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2006 Race by Race - Part One 14 Dec 2006

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 12 March 2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26 passes Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 248 F1 to lead the race and take the win.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 12 March 2006 Christian Klien (AUT) Red Bull Racing RB2 crashes out of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, 2 April 2006 Toyota celebrates third position for Ralf Schumacher (GER) Toyota.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, 2 April 2006 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari celebrates his pole position.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 11 March 2006

The Bahrain, Malaysian and Australian Grands Prix

From the epic duel between Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher at Sakhir, to a third consecutive victory for Renault in Melbourne, we look back at the first three rounds of 2006...

Round One - Bahrain - 12 March
Fernando Alonso
Pole: Michael Schumacher
Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne meant that Bahrain had the privilege of hosting the opening round of the 2006 FIA Formula One World Championship. The new season brought with it a new V8 engine formula, a brand new team in the shape of Super Aguri, new drivers and a new and highly-anticipated knockout qualifying format.

That format immediately lived up to its promise, producing a thrilling qualifying session, which had drivers, engineers and fans alike on their toes for the entire hour. It got off to a spectacular start when McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen crashed out without even setting a time, the luckless Finn demoted to the back of the grid by a faulty suspension component. Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher was the other high-profile driver knocked out in the first 15 minutes. He simply wasn’t quick enough, and when team mate Jarno Trulli failed to move through to the top-ten shootout, it was already looking like a bad weekend for the Japanese team.

As expected Ferrari, Renault, and Honda each got both their cars into the final ten, along with Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren, Christian Klien’s Red Bull, Mark Webber’s Williams and Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber. Less expected was the all-Ferrari front row, with Michael Schumacher’s new team mate Felipe Massa very nearly beating the former champion to pole position. It was Schumacher’s 65th P1 grid slot, which not only equalled the late Ayrton Senna’s record, but also proved that Ferrari and Bridgestone were very much back in the game. Either that or their pre-season test in Bahrain had given them the edge on their rivals.

The race quickly developed into a tense duel between new champion and old. Fernando Alonso passed Massa to move into second on lap one and then hounded Schumacher until his second stop. He emerged from the pit lane less than a car length ahead of the Ferrari, but with the inside line into Turn 1. Schumacher tried to muscle his way around the outside, but the Spaniard refused to yield and from there the race was his to control. Behind them Raikkonen put in the drive of the day to come from 22nd and last on the grid to clinch the final podium slot, closely followed by Jenson Button who proved that Honda’s pre-season testing pace had been genuine.

Williams, now on Bridgestone rubber and with Cosworth power, had a highly encouraging afternoon, with Webber sixth, behind Montoya, and new team mate Nico Rosberg seventh ahead of Klien. Rosberg was the talk of the paddock, pulling off several strong passing moves en route to two points and the fastest race lap on his Grand Prix debut.

Takuma Sato’s 18th and last-placed finish was enough for Super Aguri to celebrate, but there was less to smile about at Toyota. The team were left baffled and shocked by the TF106’s lack of pace, which left Ralf Schumacher and Trulli battling with the likes of Toro Rosso and Midland as they finished 14th and 16th respectively.

With Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Honda all looking competitive, it was the ideal start to the 2006 season, promising a hard-fought campaign ahead for both drivers’ and constructors’ crowns.

Round Two - Malaysia - 19 March
Giancarlo Fisichella
Pole: Giancarlo Fisichella
Fastest Lap: Fernando Alonso
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

It is often said that if there is some bad luck to be had at Renault, it normally falls in Giancarlo Fisichella’s direction. However, Malaysia was one of those rare weekends when everything went right for the Italian. From pole position he controlled the race throughout the afternoon and beat team mate Alonso fair and square to take his first win since Australia 2005. Button trailed the Renaults home in third, securing Honda’s first podium of the season.

Qualifying was a rather inconclusive affair. Not only was it hard to guess who was running what fuel load - Alonso’s session was actually compromised by a refuelling error which forced the team to alter their intended strategy - it was also hard to guess the final grid, with engine-change penalties for five drivers (Michael and Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa) leading to general confusion as to who would start where. One thing was clear - it was not a good Saturday for Ferrari.

Alonso started Sunday’s race seventh, but such was his pace that he was able to grab second place from Button at his final pit stop. Montoya enjoyed an uneventful drive to fourth place - up one on his grid spot - but McLaren team mate Raikkonen went out on lap one following contact with the Red Bull of Klien.

