JAPANESE GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
A funny old world
One day perhaps some worthy sociologist will write a dissertation to explain what happened in the Media Centre at Suzuka when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari blew its engine during the Japanese Grand Prix of 2006. There was a roar of approval. A loud roar. The F1 Media - the representatives of the fans (in theory at least) - did not want Michael to win this one. Why did they react as they reacted? Here was a great champion coming to the end of his era and the chroniclers of F1 history were cheering his demise.
Yes, Michael has always been a controversial soul but this seemed to be more than that. This was about natural justice - the phrase even came up in the press conference. It was about overturning the advantage that Michael had gained from the mass damper decision and the penalty against Fernando Alonso at Monza. Alonso talked about God. The non-believers talked about Fate. The ever-efficient Jean Todt talked about failure.
But what would a sociologist conclude?
Perhaps that the reaction in the Media Centre was a cry of freedom. A realization that there was some mystical powers greater than anyone in the sport. A great steward in the sky, if you like.
Who knows? Indeed, who cares? Perhaps in Brazil in two weeks from now the reverse will happen and Michael will leave the sport with an eighth World Championship. If that happens one can only hope that it does not involve any funny business.
Judging by the noises coming out of the Ferrari pit after the race, there is no appetite left for that sort of thing.
"We are nine points down in the Constructors' Championship," Schumacher said. "We will do all we can to win this in Brazil. As for the Drivers', it is lost. I don't want to head off for a race, hoping that my rival has to retire. That is not the way in which I want to win the title."
And this from the man who twice in the 1990s drove into his rivals to try to stop them winning World Championships.
To win the title is the tallest order possible in F1. Fernando is now 10 points ahead. There are a maximum of 10 points available to Michael in the Drivers' title. To win the championship Schumacher must win the race and Alonso must fail to score. It is possible but not very likely.
In Suzuka Ferrari took the blame for its failure.
"The basis of all success in Formula 1 is reliability," said Jean Todt. " Today we were lacking in that respect and we paid a very high price."
At the start of the race no-one expected poleman Massa to remain in the lead of the race for long. He was always going to pull over and let his team leader get ahead. That is how it is done at Ferrari. These are not team orders, you understand, these are voluntary decisions of the drivers involved.
Renault was starting the race with a huge disadvantage because between the Ferraris and the Renaults were a pair of Toyotas to be dealt with. Alonso overtook Trulli in the first corner and had a look at passing Ralf Schumacher as well. That did not happen and in the laps that followed Alonso was trapped behind Schumacher Jr as Big Brother edged away at the front with Massa scampering along in his slipstream. At one point Fernando went wide in the Degner Curve and dropped back from Ralf's Toyota but he soon closed the gap again, showing that he was in a faster car and frustrated. And then, after 11 laps, with Fernando 5.4secs behind Michael, Alonso went ahead with a neat pass down at the first corner. Ralf disappeared into the pits, proving that his car was being run very light.
Those who expected Fernando to close in on Michael were to be disappointed. The gap after 10 laps was almost exactly the same as the gap when they reached 20 laps (by which time they had both down their first stops). And the same was true when they reached 30 laps.
During his chase of Michael, Alonso set the fastest lap of the race. Schumacher would never match it. No-one else would get within half a second of the times but it was interesting to see how evenly-matched the chasers were. This showed that the Bridgestone tyre advantage in qualifying had disappeared in the race. The thing was that no-one really knew why. Tyres are mysterious black things.
"I was surprised," Alonso admitted. "We were expecting to be a little bit closer because yesterday it looked too much. In Q2 Michael did 1.28.9 and it was two seconds faster than anybody else. Two seconds every lap is not normal so we expected to close the gap, but not enough to fight with them. I think our tyres were the same, so I think it was more of a drop in the performance of the Bridgestones."
Push though he did, Alonso could do nothing. The Ferrari and the Renault were almost perfectly matched.
And then came the cloud of smoke.
"I thought it was a Spyker," said Alonso. "Only when I went past did I realise it was Michael. We deserved this victory a long time ago, I think. Before Hungary we were ready to win and we never finished the job. It's a complete surprise, so the taste of the victory is even better because in China we were the complete favourites and everything seemed easy for us and we lost the race. For sure these 10 points are a little present that God gave to us."
