Suzuka exit leaves Schumacher with it all to do at final round
Victory for Fernando Alonso and retirement for Michael Schumacher at Suzuka means just a single point at the season finale in Brazil will make Alonso champion for a second time.
For 36 laps of Sundays Japanese Grand Prix, Schumacher could see the Renault of Alonso in his mirrors and the 2006 drivers crown in his future. From the start he had pulled away from the Spaniard, taking the lead from polesitting Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa on the third lap, and though the Renaults were much more competitive than they had been in qualifying, everything was under control.
But then a plume of smoke erupted from the back of the Ferrari in the second Degner Curve on the 37th lap, and the unthinkable happened as the Germans V8 expired. It was his first non-crash retirement since Spain 2005, and this one really hurt.
As Schumacher trudged back to the pits, where he shook everyone by the hand and wore a philosophical smile, Alonso made the most of his good fortune. He had passed Massa during the first pit stops after the Brazilian stopped three laps earlier than scheduled because of a puncture, and been keeping Schumacher honest and the gap between them around five seconds, when his arch-rival dropped out. Now he was able to stroke his Renault home to his first victory since Canada in June, secure in the knowledge that eighth place in Brazil will be sufficient to retain his crown.
Massa backed off hugely over the final laps - possibly on the advice of his team - but was never challenged for second by Renaults Giancarlo Fisichella, who had fought through to beat Hondas Jenson Button, McLarens Kimi Raikkonen and the Toyotas through better pit work. Button was a distant fourth, Raikkonen fifth, and Jarno Trulli led team mate Ralf Schumacher home for sixth after a race-long fight.
Behind them, Nick Heidfeld clung on ahead of BMW Sauber team mate Robert Kubica to take the final point, the Pole having caught back up a 10-second deficit after a big off in the second Degner on lap 31.
Nico Rosberg was Williams sole finisher in 10th, after Mark Webber crashed heavily exiting the chicane on lap 39, leading home McLarens Pedro de la Rosa and Rubens Barrichello, who needed a new nose on his Honda after a brush on the opening lap.
Robert Doornbos emerged from an early scrap between all the Red Bull runners to finish 13th ahead of Tonio Liuzzi, who performed a neat 360-degree spin early on exiting the chicane. Their respective RBR and Toro Rosso team mates David Coulthard and Scott Speed (who also spun) both failed to finish.
The two Super Aguris were 15th and 17th, sandwiching Tiago Monteiros Spyker MF1. The other Dutch car of Christijan Albers was in the thick of the Red Bull battle, but retired in spectacular fashion on the 20th lap when a rear suspension breakage removed its rear wing as the Dutchman exited the chicane. He was lucky it happened there.
The Suzuka result was a massive fillip for Alonso and Renault, who increased their lead in the constructors championship to nine points. It may not all be over, with one race left, but now it is Schumacher and Ferrari who have the mountain to climb.