ITALIAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Schumacher's high and goodbye
The 2006 Italian Grand Prix was an extraordinary Formula 1 event. Not because the racing was good but rather for other reasons. It was, in truth, a rather bad-natured meeting with Renault getting hot and bothered about a very dubious FIA decision after qualifying. This dropped Fernando Alonso frtom fifth to 10th on the grid. The team felt that this was unfair and most of the F1 circus seemed to agree. But Ferrari was happy enough, for Renault's misfortune was Ferrari's gain, and by the end of the weekend Ferrari was ahead in the Constructors' title and Michael Schumacher was within two points of Fernando Alonso in the Drivers' title. Renault folks made some fairly strong remarks and spent the hours after the race busily retracting and claiming that they had been joking - presumably in fear that there would be retribution otherwise.
All things considered, none of this is very healthy for the sport and the FIA needs to find some longer term fixes to restore the credibility of Formula 1.
And while all of this was going on, we had the Schumacher retirement which overshadowed the whole weekend.
But there was a race and it was not a bad one. From the start it was a fight between Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher. In a perfect world, Alonso would have been with them as well but the penalty meant that he had to spend most of his time catching up so we never really saw whether he had the car to win the race.Probably he did given what he achieved going from 10th to third but the effort came to nothing in the closing stages when the Renault engine lunched itself in dramatic fashion, spitting out a shower of hot oil and more than a few bits of shrapnel. This was not a small engine failure.
The fight between pole man Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher kept up the interest in the early part of the race when it became clear that the two cars were very evenly matched. The difference was in the fuel load and that was very close as well. Michael went two laps further than Kimi. Those two laps provided Schumacher with the advantage he needed and he emerged from the pits ahead of Kimi. And yet for the second stint he could not pull away. The two cars were well-matched again. The second pits stops changed nothing and it was only in the late stage of the race than Kimi backed off a little to preserve the car and let Michael get a little further ahead.
Significantly, Kimi set the fastest lap of the race indicating clearly that McLaren has made significant progress in recent weeks (and not before time it should be added). This could make life very interesting in the final three races when McLaren could play a role in deciding who wins the World title by taking points off other teams.
The demise of Alonso gave third place to an impressive Robert Kubica, in only his third F1 race. He made a terrific start to jump from sixth on the grid to third and then held back the opposition with assurance. On lap 18 Robert took the lead when Kimi and Michael pitted and he stayed out five laps longer. Alonso and Massa was clearly quicker but they could not break Kubica and it was not until the second stops that Fernando finally got ahead when he and Kubica were in the pits together. They emerged side by side and Alonso got the drop. Alas, he then suffered his engine failure and so Kubica came home third and no doubt there was dancing on the streets in Poland for this was a very exciting performance. It was backed up by great pace from Nick Heidfeld but his hopes of a top placing disappeared when he was given a drive-through penalty for pitlane speeding. Despite the penalty he was still able to get to finish in eighth position. We need to see if that performance can be repeated at other tracks but the signs are good. BMW is a strong team.
Alonso's blow-up was a signifiant moment for Massa as well. Frustrated behind Kubica for most of the race, he was caught out by the oil put down by Alonso's engine failure and flat-spotted his front right tyre so badly that he had to pit at the end of the lap. That meant that he ended the day in ninth place with no points.
Renault's only consolation was fourth place for Giancarlo Fisichella, who drove a solid one-stop strategy and so finished ahead of the two Hondas which had Button on a two-stop strategy and Rubens Barrichello on a one-stop. The result was fifth and sixth, showing that the choice was not that different. For Honda it was a good solid score.
With Heidfeld and Massa having their troubles, Jarno Trulli was able to finished seventh with some robost defence of his position as Heidfeld and Massa nipped at his heels. It was a very poor weekend for Toyota with Ralf Schumacher wasting his afternoon messing about with the assorted Red Bull-sponsored machinery. Ralf later complained of a lack of straightline speed which was odd considering he was one of the fastest through the speed trap.
The Ferrari fans loved the race but perhaps were were depressed to hear Michael announce his retirement. But then again one's man disappointment is another's advantage and perhaps rather than looking back too much at Michael's career we should look forward to a new era in F1 when we will have four or five men at the front.
All that would then be needed was to restore the public's faith in the way the sport is conducted and all will be well.