Arguably the biggest story of the race was Ferrari. Michael Schumacher - on a two-stop strategy - fought his way up to sixth, having started 14th, but was upstaged by new team mate Massa, who came home half a second ahead of the German thanks to a charging, one-stop drive from 21st on the grid. That performance was almost matched by Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher, who started last and finished eighth, less than a second down on the seventh-placed BMW Sauber of Jacques Villeneuve.

Round Three - Australia - 2 April
Fernando Alonso
Pole: Jenson Button
Fastest Lap: Kimi Raikkonen
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

With its later calendar slot, conditions in Melbourne were slightly cooler than usual. However, few could have predicted just how big a role low temperatures – and in particular low tyre temperatures - would play. A damp Albert Park circuit greeted the drivers for practice on Saturday morning and it allowed BMW Sauber to shine with a one-two for Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve, giving notice of the impressive form that would lead the team to an eight-point haul in Sunday’s race. Toro Rosso’s third place in the same session was also a sign of things to come, but one that would have far more controversial implications.

The circuit had dried in time for qualifying, but grip was still at a premium. Rubens Barrichello failed to make it past phase one for Honda, and a bad day for Brazilian drivers got worse when Ferrari’s Massa crashed out of phase two without setting a time. Team mate Michael Schumacher also missed the cut for the top-ten shoot out, which comprised two cars apiece for Renault, McLaren, Toyota and BMW Sauber, plus Button’s Honda and the Williams of local hero Mark Webber. In the end it was Button who emerged ahead of the two blue cars after a near perfect lap which clinched his third pole position of his Formula One career. Trulli failed to set a time thanks to gearbox problems, while Villeneuve’s ninth place translated to 19th on the grid thanks to an engine-change penalty.

Come the race and drama struck from the outset. Desperate to get some much-needed heat into his tyres, Juan Pablo Montoya managed to spin his McLaren as he approached the grid. The field streamed past, but the Colombian was saved by Fisichella’s misfortune. The luckless Italian’s car stalled on the front row, prompting another formation lap, and handing Button an unchallenged run into Turn One at the start. Chaos quickly ensued behind, however, as Massa tangled with the Red Bull of Klien. The Ferrari went into the wall and out of the race, claiming the innocent Rosberg in the process. A separate incident claimed Trulli’s Toyota as he made contact with Coulthard’s Red Bull. The safety car was deployed for what would be the first of four visits from Bernd Maylander’s silver Mercedes that afternoon.

By the restart it was clear that Button was struggling for grip as the heat ebbed away from his Michelin tyres. Alonso took full advantage and powered into the lead at Turn One, signalling the start of another imperious performance from the world champion. Button dropped another place to Raikkonen in near identical fashion at the second restart, which followed another safety-car period triggered by Klien crashing his damaged RB2 out of contention. Pit stops saw Raikkonen and, briefly, Webber take the lead, but once the Australian pulled off with gearbox woes, it was pretty clear the race belonged to Alonso.

Michael Schumacher brought out the safety car for a third time on lap 33. In his pursuit of the struggling Button, he ran out of grip in the final corner and understeered onto the grass, where the bumps launched his Ferrari into the wall. Such was Schumacher’s disgust with himself that he stormed into the Toyota garage, rather than his own, by mistake. The debris was quickly cleared, but no sooner was the safety car in, it was back out again, this time following a heavy crash for Toro Rosso’s Vitantonio Liuzzi, who claimed he had been edged on to the grass by Villeneuve - a claim Villeneuve and the race stewards subsequently disagreed with.

Racing resumed for the last time on lap 41, with Alonso leading from Raikkonen and Ralf Schumacher, whose drive for Toyota was all the more impressive given it included a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane. Those would be the podium positions, but there was still drama to come. Montoya almost repeated Michael’s accident, but as he rode over the bumps his McLaren decided to shut itself down. And Button looked set for a disappointing fifth place until the very last corner when his Honda engine let go in spectacular fashion. That moved Toro Rosso’s Scott Speed up to eighth, handing the American his first Formula One point. He soon lost it, however, when stewards subsequently added 25 seconds to his race time for passing under yellow flags.

The numerous safety-car periods masked a highly dominant performance from Alonso, despite his crossing the line only 1.8 seconds ahead of Raikkonen. Ralf Schumacher’s third was evidence of a major revival in Toyota’s form, while fourth for Heidfeld and sixth for Villeneuve showed that BMW Sauber were quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Click here for Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six.