No dearth of excitement

The Alonso-Schumacher duel, no doubt, ended in an anti-climax after the Ferrari driver blew his engine in the Japanese GP at Suzuka, but these two drivers, representing different generations, brought to the sport the vim and vigour that was missing for so many years, writes G. Raghunath.

The youngest-ever champion aiming to achieve what only a few drivers — Alberto Ascari (1952-53), Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Michael Schumacher (1994-1995) and Mika Hakkinen (1998-1999) — have accomplished in the history of Formula One — successfully defend the World Championship crown; a former champion, the owner of almost every record in the sport, in pursuit of an unprecedented eighth World title; 22 cars (11 teams) on the grid for the first time in so many years; one new outfit — Super Aguri — and as many as five teams in new incarnations with renewed drive. A perfect setting for the 2006 Formula One season, except that only a few were willing to give Ferrari's Michael Schumacher a chance against the defending champion Fernando Alonso of Renault.

At the end of the first three races — Bahrain, Malaysian and Australian GPs — the men were separated from the boys, as the back-markers remained where they were destined to be — at the back. Alonso, continuing his amazing form of 2005, opened up a sizeable lead over Schumacher. The German stormed back with victories at Imola (San Marino GP) and Nurburgring (European GP), but Alonso was not to be closed out so easily. The Spaniard won the next four races to extend his lead over his German rival to a comfortable 24 points before the two faced off at the United States GP in Indianapolis.

The victory at the US GP marked the beginning of Schumacher's dominance in the second half of the season. From here, the German displayed the kind of aggressive driving that fetched him seven World titles and persistently chipped away at Alonso's lead and even drew level with just the last two races of the season remaining.

Here was a great new rivalry, between Schumacher and Alonso, which had the Formula One buffs drooling. Not since the Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna clashes in the mid-1980s, and to some extent the Damon Hill-Schumacher and the Mika Hakkinen-Schumacher battles in the late 1990s, had Formula One witnessed such heady excitement.

The Alonso-Schumacher duel, no doubt, ended in an anti-climax after the Ferrari driver blew his engine in the Japanese GP at Suzuka, but these two drivers, representing different generations, brought to the sport the vim and vigour that was missing for so many years. A pity that one of them had to lose.

The rivalry could have gone on, at least for another season, one wished, but Schumacher had different plans — he retired after the final race of the season at Interlagos (Brazilian GP).

The hoopla notwithstanding, the sport wasn't without its share of controversy. In fact, Formula One and controversy have unerringly gone like the horse and the cart every other year. That the technological marvel, what they called the `mass damper' system, perfected by Renault and used in their cars, should raise a tornado of protests midway through the 2006 season was startling though. Team Ferrari was the first to lodge a protest, arguing that the system offered unfair advantage to the Renault cars. (The cars bolstered by the `mass damper' system were quicker than the others by at least a second a lap, riding on the advantages of its stability and aerodynamic functions).

The haste with which FIA (Federation Internationale de Automobile) ruled the system as illegal triggered another round of controversy, as Flavio Briatore, Renault Racing's chief, opened fire against motorsport's apex body, accusing it of trying to smother his team's chances of winning the Drivers and Constructors' titles. He also alleged that the qualifications and even some races were rigged just to ensure that Schumacher wins his eighth world title. The accusation coming from one of the most experienced and principal team heads, many in the circuit reckoned, was imprudent.

So much emotion ran in the Renault pit that the team, one suspected, had expended quite a bit of its energy needlessly in things other than racing. The Hungarian Grand Prix proved that Renault had horribly lost focus as its crew failed to notice a loose wheel nut during a tyre change, which put Alonso out of the race he seemed to have in his grasp.

Renault continued to blunder in the Chinese GP too as the team first bungled a tyre choice on Alonso's car and then a pit stop. Another gaffe, a loose wheel nut again, put paid to Alonso's chances in the race as Schumacher went atop the leaderboard with a fluent victory at Shanghai. Briatore and Co. perhaps saw a pattern in these setbacks and somehow connected them to those incidents earlier in the season of which Renault was the victim.

Schumacher's brazen attempt to obstruct Alonso during qualifying at Monaco, the ban on `mass damper' system and the outrageous decision to penalise Alonso for what the authorities deemed as a deliberate attempt by the Spaniard to impede Schumacher's team-mate Felippe Massa during qualifying at Monza — Alonso was consequently banished to the back of the starting grid for the Italian GP — all seemed to hook up as perfectly as the links in a daisychain. And Briatore, like someone who had had a clairaudience, was convinced that the F1 authorities were determined to sabotage both Alonso and his team's campaign. He claimed that Formula One bosses had decided beforehand to give the world championship to Schumacher though he later retracted saying he was only joking.

Meanwhile Alonso, for the first time in the season, began to betray signs of psychological frailty, especially after the Monza incident. He said he lost faith in Formula One as a sporting contest. "I don't consider Formula One like a sport anymore. Many things happen in the last few months against one team with no explanation. And I think the image for people from the outside is that F1 has a little bit too much politics," BBC quoted the champion as saying.

Then came Schumacher's engine failure in Suzuka that gave Alonso an easy run to the championship title. And interestingly, the whinings from the Renault pit ended then and there.

For Schumacher, even if his campaign ended disastrously, it was a great season. The man, who has the most number of titles, most victories (91), most pole positions (68) and most podium finishes (154) among other records, had proved that he could be faster than most even at the age of 37.

For Alonso it was a great victory, especially since it came when Schumacher was around. "It's been good to fight with him. To become champion when Michael is still on the track has more value," Alonso said.

The Spaniard's victory, in a way, was symbolic of the change of guard in Formula One. The old generation had been nudged out by the young. "There are lots of young drivers who will try to fill the place left by Schumacher. In time we'll see, as in the past, Formula One moving on," Alonso reflected.

He nailed that one perfectly.

Meanwhile, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone and the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association (GPMA) signed a memorandum of understanding, putting to rest the threat of a breakaway series in 2008. Under the new agreement, the teams are expected to have half the share of the annual revenue generated by F1.