher at bay. Once ahead of the Spaniard, Fisichella was able to pull away, now the man most likely to win the race, but Alonso was left to defend himself with no weapons in the armoury. When the Renault ran wide in turn two, Schumacher was quick to pounce, and was gifted immediate respite when Alonso's retaliation merely saw him slip further behind.
Fisichella's escape saw him quickly clock up the first 1min 41secs lap of the race convincing those on pit-wall that the time had arrived to try the move to 'slicks'. BMW Sauber had already experimented with the switch some eight laps earlier, but Robert Kubica's hapless performance on an out-lap that included two leery offs, was enough to discourage other foolhardy souls.
Nico Rosberg was the guinea pig second time around, but almost immediately started to set personal best times, prompting a flurry of activity beneath SIC's statuesque architecture. Button, Webber and Massa followed the young German in on the next lap but, when Alonso followed suit on lap 35, his race was undone for good, as a sticking right rear wheelnut cost him almost 20 additional seconds and left him with a mountain to climb if he was to overhaul Schumacher.
Even though Schumacher and Fisichella pitted a couple of laps apart, Renault's cause was hampered further when the Italian took a cautious approach to his out-lap. With his tyres already up to temperature after a tour of the SIC, Schumacher was already bearing down on Fisichella as the Renault exited the pits, and was ideally placed to take advantage when it ran wide in turn one. Fisichella caught the moment, almost turning back into Schumacher - who wisely took to the kerbs in avoidance - but the die was cast.
The German, supreme in tricky conditions at the best of times, eased away over the next few laps, but Alonso refused to give up easily. Now with his car handling to his liking, the Spaniard had the hammer down and, for the first time since the USGP in July, Renault appeared to have a performance advantage over Ferrari. Alonso was lapping at around a second a lap faster than the leader, but was still 19 seconds adrift with eleven laps remaining.
The gap was down to 13.7secs by the time the Spaniard caught and passed team-mate Fisichella on lap 48 of 56, and continued to come down as the race headed towards its still inevitable conclusion. Having grabbed everything that had come his way, however, Schumacher was in line for one last bit of good fortune. With two laps to run, and Alonso still just out of striking range, the rain that had blighted the entire Chinese GP weekend returned, but too late to make a difference to the result.
It was sufficient to shake-up the order behind the leading trio, however, with Heidfeld the man to miss out. The German had run fourth for the majority of the race, and was even up to third for a while as Alonso recovered from his lengthy stop, but it all went wrong at the penultimate corner. Jenson Button's move for position was a good one, the Briton capping his own comeback by passing de la Rosa and Barrichello in the space of a lap and then boxing Heidfeld in behind one of the lapped Super Aguris as they approached the turn 14 hairpin.
The Briton thus annexed fourth, but his team-mate got a little over-ambitious in trying to pass the BMW Sauber for fifth at the same corner. Braking on the damp tarmac offline, Rubens only succeeded in running into Heidfeld, dislodging his own nose in the process and delaying the German enough for de la Rosa to squeeze through. Barrichello crossed the line with his front wings in sixth place, with Heidfeld recovering with time in hand to fend off Mark Webber at the line, who scored Williams' first point since the Nurburgring in May.
David Coulthard had been in line to take eighth place for Red Bull, but a late-race collision with Massa left the Scot querying his steering. At the same turn 14 trap that caught the Brazilian out in similar fashion to Barrichello, DC ran wide enough to let 2007 RBR team-mate Webber up a place, and was left chasing the Australian to the flag. Massa, meanwhile, retired, his left front askew, joining Raikkonen, Tiago Monteiro and both Toyotas on the sidelines.
Massa's exit, coupled with Fisichella's podium closed the battle for third in the championship, allowing the Italian to take something away from an otherwise disappointing outcome. Two cars on the podium also allowed Renault to reclaim the advantage in the constructors' championship, but Alonso now shares top spot in the individual standings with nemesis Schumacher, and even has to give best to the German when it comes to countback, as Shanghai provided a seventh win of the year for the multiple champion.
Two races remain to settle the titles and, on first glance, would appear to favour Schumacher, as he ahs a good record at both Suzuka and Interlagos. However, Renault will have been encouraged by its pace relative to Ferrari in both wet and dry in China, and fans can rest assured that Flavio Briatore will not let the same mistakes happen again.