Revisiting Michael Schumacher's Final Grand Prix Win
October 1, 2006 | Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai International Circuit
The championship battle was getting extremely close. Ferrari versus Renault. Schumacher versus Alonso. The Renaults, running on the Michelin tyres, had a distinct advantage over the Ferraris running on the Bridgestones in the wet. Yet, Michael Schumacher put in a stellar qualifying in wet conditions to take sixth on the grid. Still, a win was looking improbable. Races. though, are won on Sundays, not Saturdays.
It rained heavily before the start of the race, suiting the Michelin runners and inconveniencing the Bridgestone runners. Fernando Alonso sped away at the start, followed by fellow Renault driver Giancarlo Fisichella. Michael, always superlative in the wet, began a charge up the grid. On lap 8, he overtook teammate Rubens Barrichello for fifth, on lap 14, Jenson Button for fourth; then he gained another place when Kimi Räikkönen had to retire his McLaren Mercedes with a mechanical failure.
Everything was going according to plan for Renault and Fernando Alonso; until the first round of pit-stops. The leading trio of Alonso, Fisichella and Schumacher made their first stops on laps 22, 23 and 21, respectively.
Unlike Schumacher, Alonso changed only his front tyres and found that he couldn’t get them back up to temperature. This handicapped him severely, and within a few laps, his 20-second lead at the front evaporated to nothing. Gone. For several laps, Alonso, Fisichella and Schumacher ran nose to tail. Alonso resisted with skill. But eventually, Fisichella overtook him.
At the start of lap 31, Schumacher passed Alonso. The crowd erupted. He began chasing race leader Fisichella. It was cloudy, with a wet track that was progressively drying. Advantage Bridgestone. The comeback was on for Ferrari and Michael.
Alonso, dropping back all the time, pitted on lap 35 to switch to dry tyres. A botched and unusually long pit-stop made him emerge 4th and over 50 seconds off the lead. Race leader Fisichella emerged from his second stop still ahead, but a determined Schumacher fought into the lead and began to pull away.
Meanwhile, Alonso was putting in blindingly quick laps, one after the other to catch Schumacher. The driver's championship was at stake. He was gaining a second, more than a second a lap! He overtook Fisichella and now had Michael in his sights. Alonso's pace was making the Ferrari garage nervous.
He could take the race win from right under their nose. Eventually, the defending champion ran out of laps to pull off an move on the red car ahead. There were only 56 laps. One more and Alonso could have won. Without the fumble in his second pit stop, he definitely would have won. Not today though. Lady Luck was with Michael Schumacher as he took the chequered flag, nabbing the 91st and final win of his career to the delight of tifosi.
The championship was now tied with two rounds remaining. Two rivals with mutual respect, two drivers on a season-long duel. Fernando versus Michael. Stuff of legends.
Michael could see an unprecedented eighth title within his grasp. It was not to be though. Alonso secured the title in the final round in São Paulo, Brazil, to become a freshly minted two-time world champion.