Race analysis - not all bad for Renault 02 Oct 2006
You might have a job persuading Renault that they came out well from China, when Fernando Alonso lost what at one stage seemed a sure-fire victory. But second and third places, allied to Felipe Massas non-finish for Ferrari, put the blue team back on top of the constructors championship points table by a point from Ferrari, 179 to 178.
It was, however, a disappointing day. Alonso roared away when the track was at its wettest in the early stages, but needed then to change the front Michelins in his pit stop. The failure of the tyres to come on quickly enough as the level of dampness decreased was a key factor in Giancarlo Fisichella and Michael Schumacher hauling him in and eventually overtaking, after which Renault pulled Alonso in early, on lap 35, to switch to dries. That should have helped, but when the right rear wheel nut fell out of the securing gun he lost a further 13 seconds. Alonso said afterwards that this did not really affect his race and that the loss due to the tyre problem was the worst aspect, but it surely didnt help.
On the positive side, Renault go to Japan feeling upbeat, after demonstrating that they had the quickest car in China, wet or dry. Chief engineer Pat Symonds admitted to frustration that the luck was again not with them, but added: We now go to the final races with renewed confidence. Today showed that the Renault is the fastest car out there. We fully intend to make use of it in the final two races of what is proving to be a thrilling title showdown.
At Ferrari, Schumachers win was the source of massive celebration, and they are equally convinced that they are on target for his eighth title. The underlying feeling in the red camp is one almost of disbelief at how they have turned things around since the despair of Montreal, and the combination of Michaels driving and Bridgestones that performed an awful lot better in race conditions than they could in qualifying, ultimately proved crucial.
The hair on the cake here was that Felipe Massa was unable to score after a great recovery drive from the back of the grid following his practice engine change. Unfortunately, his challenge for at least one point ended when he got on to a wet patch trying to out-brake David Coulthard going into the last corner, and ended up damaging his suspension after sliding into the Scots Red Bull.
Honda started third and fourth and finished fourth and sixth for a haul of eight more points. Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello fought pretty much the whole way , the Brazilian hampered by understeer after an early brush with Nick Heidfelds BMW Sauber, the Englishman plagued by poor early-race handling.
There was to be no repeat of Hungary for the latter, but after his first stop he was in his element and caught and passed Barrichello in traffic on the final lap, before catching a delayed Heidfeld unawares too to snatch fourth. Barrichello said his RA106 was better on its intermediates than the dries he fitted later on, and struck Heidfeld in the final corner melee.
In the end all McLaren took home from China was four points from Pedro de la Rosas slightly fortuitous fifth place, but having worked up to second, catching Alonso slightly, Kimi Raikkonen was convinced he could have won. Unfortunately his engines throttle mechanism failed, putting the engine into safety mode and neutral. This is a team desperate to get a victory on the board before the end of 2006, so watch out for them in both Japan and Brazil. They could be the spoilers in the championship fight.
BMW Sauber were set for a strong fourth courtesy of Heidfeld, and he described the race as the most disappointing of his career afterwards. He was baulked on the final lap by Christijan Albers Spyker and then Takuma Satos Super Aguri, which let Button pull off his bit of opportunism and set up the unfortunate German for assault by Barrichello. Robert Kubica, meanwhile, was up to fifth place before half distance despite a brief bump from Robert Doornboss Red Bull, but then lost any chances of a good finish by gambling too much on the change to dry tyres. After another stop to go back to intermediates he matched the pace of Fisichella, Schumacher and Alonso but dropped down to a 13th-place finish. BMW did increase their advantage over Toyota in the battle for fifth place overall, however.
A point for Williams was a much-needed fillip, after Mark Webber drove strongly and aggressively in the FW28, and survived one quick spin. Nico Rosberg was trapped in traffic for much of his race, but both care proved reliable, which was further cause for satisfaction.
There wasnt much of that at Red Bull, where Coulthards brush with Massa damaged his steering and ultimately cost him the final point just as it seemed a long run on worn intermediates would reap a decent reward. Doornboss first run for the team saw him make contact with Kubica on the opening lap, necessitating a stop for a new nose, but after that he passed 11 cars and enjoyed himself en route to 12th, right behind Rosberg and Tonio Liuzzi. Liuzzi appeared to be blown off by Toro Rosso team mate Scott Speed until it became clear he was on a single-stop strategy. He also timed his stop for dry tyres perfectly, but had lost too much time running with high fuel to be able to challenge for the final point and only just kept Rosberg and Doornbos at bay to the flag. Speed brought his STR01 home 15th.
Super Aguri were very happy with a two-car finish as Takuma Sato took 14th and Sakon Yamamoto brought his SA06 home to his first Grand Prix finish. The former experienced a small gearbox related problem which the team were able to rectify quickly, but there was subsequently no cure for the stewards decision to disqualify him for racing cars that were trying to lap him, and helping to trigger the last-lap incident.
Spyker were also punished for Albers part in that, the Dutchman getting 25 seconds added to his race time. He had struggled for grip in the early stages, while team mate Tiago Monteiro enjoyed a good dice with Rosberg and Liuzzi early on, timed his switch to dries well, but then failed to finish a race for the first time through a mistake of his own by spinning and stalling in the treacherous Turn 1 after 38 laps.
Finally, the race proved a disaster for Toyota, with neither Jarno Trulli nor Ralf Schumacher featuring at all before retiring with loss of pneumatic and oil pressure respectively. It was small consolation that Ralf twice set the fastest lap as the conditions improved towards the end, before Alonso hit his stride.
With Suzuka following hard on the heels of Shanghai next weekend, and nothing to choose between Renault and Ferrari, Schumacher or Alonso, the final pair of races will be gripping.