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Renault on the ropes after Hockenheim? 30 Jul 2006

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault on the grid.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, German Grand Prix, Race, Hockenheim, Germany, 30 July 2006

The controversy over Renault’s mass damper system has attracted plenty of attention - but after a very disappointing weekend at Hockenheim, the team know that more serious issues are threatening to derail their hopes of retaining drivers’ and constructors’ championship.

At the end of a difficult race, which saw Fernando Alonso finish only fifth ahead of team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, the champion admitted that the mass damper issue was distracting from a more deep-seated lack of pace, and that even with the banned system in place the result was unlikely to have been much different, due at least in part to problems with their Michelin tyres blistering.

Most alarming for the Enstone-based team was Ferrari’s margin of victory. With the race in the bag, Michael Schumacher visibly eased his pace in the middle of the race, with team mate Felipe Massa following suit. But there can have been few doubts that Ferrari possessed the speed potential to lap the entire field.

Once again, however, Alonso proved his pedigree as an all-round racer with an impressive piece of damage limitation considering his P7 grid spot. A strong start saw the world champion climb to sixth at the end of the first lap - after briefly passing Jenson Button before the Englishman retook the place - but in the later stages of the race he did well to keep the chasing pack at bay as his tyres suffered in the searing 51-degree track conditions.

Fisichella suffered more than his team mate. He started the race from P5 and managed to climb to fourth, making his move past Button stick where Alonso’s failed, although the Englishman managed to repass him on the following lap. After suffering from a serious lack of pace during the second stint, Fisichella emerged from his own final pitstop in P6, a position he kept to the flag.

McLaren’s improvement in form will also have alarmed Renault. Raikkonen’s pole position was based on an unrealistically light fuel load, as was evinced when the Finn pitted on just lap 16. But the Woking-based squad seemed to have the legs on Renault throughout the weekend, and Raikkonen’s eventual third-place finish was a fair reflection on the two teams’ relative performance. On the evidence from Germany, both Honda and Williams look capable of challenging Renault on pace now, too.

The net result is that Alonso’s lead in the drivers’ championship has been cut to just 11 points over Michael Schumacher - and in the constructors’ title chase, Renault and Ferrari are now separated by just 10 points.

With a third of the season left to run, Renault know that, if Germany is anything to go by, they will have to find a dramatic improvement in pace to keep their championship hopes alive.