8 October 2006
Japan 2006: Alonso inherits reversal of fortune.
With the gap fluctuating only slightly as the lead pair negotiated traffic, it appeared that only a mechanical problem or incident in the pits was going to alter the order. This time around, Schumacher had just one lap in hand on Alonso, the pair stopping on laps 35 and 36 respectively but, already the odd tell-tale wisp of smoke could be seen emanating from the Ferrari. Again, Schumacher retained the lead as he rejoined, but his race was to go little further.
David Coulthard had already joined Albers in retirement by the time Schumacher's engine let go, the German coasting into retirement at the back of the circuit just two laps after his stop. Taking time to wave to the Japanese fans that had dogged his every step during the weekend, the look on Schumacher's face reflected not just his last grand prix at Suzuka, but also, possibly, the end his title aspirations. All Alonso had to do to gain the championship advantage was finish in the points and, thanks to a combination of his driving, Renault's pit-work and better-than-expected rubber from Michelin, he stood a great chance of maximising the opportunity with ten.
Webber added to the casualty list after a heavy impact with the wall entering the start-finish straight, but the Australian was never a threat to the new leader. In fact, few were, with Massa, now in second, over ten seconds adrift of the Renault. Raikkonen briefly held third spot, but still had to make his second stop, which allowed Fisichella and Button to move up a place, with the McLaren slotting back in ahead of the Toyotas, whose performance dropped away over the course of the race.
With the anticipated climax - both to the race and, possibly, the championship - having had the wind taken out of its sails somewhat, the only 'excitement' over the closing stages were spins for Speed and Sakon Yamamoto and the inter-necine battle between BMW colleagues Heidfeld and Kubica for the final point. After his disappointment at losing fourth in China a week ago, the German was not to be denied this time, holding on to eighth by just 0.9secs after the team gave both drivers free rein to race each other.
Kubica was the last of the unlapped runners, heading home Nico Rosberg, unable to make anything of his top ten grid slot, and Rubens Barrichello, who race was ruined by a first lap skirmish with Heidfeld that cost him his front wing. Confined to the back of the field after an early pit-stop, the Brazilian set about putting miles on the latest spec Honda engine, but will be hoping that he has now used up all of his bad luck before his home race in two weeks' time.
Despite Schumacher's retirement at Suzuka, both championship remain up for grabs at the season finale, although Alonso only needs to keep out of trouble - and pray for reliability - to confirm himself as a two-time champion. After its 1-3 result in Japan, Renault now holds a more comfortable nine-point advantage over Ferrari, allowing Alonso and Fisichella to finish 3-4 behind the red cars and still take the crown.
Further intrigue comes from the fact that Massa will surely want to win on home ground, while Schumacher will want to go out on a high, the crucial fact being that the German now has to win - and hope that Alonso fails to score - to have any hope of heading into retirement as an eight-time champion.
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