Japan 2006: Alonso inherits reversal of fortune
8 October 2006
Fernando Alonso's championship chances received a massive boost at Suzuka, not only with victory in the Japanese Grand Prix but also with main rival Michael Schumacher retiring from the race while comfortably in front.
The German's smoky exit 16 laps from home was the one major talking point in a race largely devoid of excitement but, ironically, has had the opposite effect on the title race, by leaving Alonso in need of a single point in Brazil to put the crown out of reach. Up until that point, the Renault driver had been in damage limitation mode and appeared to be headed for Interlagos needing to score three points more than his rival.
Unable to gift his team-mate the lead as the lights went out, the race began with pole man Felipe Massa heading the field into turn one while Schumacher slotted in behind to keep the Toyota of brother Ralf at bay. Alonso, meanwhile, was already on the move, vaulting past Jarno Trulli for fourth at the opening corner, while team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella lost out to Honda's Jenson Button as the odd-numbered starting positions proved more beneficial.
With Alonso looking feisty, Ferrari wasted little time in getting Schumacher to the front, Massa appearing to slow in pre-determined fashion as the field crossed the start-finish line at the end of lap two. Once clear of his team-mate, the German edged away, but it was noticeable, even in the early stages, that Bridgestone did not appear to have the same sort of advantage over Michelin as had been the case in qualifying.
Schumacher's cause was helped, inadvertently, by his younger brother, who managed to frustrate Alonso through the early stages. While the Spaniard looked for a way past the lighter Toyota, the two Ferraris eked out a five-second gap. Alonso did little to help himself with a couple of lurid moments that allowed the second Toyota of Trulli to close in, but he was quickly back on Schumacher Jr's case, eventually passing the German for third at turn one on lap 13.
On that lap alone, the Renault managed to take six-tenths out of the leader's advantage, but the gap stabilised again as the pit-stops loomed. As expected, the Toyotas were among the first in, their qualifying performance confirmed as little more than a touch of showboating on Honda turf, but Massa, too, was an early caller, stopping on lap 13, along with Ralf Schumacher. Fisichella went just a lap more than the Brazilian, with Alonso in on lap 15, posing the question of just how much further could the leader run - and how impressive had his front row qualifying effort been.
As it turned out, Schumacher went another two laps into the race before making his first stop - only Kimi Raikkonen, from eleventh on the grid and therefore with free rein on strategy, went longer among the frontrunners - and was able to rejoin with his advantage over Alonso unchanged. With Raikkonen yet to stop and holding fourth, the Finn eventually called in on lap 22, to top order appeared positive for Ferrari, with Massa in third, and the two Toyotas ahead of Fisichella.
Button held the final points position, having ceded his gained place to Fisichella on lap five, while BMW Sauber completed the top ten, Nick Heidfeld ahead of Robert Kubica. Further back, Pedro de la Rosa continued to struggle in the second McLaren, mired in 13th behind the two Williams-Cosworths, while Scott Speed headed the now customary Red Bull train in 14th, having taken advantage of Toro Rosso team-mate Tonio Liuzzi's early spin to nip ahead of David Coulthard.
The train had been split into two two-car groups by the impressive Christijan Albers, who again pushed his Spyker higher than expected in the early stages. Once again, however, the Dutchman's efforts - and those of a fired-up Spyker MF1 team - came to nought, as a failure at the rear of the car caused a lot of damage under braking for the chicane on lap 21. Despite the amount of debris on the track, however, no safety car was called, allowing Schumacher to maintain his advantage over Alonso at around five seconds as the race headed for its halfway point.
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.