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Race analysis - luck deserts Ferrari 09 Oct 2006

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates winning the Japanese Grand Prix.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2006 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren Mercedes MP4/21.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2006 Race winner Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates with the team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2006 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari on the drivers parade.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2006 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Honda RA106.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Qualifying Day Suzuka, Japan, 7 October 2006

Just when it seemed that Ferrari and Bridgestone had Renault and Michelin on the ropes, and were well on their way to the world championship titles, an engine failure turned everything upside down and Renault left Japan with their tail up and the drivers’ crown all but in the bag. And their second double podium finish in seven days, and first victory since Canada in June, boosted their lead in the constructors’ fight to nine points over the reds.

After Ferrari’s performance in qualifying nobody gave the Michelin runners a chance in the race, but that proved misleading. Once the tyres had temperature, the Michelins were pretty good after all. Good enough, in fact, that once he had dumped the two Toyotas Alonso was able to run on the pace of the Ferraris and to set the race’s fastest lap on lap 14 (1m 32.676s). That compared with Schumacher’s best of 1m 32.792s on lap 32, five before his engine broke.

In addition, Giancarlo Fisichella put in a strong drive to third after also battling past the Toyotas, Raikkonen’s McLaren and Button’s Honda, so that Renault took home 16 points to the eight Ferrari netted for Felipe Massa’s second place.

A Ferrari engine failure is rarer than teeth on a hen, but so is a Renault breakage, yet we saw one at Monza. This time it was the Scuderia’s turn. Nothing more to be said. Then there was Massa’s slow puncture, which obliged Ferrari to bring him in three laps earlier, on the 13th, than the planned strategy. That let Alonso jump him after his pit stop, and cost Ferrari their second shot at victory.

The victory came as a massive relief for Renault, after their lengthy drought, and means that Alonso only needs an eighth place finish in Brazil. Quite remarkable, given the supremacy Ferrari demonstrated for two-thirds of a gripping weekend.

For Honda, Japan was almost a carbon copy of China, with Jenson Button taking fourth and Rubens Barrichello fighting back after a first-lap brush with Nick Heidfeld necessitated a stop for a new front wing. The result continued the team's run of consecutive points finishes, Button taking his sixth in succession. Only Michael Schumacher has scored more points than Button since Hockenheim.

Interestingly, the RA106 was good enough for fifth fastest lap in 1m 33.451s, which put it in the same territory as Massa (1m 33.296s), Raikkonen (1m 33.344s), Robert Kubica (1m 33.509s), Fisichella (1m 33.564s), Ralf Schumacher (1m 33.607s) and Jarno Trulli (1m 33.866s).

Raikkonen drove a hard race for McLaren, but the team rued their choice of Michelin’s softer tyre. Like Renault and Honda, the silver cars were better over long runs, but still lacked the pace to challenge for the win that had been possible in China.

Toyota team principal Tsutomu Tomita made no bones about the team’s performance in finishing sixth and seventh, describing it as “hugely disappointing” because the target had been a podium finish. But it could have been worse. Schumacher Jnr and Trulli only narrowly avoided colliding in the first corner. The Italian moved ahead in the first stops, but later complained of an unidentified problem that ended in both cars being delayed, since Schumacher could not find way past his team mate.

Only Heidfeld’s eighth place finish and the point it earned kept BMW Sauber ahead of Toyota in the fight for fifth overall. This time the F1.06 did not seem competitive, at least until the race. But where Heidfeld struggled with graining on Michelin’s softer tyre, Robert Kubica on the harder option was able to regain 10 seconds he lost in a dusty moment at Degner 2 and set the sixth-fastest lap as a signal that the car wasn’t that bad after all.

For both Toyota and BMW Sauber, Brazil will be a critical race.

Nico Rosberg was the best hope for Williams in the race, finishing 10th after a pushy drive. Mark Webber complained of massive power understeer, and eventually couldn’t get it back after getting two inches off the road in the chicane, where he crashed heavily after 39 laps.

Red Bull had another miserable race, though their two RB2s were embroiled in a great scrap for 14th with the Toro Rossos and Christijan Albers’ Spyker MF1. David Coulthard had to retire when he lost fourth gear, while team mate Robert Doornbos ended up ‘winning’ the quintet scrap by finishing 13th. Tonio Liuzzi had a brush with Webber on the opening lap that upset the handling of his STR01, spun through 360 degrees exiting the chicane on lap three because of a graining problem and lost four places, and then fought back for the rest of the afternoon and finished 14th. Speed had the upper hand on all of them for some time, but dropped it at Degner and eventually retired with power steering failure.

Super Aguri were delighted to bring both SA06s to the finish in front of the huge crowd - most of whom seemed to be wearing team gear. But Spyker MF1 had mixed fortunes. Albers’ strong run ended spectacularly on the 20th lap when his rear suspension broke in an explosion of parts that tore off the rear wing. The Dutchman was very lucky the incident happened exiting the chicane, where he could pull his three-wheeler straight into the pits. Had it happened round the back of the pits the accident could have been a lot worse. Tiago Monteiro’s crew changed him from a single-stop strategy to a two-stopper as the race progressed, but tyre and balance problems prevented him really getting up with the fight in which his team mate was embroiled.

If the drivers’ world championship is all but settled, the constructors’ is wide open at the top, and poised critically lower down. There is still plenty to play for as Brazil brings a great season to a conclusion.