Runaway Renaults, wing & damper discord, Monaco mishaps
Hollywood scriptwriters couldnt have done better - a brilliant, at times almost unbelievable, rollercoaster of a screenplay in which Renaults Fernando Alonso beat Ferraris Michael Schumacher after a toe-to-toe fight over 18 thrilling races. But this was no movie - this was the 2006 FIA Formula One World Championship. Welcome to the first instalment of our four-part season review
Who would ever have thought, in the middle of the year in Canada where he won, that runaway championship leader Alonso would find his 25-point advantage over arch-rival Schumacher eroded steadily thereafter to the point where the German equalled his score with only two races left? Or that engine failure and a puncture would ultimately stymie Michael in Japan and Brazil just as an eighth title success seemed within his grasp?
Against a backdrop of the new 2.4 litre engines, knockout qualifying and the return of race tyre stops, Renault began the year strongly with the reigning champion winning in Bahrain, finishing second to team mate Giancarlo Fisichella in Malaysia, then winning again in Australia before Schumacher asserted Ferraris authority in Imola and Nurburgring. At both races Alonso had to settle for second, their Imola duel reversing the previous years positions.
Alonso and Renault then hit back with a dramatic run of four consecutive victories that had Ferrari wobbling, Alonso winning first at home in Spain, then in Monaco, Silverstone and Montreal. Schumacher, however, managed seconds at three of the four, and fifth in Monte Carlo where his reputation reached its nadir following his mysterious ploy of parking his Ferrari after he had apparently taken pole, thus thwarting Alonsos subsequent qualifying attempt.
The knockout qualifying system proved immensely popular; Schumachers tactic did not, as he parked his Ferrari within inches of the wall at Rascasse after supposedly losing control. It took the stewards a long time to deliberate, but their judgment signalled that new permanent steward Tony Scott Andrews was not a man to shy away from tough decisions. Schumacher joined team mate Felipe Massa (who had crashed) at the rear of the grid.
That unfortunate episode detracted from a great race drive by Schumacher from the back to fifth, but the irony was lost on nobody that, had he started even second on the grid, he would likely have won. His performance there lent credence to Ferraris later claim that, while they appeared to have made their big step forward in the US, they were actually pretty quick everywhere prior to that. Certainly in Canada they were very upset to under-perform relative to Renault.
Indianapolis nevertheless marked a turning point for Renault. In their final season in the sport, Michelin was unsurprisingly conservative in the US, the scene of the 2005 debacle. Bridgestone, however, had a great new tyre. As Renault struggled in qualifying, the Ferraris were dominant and after Massa had led away Schumacher took control after the first pit stops and won easily from his team mate. Fisichella was third, but Alonso was a weak fifth. When Ferrari won again at Magny-Cours, where many had expected Renault to resume normal service, the alarms bells were sounding in Enstone, especially as Alonso only got second from Massa through some nifty pit work by his team.
Hockenheim marked another appalling weekend for the champions. First their mass dampers were deemed illegal after an FIA reinterpretation of what was acceptable; the stewards ruled in Renaults favour on this, but the FIA declared their intention to appeal against their own stewards and Renault (wisely as it transpired) decided not to run with the dampers. Subsequently the ban was upheld after Hungary, where Renault abandoned them altogether.
This was the second technical drama of the year; previously Ferrari and BMW Sauber had been attacked for so-called flexible rear wings. There were several versions, some of which lent backwards slightly to reduce drag on the straights, others had flexible elements that effectively stalled the wing and reduced drag that way at maximum speed. The ruling on these was less clear-cut.
In Germany Schumacher made it a hat-trick as Alonso struggled home fifth again, his second bad result in three races, and now it was clear that Ferrari were indeed on the warpath as Renault faltered. Then, amid this fantastic battle, the summer brought an interlude in which two other drivers would score their maiden victories, both in dramatic, but fully deserved, fashion...
Click here to go to Part Two, Part Three or Part Four.