30 July 2006
Germany 2006: Schumacher shrinks points gap.
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.
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