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2006 Race by Race - Part Four 20 Dec 2006

Race winner Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 248 F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Race, Magny-Cours, France, 16 July 2006 Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Super Aguri F1 SA06.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, German Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Hockenheim, Germany, 29 July 2006 Upright wings on the BMW Sauber F1.06.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Preparations, Magny-Cours, France, 13 July 2006 Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, United States Grand Prix, Race, Indianapolis, USA, 2 July 2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Practice Day, Magny-Cours, France, 14 July 2006

The United States, French and German Grands Prix

From Ferrari’s revived title chances to Renault’s diminishing championship lead, we look back at rounds 10 to 12 of the 2006 season. Among the key moments - Toro Rosso's maiden point; Juan Pablo Montoya's departure from McLaren; BMW Sauber's controversial vertical nose fins; Renault's mass damper affair and the debut of Super Aguri's Sakon Yamamoto.

Round 10 - USA - 2 July
Winner:
Michael Schumacher
Pole: Michael Schumacher
Fastest Lap: Michael Schumacher
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

After the fiasco that was the 2005 US Grand Prix, American fans were looking forward to a more spectacular show at Indianapolis - and that’s exactly what they got - perhaps a bit too spectacular in fact. As the two Ferraris streaked away into the lead, chaos ensued in the midfield, two incidents accounting for seven retirements on the very first lap.

The first saw Juan Pablo Montoya tag the back of McLaren team mate Kimi Raikkonen and then hit Jenson Button’s Honda. Button in turn struck Nick Heidfeld, sending the German’s BMW Sauber into a dramatic series of barrel rolls, from which he fortunately escaped unscathed. Behind them Mark Webber, Scott Speed, Christian Klien and Franck Montagny got together, with the result that the track looked like the venue for a demolition derby. Particularly painful for the fans was that Speed, the first American to start a US Grand Prix since Eddie Cheever in Phoenix in 1989, went only a few hundred yards.

When the safety car finally departed, Ferrari continued where they had left off in practice and qualifying, with Michael Schumacher in dominant form. Many had expected Michelin to play things conservatively after the 2005 debacle. In truth, Bridgestone’s advantage wasn’t huge, but it was decisive. It helped Ferrari to a comfortable one-two, with pole man Schumacher scoring his first win in five races.

The best Renault could muster was a distant third for Giancarlo Fisichella, the Italian for once outgunning team mate Alonso. The world champion had a miserable weekend, never entirely happy with the set-up of his R25, and came away with just four points after finishing fifth behind Jarno Trulli’s Toyota. Rubens Barrichello took sixth for Honda, while David Coulthard was seventh for Red Bull after withstanding some pretty intense pressure from unexpected quarters - Tonio Liuzzi in the sister Toro Rosso, who brought the Italian squad their maiden point with eighth place.

Round 11 - France - 16 July
Winner:
Michael Schumacher
Pole: Michael Schumacher
Fastest Lap: Michael Schumacher
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

There were a number of surprises at Magny-Cours, the main one being Ferrari’s second successive victory. Many had assumed that the red cars’ triumph at Indy had been down in large part to conservative Michelin compounds. However, Schumacher’s comfortable defeat of Alonso on Renault’s home soil proved that both Ferrari and Bridgestone had made genuine and significant progress. Alonso’s race was an exercise in damage limitation. Knowing he had no chance of beating Schumacher, a clever two-stop strategy allowed the Spaniard to at least split the Ferraris. But with team mate Fisichella able to finish no higher than sixth, it was clear that Renault were suddenly playing catch-up, bringing the championship very much alive.

The surprise as the teams arrived in the French paddock was the absence of one Montoya. Having announced days earlier that he would be moving to NASCAR in 2007, the Colombian and his McLaren team quickly came to an ‘agreement’ that saw him immediately replaced in the cockpit by test driver Pedro de la Rosa. The veteran super-sub acquitted himself well, qualifying eighth, finishing seventh and setting the third-fastest lap of the race behind the two Ferraris.

There were more shocked expressions at the start of practice on Friday morning as BMW Sauber took to the circuit with what looked like a large pair of rabbit ears sprouting from the middle of the F1.06’s nosecone. The 40cm-high vertical fins seemed to give the team a boost - they were top in all three practice sessions - but seemed less effective in qualifying and the race, the German squad coming away with just a single point for Heidfeld’s eighth place.

Amendments to the qualifying session introduced in Magny-Cours saw Q3 cut to 15 rather than 20 minutes. Toyota used them to good effect, putting Trulli and Ralf Schumacher fourth and fifth on the grid, with Schumacher going on to an encouraging fourth place in the race, ahead of McLaren’s Raikkonen. In contrast, Honda and Williams had miserable weekends, the former recording a double DNF and the latter suffering temperature control issues with their rear tyres.

Round 12 - Germany - 30 July
Winner:
Michael Schumacher
Pole:Kimi Raikkonen
Fastest Lap: Michael Schumacher
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

Mass dampers were the talk of the Hockenheim paddock, or more specifically the stewards’ refusal to deem them illegal. The FIA had earlier declared them unacceptable on the grounds of being a moveable device that could influence aerodynamic performance. It led to the bizarre situation of the sport’s governing body appealing its own stewards’ decision. Renault, the team at the centre of the controversy, chose not to run them anyway, just in case the FIA should later win out. The question then was what impact the dampers’ removal would have on their car’s performance, given that they were a fundamental part of the R26’s design?

The answer never really became clear. Yes, Renault had a poor weekend, soundly beaten by Ferrari, McLaren and Honda, but blistering rear Michelins seemed to be a large part of the problem. Once again it was Bridgestone who to had upper hand in the tyre war, helping Ferrari to a dominant one-two, with Michael Schumacher leading Massa home in close formation. Raikkonen had stolen pole position for McLaren, but didn’t quite have the pace or the strategy to beat the red cars. Nevertheless, his podium finish was proof of real progress on Mercedes’ home soil. Honda too came away pleased after Button qualified and finished fourth - ahead of the two Renaults of Alonso and Fisichella. Toyota also got both cars home in the points, with Trulli and Ralf Schumacher sandwiching the seventh-placed Red Bull of Klien.

Ferrari’s third successive victory - coupled with Renault’s poor showing - threw the constructors’ championship wide open, narrowing the gap between the rival teams to just ten points. Further down the order there was disappointment for BMW Sauber and Midland. BMW saw team mates Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve clash on the first lap. Damage led to Heidfeld’s retirement and Villeneuve then crashed out of what would prove to be his last appearance for the team. Midland, by contrast, got two cars home, but then had both disqualified for excessive flex in their rear wings. The team also had the unfamiliar experience of seeing their two drivers separated on the grid by a Super Aguri, Takuma Sato using the new SA06 machine to full effect in qualifying. Super Aguri also debuted a new Japanese driver. Sakon Yamamoto qualified 21st but then retired just one lap into his debut race with a driveshaft failure.

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