When all was said and done the only thing that had separated Michael and Alonso was that burst of speed in qualifying and that Fernando had had to deal with two Toyotas.
Massa could have been a problem. He had led for a minimal period and then allowed Michael to go ahead. He would stay with his team mate from then on, all the way to a surprisingly early pit stop. This, he said, was three laps ahead of when it had been planned and he blamed it on a slow puncture. That seemed logical until one looked at the lap times. If Massa had a slow puncture how did he manage to not lose any time to Michael? In the four laps before his stop, he was a tenth off Michael's pace in every case. Surely with a puncture he should have faded more quickly? Michael must have been struggling with his tyres more than he was letting on.
The early stop would be Massa's downfall because when he accelerated out of the pitlane he arrived on the gearbox of Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber.
"I lost a huge amount of time behind him," Massa said. "After I passed Heidfeld Fernando was in front of me and I had lost the opportunity to be ahead. Given what happened to Michael I lost the chance to win the race."
The Toyota people did not really like the suggestion that qualifying had been a publicity stunt and tried to argue after the race that the strategy would have worked if Trulli had not encountered a mysterious problem which slowed him down and left Ralf stuck behind him after their second stops. The strategy called for the two men to stop on laps 12 and 13, then again on 29 and 30 and then to go all the way to the flag on lap 53. Small wonder the third stints were tough as there was twice the fuel on board. The cars started third and fourth and finished sixth and seventh - that said it all. It was a lousy strategy - but not a bad PR stunt.
Fortunately for Toyota an afternoon of going backwards did not dissuade the TV director from Fuji TV from spending what seemed like excessive amounts of time following the cars around the track, or in-car with Ralf. If ever there was a good argument for the need for a single TV director in F1, here it was.
The poor performance of the Toyotas meant that Giancarlo Fisichella was able to make up for a poor first lap to move up from seventh at the end of the first lap to third by the end of the race. He gained one place from Michael's retirement and two more thanks to the Toyota strategy but in addition he was able to overtake Jenson Button's Honda in the early laps.
"Psychologically, today was very difficult for me," he explained afterwards, clearly distraught. "On Thursday I lost my best friend ever. I am really sad and it's not easy. So the race was important. I would like to dedicate that third place to him."
Let us not forget that F1 drivers are human and have to deal with such things as well. It was a good effort from Giancarlo.
Jenson Button did what he could with his Honda but that was no more than a solid performance. He did leap-frog the Toyotas but there was never any hope that he would beat Fisichella. And Rubens Barrichello lost his chance on the first lap when Nick Heidfeld chopped him and he damaged a front wing and so had to pit. He did that at the end of lap two by which time anyone behind him was 10secs behind the leading bunch. Robert Kubica was at the front of that bunch and he drove a charging race and, despite another off which cost him a further 10 secs later on, he finished on the tail of Heidfeld in ninth place, underlining the fact that choosing the softer Michelin compound (as Heidfeld had done) was not the right way to go.
It was this that best explains the very dull performance from McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen was the last man not stuck in Barrichello's train and as he went long on fuel he was able to get ahead of Heidfeld. He then leap-frogged the two Toyotas as well at his second stop and so ended the race in fifth. Pedro de la Rosa was a lap down in 11th place.
With Trulli sixth, Ralf seventh, followed by the two BMWs, the best that Nico Rosberg could hope for was 10th. For much of the race he had Mark Webber close at hand but in the end the Australian went off and crashed, the car having little grip offline.
The other man who had a nasty moment was Christijan Albers who ended his race in dramatic fashion after20 laps when something locked up in the back of the car and the rear suspension exploded, tearing off the right rear wheel and the rear wing and leaving bits and pieces of suspension and bodywork all over the road. Had the incident occurred at another point on the circuit the Dutchman might have had a serious accident but he avoided contact with everything.
The Red Bull cars were handfuls as usual and the fight between the Super Aguri and Spyker cars was nothing to write home about.
And so we head off to Brazil with everything and nothing to play for.
And we can only wonder what excitements await us at Interlagos.
Hopefully, we will see a great sporting event so that we can cheer Michael into retirement.
It is probably better than cheering his misfortune.