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F1 Comment: From victory’s jaws

by CAR magazine on 01/10/2006

Comments: 0

By Mike Fourie – Editor

Many Fernando Alonso fans would have appreciated the symbolism when a Renault pit crewmember dropped the magnum of champagne that the Spaniard had lowered to him from the winner’s rostrum. After dominating the Chinese Grand Prix qualifying session and romping off into the distance at the start of the race, Alonso lost a golden opportunity to retake the initiative in the battle for the 2006 driver’s championship. La Régie seized the lead of the constructor’s championship when its drivers finished second and third at Shanghai, but the third-last round on the F1 calendar was ultimately a disappointment for the Enstone-based team. Following Alonso’s misfortune, Giancarlo Fisichella should have won the race easily, but the team blinked and Michael Schumacher took the spoils.

Perhaps Alonso ruined his initial set of front intermediate tyres in an over-anxious attempt to stretch his advantage in the opening phase of the race – or maybe his front rubber just got grainy… we’ll never be quite sure why the Spaniard was the only leading driver to change his front tyres at the first pit stop. The track was clearly drying out and the Renault R26 became a handful on disparately worn tyres. Within a few laps, Alonso went from hero to zero and then the team forced Fisichella to slow down so that he could prevent the resurgent and wily Schumacher from overtaking the defending champion.

Fisichella turned in one of the best races of his season at Shanghai and nobody could blame him for eventually overtaking this struggling team-mate, who was subsequently polished off by Schumi. Unfortunately for Fisi, the team’s impeding tactic backfired badly. Having given up much of his advantage to the German, the diminutive Italian was massacred by Schumacher when he emerged from his second pit stop and tried to creep around the greasy turn one on slick tyres. Schumacher’s on-the-grass-over-the-kerb overtaking manoeuvre was gutsy and spectacular, but I still feel sorry for Fisi, who would have been able to get up to speed and stay in the lead if he hadn’t been sacrificed for Alonso’s title cause. Instead, Fisi fell prey to Schumacher – it was painfully reminiscent of his working over at the hands of Kimi Raikkonen on the final lap at Suzuka last year.

Alonso will take comfort from the fact that the Renault was the quickest car when the track dried out, although his pace was somewhat flattered by Schumacher’s cruise to the chequered flag. The Spaniard may have been able to regain the upper hand had he not lost a handful of time when his pit crew cross threaded the R26’s right rear wheel nut during the second pit stop, but he’d lost the psychological edge as a result of his earlier maladies anyway. Alonso’s heroics with a slick tyres on a somewhat slippery circuit was certainly the stuff of champions, but it was all in vain and his ashen expression during the post-race ceremony certainly summed up the Spaniard’s seething frustration.

The Renault team will leave Shanghai ruing a handful of missed opportunities. It would be unfair to say that La Régie’s performance had been inept – risky team tactics are part of motorsport and the same applies to pit stop mishaps! But even though Renault and the Scuderia should again be evenly matched at Suzuka next week, Alonso and Co. should have drawn maximum gain out of the fact that Ferrari’s number two, Felipe Massa, struggled in China and wasn’t in a position to interfere with the team’s strategy.

Although Schumacher and Alonso are tied on 116 points in the championship standings, the German is classified as the title-race leader because he has scored one more race victory than the Spaniard. Therefore, by my calculation, Schumi can win his eighth and final title if he wins in Japan and Alonso fails to finish. Let’s hope, for the sake of the championship, that the title will be decided in an unambiguous, sportsmanlike manner.