When we consider races to cover in our Nostalgia series, no name is thrown about more in the Richland F1 office than Michael Schumacher. 91 race wins – that’s over 10% of all grands prix that have ever taken place, given that we celebrated number 900 in Bahrain.
However, his final victory came at the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix in one of his finest ever displays for Ferrari. With just two points separating himself and Renault’s Fernando Alonso heading into the race, it was an important one for the German driver to win if he was to push for title number eight in what would be his final season with Ferrari before his first retirement.
The race at the Shanghai International Circuit was the first since Michael had made his emotional announcement during the press conference after the Italian Grand Prix, where – for the final time – he had graced the podium at Monza after claiming a victory that put him right back in the title fight. An engine failure for Alonso meant that the 12 point deficit was now just two. Schumacher had the momentum heading into the race weekend, but this soon came to an end when the heavens opened on Saturday, and rain began to fall in Shanghai.
How was rain a weakness to Schumacher? The Regenmeister? To answer this, we must remember that this was a time when there were two tyre suppliers in the sport: Bridgestone and Michelin. Both were spending millions of dollars in order to be the best, meaning that from 2007 it was decided to have one supplier and save some cash. However, with competition comes efficiency, and in the wet, Bridgestone-shod cars were at a serious disadvantage thanks to Michelin’s good work. In the dry, though, the Bridgestone rubber was up to scratch, so when rain began to fall in qualifying on Saturday, Schumacher was praying for it to clear up quickly.
It failed to do so. All six cars that dropped out in Q1 ran on Bridgestones, and Schumacher was the top qualifier on the tyre after dragging his Ferrari through the spray to finish sixth. Alonso duly bagged pole by sixth-tenths of a second from teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, and they soon forged a lead at the beginning of the race which also started in wet conditions. After just three laps, Schumacher was 11.5 seconds behind his title rival down in sixth place, and it all appeared to be moving away from the outgoing German.
However, the sun soon made an appearance and the track began to dry out gradually. Schumacher picked off the Hondas of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button to move up to fourth place, but the gap to Alonso still stood at 23.5 seconds ahead of the first round of pit stops.
This is where the tide moved in Schumacher’s favour. As the track continued to dry, most drivers opted to simply refuel at their first stop (ranging between laps 16 and 22) and leave on their intermediate tyres. When the tyres wore down, they got closer to slicks and were therefore still usable on the drying track. The crucial error that Alonso made came in his tyre choice. For fear of ruining his front tyres, the Spaniard told his team to change these for a fresh set of intermediates whilst keeping his old rear tyres.
It was a fatal error. The track continued to dry and Alonso dropped right off the pace. Teammate Giancarlo Fisichella stormed past in the spray, and he was crucially followed by Schumacher one lap later. The Spanish driver ultimately had to bail and pitted four laps later for a fresh set of tyres that he hoped would give him a shot at catching the leaders and claiming win number seven of 2006. However, just to make things worse, a problem with a wheel nut cost Renault more time for their champion driver.
So the task of beating Schumacher now rested with Fisichella, who had taken the lead of the race after his teammate’s demise. Given that he had been the bridesmaid on so many occasions, surely the Italian driver wouldn’t choke again? Perhaps it was more a case of Ferrari’s tactical brilliance. A late pit call for Schumacher was well orchestrated to confuse the Renault pit wall as the German driver dived in on lap 40 for a set of dry tyres.
Briatore’s crew followed suit just one lap later to give Fisichella a fighting chance. However, Ferrari had given Schumacher the call for one big push, as the Michelins had a habit of taking time to warm up. If he was going to pass, it would be on Fisichella’s outlap. One lap later, and the advantage might have gone.
Fisichella emerged from the pits with a slender lead over Schumacher, but what would follow turned out to be the German driver’s final all or nothing move to claim a race win. The Renault ran wide around the outside of the winding first corner, leaving a gap down the inside that wasn’t really big enough for a Ferrari 248. Fisichella tried to shut the door on the advancing Schumacher, forcing him to stick a wheel over the white line to avoid crashing into the Renault, but the Italian driver soon gave him some room; enough room for Schumacher to find a way past and take the lead of the Chinese Grand Prix. The 23.5 second gap had been eradicated completely.
However, Alonso was not out of the running yet. Having pitted far earlier for a fresh set of tyres, the Spaniard had worked his way back up to third place and was soon catching Fisichella. The Italian driver put up little resistance to his teammate’s advances, setting the stage for one final battle between Alonso and Schumacher.
But it wasn’t to be. A final sprinkling of rain in the final few laps of the race threw Renault a lifeline, but Schumacher managed to keep it together – so effortlessly, as was his style – to cross the line first and tick his total over to 91.
It was an impossible victory, yet Schumacher had done it. The Ferrari mechanics rejoiced, but with wry smiles and the Italian translation for “how the hell did he do that?!” He leaped out of his car and, for the final time, bounded towards the team that assembled underneath the podium before making his way back up and hearing the German national anthem, which was quickly followed by the jaunty Fratelli d’Italia – a combination that we have not heard since.
For a final grand prix victory, there aren’t many better than Schumacher’s. Of course, the championship did not go his way in 2006 after an engine failure at the next race in Japan pretty much ended his hopes. Nevertheless, it was an incredible final stand from the German driver who departed after the Brazilian Grand Prix before eventually returning over three years later with Mercedes.
And now attention turns to the race for win 92 as Michael recovers from head injuries suffered in a skiing accident. And man-oh-man, this would be the greatest and most popular one of the whole lot…
Images courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari.