The 2006 Season Review - Part Three 30 Oct 2006
Mechanical maladies help take title fight down to the wire
The Italian Grand Prix is always a hotbed of gossip and politics, but this year things were heightened by the expected announcement that Michael Schumacher would be retiring and that his place at Ferrari would be taken by McLarens Kimi Raikkonen. But long before that event there would be further controversy.
Having sustained a puncture in the third and final part of Monza qualifying, Fernando Alonso limped back to the pits. There his Renaults aerodynamics were found to be badly compromised by diffuser damage, but he then did an out lap that many deemed to be the lap of the year, and just scraped through to his hot lap with two seconds to spare before the chequered flag. His subsequent time put him fifth on the grid, until the stewards received a report that during his out lap, fast as it was, he had impeded Ferraris Felipe Massa in the Parabolica.
A new rule had been introduced earlier in the year after drivers such as David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve and Giancarlo Fisichella had all blocked other drivers hot laps while doing their own slow-down laps, and after reviewing all the evidence the stewards had little option but to apply the same penalty they had to others previously. Alonsos three best qualifying laps were thus taken away and he dropped from fifth to 10th on a circuit where Renault strongly believed they had the pace to win.
Schumacher ran away with the race once earlier leader Raikkonen had refuelled, but Alonso retired when his engine, most unusually, cried enough. The emotional Spaniard had already spoken out against his penalty, and now saw his championship lead slashed further, to only two points.
Schumachers post-race retirement announcement duly tweaked everything up another notch, amid speculation that Ferrari had given him a take it or leave it option when signing Raikkonen, and unnoticed in all the hoopla, Red Bull dropped Christian Klien in favour of Dutchman Robert Doornbos for the final three races, prior to Williams Mark Webber joining David Coulthard for 2007.
Now things really had reached fever pitch in the championship and when Schumacher benefited from a poor tyre decision by Alonso in China, after the Spaniard appeared to be running away with the race in wet conditions until a set of replacement front tyres took ages to bed in, they headed for Japan literally neck and neck, each with 116 points, but with Schumacher having seven wins to Alonsos six.
Having been stunned by Ferrari and Bridgestone in Suzuka qualifying, Renault and Michelin hit back in the race when the two rivals were evenly matched. Then Schumacher suffered that rarest of all phenomena: a blown Ferrari engine, and suddenly it seemed all over. With 10 points more than the German, all Alonso needed was an eighth place finish in Brazil to retain his crown. In the end he finished second to Massa, as Schumacher fought like a hero to recover from a tenth-place start and then a puncture to snatch fourth and bow out with dignity. The result meant Alonso, already the sports youngest champion, became its youngest double champion, with Renault also retaining the much-prized constructors crown.
In Part Four - Massa pips Fisichella, BMW battle it out with Toyota, Midland become Spyker MF1 and more
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