Fernando Alonso edges closer to the title with victory in Japan

Fernando Alonso Japanese GP

World champion Fernando Alonso takes an important ten-point lead in the drivers’ championship with a race victory in Suzuka, as Michael Schumacher’s dream of winning his eighth title ends with a trail of smoke from his broken Ferrari.

The Spaniard was surprised to see the leading Ferrari suffer a rare failure due to the impression of the Italian cars having bullet proof reliability. Michael Schumacher was understandably disappointed as he was leading the race at that point and was on form to score an impressive seventh Suzuka victory and probably his eighth drivers’ championship until that moment in the Degner curve on lap 37…

Alonso took the lead after Schumacher’s retirement and went onto win his seventh Grand Prix of the year. His first since the Canadian Grand Prix back in June… and don’t forget the Spaniard had a 25-point lead when he won at Montreal.

Schumacher’s retirement has provided a twist to this epic and exciting championship. After winning in China, it looked like Ferrari and Michael had the momentum to win both titles (drivers’ and constructors’). The performance of the Ferrari 248 during qualifying was breathtaking as the Bridgestone tyres had an advantage over the Michelins. But in the race, many were expected the Ferraris to disappear into the distance with their superior pace, but it didn’t happen.

The Spaniard, who started the race in fifth, was charging and he wasn’t going to give up his chances by driving beautifully in the Renault R26. He passed the first Toyota of Jarno Trulli on the first lap, and then set about passing the other Toyota of Ralf Schumacher.

At the front, Felipe Massa led his team-mate Michael Schumacher. The Brazilian allowed Michael through to take first position at the end of lap 2. This became the perfect opportunity for the German to disappear into the distance and thereby mark his authority on the title battle.

But it didn’t happen like that at all. The two scarlet cars were lapping at a slower pace than in qualifying with Ralf Schumacher and Alonso closely behind.

When the world champion went down the inside of the Toyota at the first corner on lap 12, that allow Alonso to quickly catch up the two Ferraris after being held up behind the slower car.

Felipe Massa was forced to pit three laps earlier than planned – on lap 13 – after suffering a puncture with his Bridgestone. Now Alonso was in second position and for the first time all weekend, was travelling faster than Schumacher.

When Massa rejoined the race, he was behind the slower BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld. This compromised his pace, which gave the opportunity for Alonso to pass the Brazilian after his own pit stop on lap 15.

Michael Schumacher continued for another three laps, before he too had to change tyres and take on some fuel. He exited the pits ahead of his main championship rival with a five second advantage.

Now it became a battle for the race lead between the two greatest drivers of the modern era. It was fascinating to see Michael and Fernando setting fastest laps and split times. The pair was evenly matched but the gap remained around five seconds.

As the second round of pitstop approach, Schumacher gained an extra second after lapping a field of Red Bulls back markers and looked on course to take his eighth win of the year.

They pitted on consecutive laps but the order remained the same – Schumacher first with Alonso second. The Spaniard had a done a fine job despite starting fifth on the grid and would be happy to settle for second. But then came that moment for Michael…

Schumacher’s engine failure had transformed the outcome of the race and indeed the world championship. If the German finished in first with his main rival in second, we would have a fantastic prospect of a season-finale in Brazil with two points separating the two champions… But his Ferrari engine let go in spectacular fashion – his first in over six years(!) – and now he faces an extremely difficult challenge in Brazil in two weeks time.

Fernando Alonso takes the win in Suzuka’s final race after 20 years on the Formula One calendar with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa second and Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella in third.

Honda’s Jenson Button drove a solid race to finish in fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the McLaren. The Finn did a superb job in the 53-lap race to finish in P5 after qualifying outside the top ten. The two Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher lacked pace and finished sixth and seventh respectively with BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld taking the final point in eighth.

So an exciting and dramatic race, let’s hear what Alonso and Schumacher has to say after the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix.

World champion Fernando Alonso admitted he wasn’t expecting to win the Japanese Grand Prix, but the Spaniard claimed it was a deserved victory.

“At the beginning of the race I knew that we were not in good shape but we were competitive, as good as Ferrari,” said Alonso. “I took the risk to overtake Jarno (Trulli) because I knew there was one opportunity, and when I saw Ralf (Schumacher) had some problems with the car, I tried to get past him.

“The car’s performance was really consistent and really well balanced and after Michael’s problems the race became easy for us.

“The second stint with Michael the gap was more or less the same, 5.9, six seconds depending on traffic. And I was thinking it was possible to win the race, why not? We were only halfway through the race and five seconds behind, which was a surprise.

“I had so many problems in the last races. I lost a race in Hungary, I lost an engine in Monza so for sure I had to recover some lucky moment. I didn’t believe what a I was seeing, also to see a mechanical problem from a Ferrari car is not something it happens often, so it was the second surprise, the biggest surprise for me.”

And as for Michael Schumacher, he feels that the championship is now over and may have to concede the title to his main Spanish rival.

“The drivers’ title for me is finished, but we go to Brazil to win the constructors’,” Schumacher said at Suzuka after the race.

“Our team is great: the boys are the best I know. I’m very satisfied with all our mechanics and engineers in Ferrari. That’s racing. You win and lose together.

“Today we all tried hard, we were first but lost the engine. That’s Formula One. I’m not very disappointed. Life and racing is like this.

“We must be very proud of the work we’ve done, because in Canada we were 25 points behind, and neither you or others thought we’d come back, but we did. Now we are here, nine points behind in the constructors’.”

He might have a slim outside chance in Interlagos, if Fernando fails to finish and Michael takes the win. But the German prefers to concentrate on winning the constructors’ championship (now nine points behind Renault) in Brazil.

“First of all we’ll fight for the constructors’ title in Brazil. We’ll see what happens with the drivers’, but we’re ten points behind.

“I don’t want to think of a race I must win with the other not finishing. I don’t like that.”

So after a sensational Grand Prix, we now head to Brazil in two weeks time (October 22nd) for the season finale. Fernando Alonso will win his second consecutive drivers’ title if he finishes in the points (any where from first to eighth). As for Michael Schumacher, the best he can do is take the race win and pray that his main rival suffers a retirement.

Roll on Brazil!

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