In a race that was billed as the decider of the 2006 season (despite Japan being the penultimate Grand Prix), Fernando Alonso has taken maximum points to put himself ten ahead of his rival Michael Schumacher. This result puts Alonso in an almost unnassailable position heading into Brazil in a fortnight, and while it is still possible for Schumacher to take the title in his swansong year, the target is very far out of reach.
After yesterdays qualifying it seemed Ferrari had it all sorted. The Italian squad were on a roll following several wins from their man, and while Felipe Massa got the script a little wrong, it was an all-Ferrari front-row. What made the result even more sweet for the Scuderia was that Toyota were aiming for a corporate pole, but ended up squeezing themselves inbetween Ferrari and Renault.
However, race day is always a different day, and from the start it was clear that Renault did have pace and would be able to challenge the Ferrari’s. Massa led Schumacher through turn one, and Fernando Alonso made up one place by keeping to the inside line and passing Jarno Trulli. Alonso kept the gap to Michael at about 5 seconds and even managed to pass the second Toyota of Ralf Schumacher just prior to the first round of pitstops. Felipe Massa fixed the script-error on lap two by backing off down the pit-straight and allowing his team mate to pass down into the first corner.
From the second stint onwards, Alonso piled on the pressure and kept harrasing the 5 second gap to Schumacher. The Spaniard managed to close it down to 4 seconds, but traffic played against him at times and the distance between the Renault and Ferrari fluctuated, but never strayed to far from 5 seconds. With the gap remaining pretty much the same during the second phase, Alonso pitted again on lap 36. A fading Massa comes in on the same lap and the team re-prepare themselves for the race and championship leader Michael Schumacher on the following lap. The German makes a quick stop and heads back out onto the Suzuka tarmac in the lead. But on lap 37 and while heading through the Degna curves, smoke pours out of the back of the Ferrari and Schumacher pulls off to the side of circuit. It is the first Ferrari engine failure since the 2001 US Grand Prix.
So victory was handed to Fernando Alonso, but the reigning champion worked hard for it today. With a car that initially seemed to be out of touch with the Ferrari’s, Fernando drove very well in the first two stints, and while the win seemed out of his reach, he was doing a great job of damage-limitation. However, the rare failure from Ferrari means that the only way Alonso can be beaten is if Schumacher wins the Brazilian Grand Prix and Alonso fails to score even one point. Not impossible, as we have seen a failure and win from both rivals in recent races. But it is a mountainous task for Michael, and the scenes of the Ferrari garage this afternoon look like a beaten Schumacher consoling his family. With handshakes and hugs Michael thanked each team member individually before making his way out to the pit wall to share Felipe’s podium finish.
So Fernando reclaims the lead in the championship and is just one point away from becoming a two-times world champion back-to-back. At last the young Spaniard can relax a little and apologise to his team for all those nasty comments made in the build up to this momentous – but sadly – final Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.