First round promises a superb year in prospect
The 2006 season burst into sensational life in Bahrain this afternoon, as champions past and present, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, fought out a tense duel which resulted in victory for the Spaniard by only 1.246s.
It was Schumacher who led away at the start, chased by team mate Felipe Massa who held off Alonsos challenge into the first turn. Alonso squeezed ahead before the end of the lap, however, and then had a narrow escape on the eighth lap when Massa spun under braking there and actually overtook the Renault while going sideways. Alonso braked hard in successful avoidance and continued his pursuit of the leading 248 F1.
Michael pitted for fuel after 15 laps, while Alonso went four laps further. However, that was not quite enough to earn him the lead as Michael had opened up a bit of a gap. They resumed their fight all over again, moving back to first and second places by lap 24 once Juan Pablo Montoya had finally refuelled his McLaren after a 23-lap stint.
This time the Ferrari went until lap 36, the Renault until 39, and that proved to be the turning point of the race. Now Alonso got out of the pits ahead of the German, but it was nip and tuck as they went side-by-side through Turn One. Alonso kept his nerve and emerged in front, and then made sure he avoided any errors for the remainder of the nail-biting race. One slip, however, and the order could easily have been reversed.
Into third place, from the back of the grid, came Kimi Raikkonen, who started his McLaren with a full tank and didnt stop until lap 30, by which time he had risen to third place. That clever bit of strategy from the Woking team earned him the final podium place as the previous incumbent of the position, Jenson Button, could only chase the Finn home but never really got close enough to mount a convincing challenge in the Honda.
Juan Pablo Montoya was fifth for McLaren after a two-stop run, and then came the Williams of Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg. The young German was a star of the race; after a clash with BMW Saubers Nick Heidfeld in the first corner on the opening lap, he pitted for brief repairs, losing 45s, and then staged a superb recovery. On the way he twice set the fastest lap, leaving it at 1m 32.408s. He passed Christian Kliens Red Bull for seventh close to the end, to take two points on his debut.
Klien took the final one for Dietrich Mateschitzs lead team, Massa recovering (after a pit stop for fresh tyres on lap eight following his spin was prolonged by a sticking right rear wheel) to take ninth from David Coulthard in the closing stages.
Tonio Liuzzi could have scored points for Toro Rosso but suffered fluctuating engine power and had to be satisfied with 11th after a spin, and Heidfeld recovered after the brush with Rosberg to take a disappointed 12th ahead of rookie Scott Speed. Heidfeld's afternoon got worse when he was later reprimanded by the stewards, who decided he had run Coulthard off the road as they battled for position early in the race.
It was a poor day for Toyota, with Ralf Schumacher finishing 14th and Jarno Trulli 16th, either side of an unhappy Rubens Barrichello who faded early. Tiago Monteiro maintained his reputation for finishing with 17th place, having started from the pit lane, and after a while raft of pit stops for attention Takuma Sato was 18th, four laps down for the debutant Super Aguri team.
Christijan Albers was the first retirement in his Midland, Giancarlo Fisichellas Renault was in trouble right from the start with and lasted only 21 laps, Jacques Villeneuve had a strong run in ninth place before his BMW Sauber scattered its engine without warning on the 30th lap, and the third rookie, Yuji Ide, stopped after 35 laps in his Super Aguri.
It could scarcely have been a more exciting race with which to start the season, and the auguries for a four-way fight between Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Honda look excellent.