2006 was another year of major regulation change in F1. Gone were the beloved 3 litre V10s, replaced by quieter (for the time!) 2.4 litre V8s. Tyre regulations had been spiced up as well, with the return of in-race tyre changes, after Bridgestone (and Ferrari) had been unable to compete in 2005.
2006 also saw a new qualifying format introduced in a bid to spice up the races.The old format was replaced with a three part qualifying session, with the slowest group of cars eliminated after Q1 and Q2, before the top 10 diced it out for pole position in Q3.
This immediately produced the desired result at the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix, when the 2005 runner up Kimi Raikkonen found himself eliminated in the first session after his McLaren suffered a suspension failure, bringing out the red flag as Kimi dragged his 3 wheeled McLaren back to the pits, with Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher the main casualty of the red flag, also missing the cut from Q1. So an early success for the new qualifying system, while there were celebrations also for the debutant Toro Rosso team, who saw both drivers Vitantonio Luizzi and Scott Speed make it past Q1, a fine effort indeed from the junior Bulls.
Michael Schumacher put the disappointment of a dismal 2005 season (by his and Ferrari’s high standards) behind him to grab pole position, narrowly edging out his new team-mate Felipe Massa to the top spot in the Q3 shootout, after Massa had held a slight advantage in Q2. Defending champion Alonso might have topped the times in Q1 and Q2, but Q3 was where it mattered, and while his Q2 time would have been good enough for pole, Alonso couldn’t repeat the time, and would have to settle for 4thon the grid, behind the Honda of Jenson Button.
On race day the conditions were hot and dry in the desert, with winds whipping across the track to make life difficult for the drivers. As the lights went out Schumacher led to the first corner, with Alonso making a good start and challenging up the inside of Massa’s Ferrari before settling for third place into the first corner, with McLaren’s Juan Pablo Montoya getting the jump into fourth position around the outside of Rubens Barrichello’s Honda, as Jenson Button made a disastrous start. If Schumacher thought he could sprint into the distance while Massa held up Alonso he was to be instantly disappointed, as under immediate pressure from Alonso Massa ran too deep into Turn 4, with the Renault able to nip up the inside of the Ferrari as they exited the turn to take second place with less than half a lap in the bank. Further back the reigning GP2 champion, a young Nico Rosberg, was looking to make an impact on his Grand Prix debut, but he didn’t get off to the ideal start, Nico forced to pit for a new front wing at the end of lap one after his Williams connected with Nick Heidfeld’s BMW-Sauber in the first corner. Kimi Raikkonen was pushing hard, and by the time he crossed the line at the end of lap 1 he was already up to 13th place, having started 22nd and last!!
The order at the front remained the same over the early laps, until Massa ruined his Ferrari debut, losing his Ferrari on the entry to Turn 1 while following in Alonso’s wake, the Ferrari spinning backwards across the front of the Renault, with Alonso fortunate to avoid contact. The race at the front settled into a game of cat and mouse between Alonso and Schumacher, with all eyes on the pit stops to come, but further back the field there was plenty of action, with an early duel between the Honda’s of Barrichello and a recovering Button and the impressive progress of not just Kimi Raikkonen, but also the young Rosberg, who was making great strides through the field after his earlier indiscretion had sent him to the back of the pack.
Up front, Schumacher retained his lead over Alonso at the first set of pit stops, and Alonso continued to lurk in his wake until the second round of stops. These would prove decisive, with Alonso staying out for a number of laps to try to give him track position after his stop. Alonso initially seemed to have the pace to build a gap and emerge in front, but was frustratingly held up by traffic prior to his stop, resulting in a nail biting pit stop for the Enstone team. Schumacher was already coming down the main straight as Alonso was released from the pits, and the two entered the first corner side by side, Alonso just getting out of the pits a fraction ahead of Schumacher and able to prevail on the inside line, with Schumacher attempting unsuccessfully to wrest back first position around the outside. Schumacher stayed close, but was unable to find a way past, and Alonso would hold him at bay to take first blood in the fight for the 2006 championship, crossing the line with Schumacher still in his mirrors just over a second behind.
Behind the leading duo, Kimi Raikkonen showed the entertainment value of a mixed grid with a stunning drive through the field to take third position in his McLaren courtesy of a one stop strategy, but fans must have been wondering what could have been had he been able to join in the race at the front of the field. Jenson Button finished on his tail for fourth position, while fastest lap was set by the charging newcomer Nico Rosberg (making him the youngest driver to claim a fastest lap at just 20 years of age), who had showcased his own overtaking ability with a gritty drive back from his earlier mistake, culminating in a last gap dive up the inside of the Red Bull of Christian Klein to take seventh place on his debut.