Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were Formula One in the early 2000s. Schumacher was simply a cut above his peers, and it seemed that the driver’s title was simply his by right.
He dominated F1 with championship victories from 2000-2004 for Ferrari. A lengthy period of dominance for one driver is never good for the popularity of the sport (outside his fans of course!), and various changes to the rules were brought in an attempt to improve competition (read: end Schumacher’s ongoing dominance), from revising the points system to changes to qualifying formats. Schumacher kept winning, until in 2005 a rule was brought in requiring teams to complete the Grand Prix distance on a single set of tyres, which saw Bridgestone shod Ferrari finally dislodged from the top of the pecking order, and a young Fernando Alonso emerged to steal Schumacher’s crown.
In early 2006 it initially looked as though Alonso and Renault would defend the title they had gained in 2005, with the Renault looking to have the edge over Ferrari, but while Alonso had the better of the opening part of the season and looked to build a decisive lead over Schumacher, things changed suddenly when the FIA reinterpreted the rules to ban Renault’s innovative tuned mass damper system mid-season, which led to a significant drop off in performance for Renault.
Coming into the Chinese Grand Prix, with just three rounds remaining, Schumacher had pulled back to within 2 points of Alonso, and momentum (and possibly this time the FIA) seemed firmly on Schumacher’s side in his quest to regain the championship. In China we were treated to a gripping duel between the old master of F1 and the new pretender to his throne, as both drivers put on a masterclass in changing conditions, outshining the other drivers on the grid as the momentum shifted between the two as the conditions changed throughout the race. Tyres would prove crucial for the battle, the Bridgestones used by Ferrari struggling in the cold wet conditions compared to the Michelin’s used by Renault, but becoming more favourable in dryer conditions.
In China the track was wet for qualifying, and Schumacher was at a decided disadvantage. Alonso took pole, with Schumacher the lead Bridgestone runner back in sixth. The race would begin on a wet track, with inters the order of the day for all drivers. The Michelin tyre was the one to have in the wet conditions, and a lot hinged on how the weather would evolve. Alonso simply blasted off into the lead at the start, building a massive early advantage, while Schumacher held station. As the race progressed however the rain stopped and the track began to dry, and the Bridgestone tyres started to come into their own, with Schumacher beginning to make his move, a pass on the Honda of former team-mate Barrichello on lap 8 signalling the start of the charge. Schumacher then passed Button (Honda), and was rapidly on to the tail of the second Renault driven by Giancarlo Fisichella. Out front, Alonso had built up a 25 second lead, but things would all go wrong for Alonso when the drivers came in to make their first stops. With Alonso’s inters starting to grain in the drying conditions, Renault opted to fit new intermediates to Alonso’s front tyres, leaving the rears as they were, and when he rejoined Alonso found himself hopelessly off the pace, unable to find grip. Alonso was forced to let Fisichella by into the lead, and Schumacher quickly followed through, Alonso unable to offer any resistance.
Having seen their strategy on tyres fail at the first stops, Renault were forced to roll the dice and bring Alonso back in for dry tyres as soon as the conditions allowed. More misfortune befell Alonso at this point, as the stop was delayed due to a jammed wheel nut, and his race seemed like a lost cause.
With a safe cushion Schumacher and Fisichella were able to wait to fit dry tyres, with Schumacher coming in first and Fisichella reacting the following lap. But a mistake on exiting the pits from Fisichella would allow Schumacher the opportunity to blast past into the lead, and once free Schumacher eased clear of the Renault.
Alonso, who had emerged from his disastrous stop in fourth position, was a man on a mission, and he proceeded to tear up the race track, hauling in team-mate Fisichella for second place with seven laps remaining, the gap to Schumacher a seemingly impossible 12 seconds. Alonso wasn’t giving in, and he hurled the Renault around the track, seemingly in vain. With a few laps remaining the rain returned, and Alonso sensed he had a chance, but he would run out of time. Schumacher was able to coax his Ferrari to the line ahead of the Renault, finishing up 3 seconds clear, but losing ground all the time as the track got wetter at the end.
It was a tense end in difficult conditions for the championship contenders, a result which saw Schumacher pull level on points with Alonso, and into the lead in the championship by virtue of having won more races to that point in the season. Unfortunately, it would also mark the last race Schumacher would win in Formula One, an engine failure in the following round in Japan allowing Alonso to win and all but seal the title, ruining the chance of a decisive final showdown between the two champions to end the season.