Hockenheim 2006 - Schumacher slashes Alonsos lead 17 Jul 2008
After a years absence, Hockenheim makes a welcome return to the Formula One calendar this weekend. While many drivers complain that the German stalwart isnt as much of a challenge as it was before its 2002 safety-conscious reconfiguration, it can still make for exciting on-track action. And the 2006 event was no exception.
As the main players arrived, mass dampers, or more specifically the stewards refusal to deem them illegal, dominated discussions in the paddock. The FIA had earlier declared them unacceptable on the grounds of being a moveable device that could influence aerodynamic performance and it led to the bizarre situation of the sports governing body appealing its own stewards decision.
Reigning world champions, Renault were the team at the centre of the controversy and the French squad chose not to run the dampers anyway, just in case the FIA should later win the debate. The question then on everyones lips was what impact the dampers removal would have on Renaults performance, given that they were a fundamental part of the R26s design.
The battle for the world championship was gaining momentum and while Renault and Fernando Alonso could stood to lose out thanks to the damper debate, Ferrari - and in particular Michael Schumacher - were poised to benefit. Schumachers two consecutive victories at the preceding US and French rounds had proved the Italian team were making good progress. Elsewhere celebrations were in full swing with Super Aguri unveiling their long-awaited SA06, Honda marking their 300th Grand Prix and Jarno Trulli extending his Toyota contract for a further three years.
As the on-track action began on Friday, all 11 teams struggled with the slippery circuit surface. For Williams there was a mixture of good and bad news in the morning, with Alex Wurz setting the fastest time but Nico Rosberg crashing out on Turn Two. In the afternoon BMW Sauber third driver Robert Kubica topped the timesheets, but it was the pace of second-placed Schumacher that was probably more representative. Title rival Alonso, meanwhile, was left down in 15th.
On Saturday morning Red Bulls Christian Klien surprised as the quickest runner ahead of the Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. In the afternoon, however, it was McLarens Kimi Raikkonen who scored a shock pole thanks to a blistering lap in the MP4-21 that outshone local hero Schumacher on Mercedes home soil. Massa took third on the grid alongside a quick Button, while Alonso managed only seventh, leaving himself a minor mountain to climb to safeguard his championship lead. Indeed the best he could hope for would be for polesitter Raikkonen to limit the damage by stealing victory from Ferrari.
But on race day the Finn didnt quite have the pace or the strategy to beat either red car and he finished third, 13 seconds behind a victorious Schumacher, who led team mate Massa home in relatively close formation. Honda came away pleased thanks to Buttons fourth place, even though Barrichello retired early thanks to engine trouble. Renaults weekend could have been better, but the French team, damper-less and struggling with blistering Michelin tyres, were relieved to see both drivers finish in the points, Alonso crossing the line fifth and Giancarlo Fisichella in sixth. Toyota also got both cars home, with Trulli (seventh) and Ralf Schumacher (ninth) sandwiching the eighth-placed Red Bull of Klien.
Further down the order there was disappointment for BMW Sauber and Midland. BMW saw team mates Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve clash on the opening lap. Damage led to Heidfelds retirement and Villeneuve then crashed out of what would prove to be his last appearance for the team. Midland, in contrast, got two cars to the flag, but then had both disqualified for excessive flex in their rear wings. Both Super Aguris retired prematurely, but at least Takuma Sato had given the fledgling Japanese squad a small nugget of hope by soundly beating Midlands Tiago Monteiro in qualifying to start 19th.
Ferraris third successive victory - coupled with Renaults poor showing - threw the constructors championship wide open, narrowing the gap between the rival teams to just ten points. Alonso, meanwhile, saw his lead over Schumacher in the driver standings dwindle from 17 to 11. And with just a week to go before the Hungarian race, few believed the Spaniard and Renault would have enough time to recover their form.