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2006 Race by Race - Part Six 22 Dec 2006

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26 repasses Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Renault R26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, 1 October 2006 Ferrari celebrate the final race for Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Brazil, 22 October 2006 A Spyker MF1 Racing M16 retires from the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Chinese Grand Prix, Race, Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, 1 October 2006 Race winner Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Brazil, 22 October 2006

The Chinese, Japanese and Brazilian Grands Prix

A look back at the final phase of this year's championship, rounds 16 to 18 - three races which saw Fernando Alonso clinch his second consecutive drivers’ title, Renault successfully defend their constructors’ crown, and Michael Schumacher’s final race.

Round 16 - China - 1 October
Michael Schumacher
Pole: Fernando Alonso
Fastest Lap: Fernando Alonso
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

With the fervour surrounding Michael Schumacher’s imminent retirement having subsided somewhat, Formula One was able to get to the business of racing in China - with the exception of Christian Klien that is, the Austrian having departed Red Bull by mutual consent to be replaced for the final three rounds by test driver and Minardi veteran Robert Doornbos.

Schumacher was to score an unexpected and, some might say, fortuitous victory in Shanghai. Indeed, luck did not seem to be on Ferrari’s side in the early part of the weekend. First came an engine-change penalty for Felipe Massa and then there was the weather - qualifying was run in very wet conditions and the team’s Bridgestone tyres were not happy. Schumacher ended up sixth, behind the two Renaults, the two Hondas and Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren, while Massa could muster no better than 13th.

Slightly more mixed conditions in the race, however, played into Schumacher’s hands. Fernando Alonso built up a huge advantage at the start, only to see it rapidly disappear again after a poor tyre choice at his first stop. The Spaniard was still set for victory until a sticking rear wheel nut cost him valuable seconds at his second stop. This, combined with a mistake from Giancarlo Fisichella, meant the two Renaults were powerless to do anything but trail the German home. Crucially, Schumacher’s win put him level on points with Alonso. With just two races to run, suddenly that eighth world title looked a genuine possibility. It wasn’t all good news for Ferrari though. After his dismal qualifying, a strong recovery drive from Massa came to nothing after a collision with David Coulthard’s Red Bull forced him into retirement.

There was last-lap drama in the battle for fourth place as Jenson Button caught Nick Heidfeld and trapped him behind Sato’s lapped Super Aguri. As the Honda driver ducked down the inside, team mate Rubens Barrichello hit the back of the BMW Sauber and spun it, damaging his own nose. Button thus grabbed an unexpected fourth, Pedro de la Rosa gratefully snatched fifth from Barrichello, and the unfortunate Heidfeld had to be content with seventh ahead of Mark Webber in the Williams. Sato was later disqualified for his role in the incident.

Round 17 - Japan - 8 October
Fernando Alonso
Pole: Felipe Massa
Fastest Lap: Fernando Alonso
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

With championship challengers Alonso and Schumacher level pegging on points, there was everything to play for as the paddock arrived in Suzuka for what was in many ways an emotional weekend - it would be the last Japanese Grand Prix for the foreseeable future at the legendary driver’s circuit, ahead of the event’s move to Fuji for 2007. The Bridgestone tyres seemed to have the edge on the Michelins during practice and in the final session on Saturday nobody could get close to the times Schumacher was clocking in the Ferrari.

As expected, the Ferraris dominated qualifying, but it was Massa who took pole, narrowly edging out Schumacher. The presence of the two Toyotas on the second row endorsed the superiority of Bridgestone’s tyre, but Alonso and Fisichella did well to take fifth and sixth, ahead of the two Hondas.

Although Ferrari started just where they wanted to, matters would be much different in the race itself and another easy one-two for the Italian team never materialised. After a great start, Schumacher lead the race for 36 dominant laps, but when, on the second Degner Curve, a plume of smoke erupted from the back of the Ferrari, the German’s dreams of an eighth title vanished. With Schumacher out, Alonso, who had taken second place from Massa during an unscheduled pit stop for the Brazilian to replace a punctured tyre, led the race to the finish line.

There was some recompense for Ferrari with Massa taking second, but Fisichella’s third place, ahead of Honda’s Jenson Button, McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen and the Toyotas, secured the lion’s share of points for Renault. With just one round remaining, Ferrari were left with a mountain to climb to secure the constructors’ championship, while Schumacher uncharacteristically conceded the drivers’ title to Alonso.

Round 18 - Brazil - 22 October
Felipe Massa
Pole: Felipe Massa
Fastest Lap:Michael Schumacher
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images, Technical Analysis

Although Schumacher had openly declared his pursuit of the drivers’ title over, nobody doubted he would do all he could to win the final race of his career and secure the constructors’ championship for Ferrari. And despite an eight-point advantage, Alonso was certainly leaving nothing to chance in his quest to defend his title and arrived at Interlagos ready for anything.

The decisive performance of both Ferraris in practice led many to expect Schumacher to clinch pole position. But as his Ferrari exited the pit lane for the top-ten shootout, it slowed almost immediately. A fuel pressure problem relegated the German to 10th, while team mate Massa took P1 - his second of the year. A pleased Raikkonen found himself in second, ahead of Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and championship leader Alonso.

While Massa held onto the lead from the start, Schumacher fought his way up to seventh, after passing the two BMW Saubers and his brother Ralf in the Toyota. Only the arrival of the safety car, caused by a heavy crash involving Williams’ Nico Rosberg stopped Schumacher’s charge. When racing resumed, the German successfully passed Renault’s Fisichella for sixth but the move ultimately cost the German more.

As he had overtaken the Italian, Schumacher had sustained a punctured left-rear tyre and after pitting for repairs, rejoined in a dismal 19th. Despite valiantly fighting his way back up, Schumacher finished fourth. Massa, meanwhile, stayed out of trouble to take the honours and become the first Brazilian to win his home race since Ayrton Senna in 1993.

However, Massa’s win and Schumacher astonishing drive-through the field were scant consolation for Ferrari. Alonso crossed the finish line in second place, celebrating a second consecutive title double over the radio with the team he would shortly leave. Further back, Button cemented Honda’s resurgence with his third podium position of the year, while Raikkonen signed off from McLaren with fifth place, the team finishing the year without a win for the first time in a decade.

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

Click here for Final driver standings.
Click here for Final constructor standings.