Why

Why

Saturday, 11 April 2015

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER'S LAST WIN: 2006 CHINESE GRAND PRIX

Those celebrations, his 91st and last win of his F1 career 

In the last race at Malaysia, I had the pleasure of hearing the German national anthem followed by the Italian anthem. These two tunes, played one after the other was one of the things I would seek for, on Sundays when the top three cars came to an halt. The three drivers standing on the podium, watching Michael Schumacher standing on the top step, soaking in the atmosphere, hear the orchestra and spray champagne or muted celebrations if occasion(s) demanded so.

Sebastian Vettel winning in a Ferrari reminded me of those wonder years and weekends when Michael Schumacher won quite remarkably with the Italian team. I would have heard these two tunes in succession at least 50 times, if not more and last such occasion before this year's Malaysian Grand Prix was the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix.

ONE FROM MY MIND
My memories from that race is so fresh. Michael Schumacher storming past Giancarlo Fisichella's Renault at turn one, that overtake remains etched in my memory and has to be one of my favourite moments of Schumacher's racing history. That victory in China put him level with Alonso in points for with two races to go. Michael Schumacher didn't go on to win the driver's championship - but the manner in which he drove in China and in the final race at Interlagos (Brazilian Grand Prix), just made me wonder - 'Why Michael, why won't you race more'? He was then two months shy of turning 38, and yet his reflexes were as good as any driver on the track. The choice and timing of retirement is so personal that one cannot say if it is a good one or a bad one, just with any decisions we take at a certain point in time. I believe we make a certain call which seemed right at that point and then.......... all that remain are perspectives.

HIS LAST WIN
Three seasons in the wilderness and then Michael surprises the racing world when he announced his comeback with Mercedes. He raced with them for further three seasons, which yielded no wins and his tally remained at 91 wins in spite of racing close to sixty races in those three years.

His 91st win came at a time when he was chasing Fernando Alonso for an unprecedented eighth world title. Going into the race, he was 2 points behind the Spaniard, and three races remaining. It was now down to the drivers with both cars evenly matched. After having made his emotional announcement to leave Ferrari and the sport in the previous race,  the racing world knew these were the final moments when the ace German would be behind the wheels. His last three races, his last punch, that last bit of mighty effort and go for three wins for his team, and for the dream farewell.

2006 CHINESE GRAND PRIX
The weather was anything but clear  and was wet during the qualifying session. This meant, the Bridgestone intermediates found wanting when compared to Michelins and Michael Schumacher was the only driver to finish in top ten, the sole Bridgestone runner. Alonso and his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella were 1-2 and as Michael stated - "We did the best we could in these conditions. You can call it a damage limitation operation".

The race started under wet conditions, and all Schumacher needed was a safe start, clear getaway and maintain his position if not gain a couple of positions. The lights went off, Schumacher, a little less aggressive kept away from any trouble and his position remained at six at the end of lap one. The gap between him and Alonso, who at the top was 6.5 seconds and increasing with each corner they went passed by.

Eight laps went this way and by this time the Bridgestone tyres had shown improved performance and this came in the aid of Schumacher. On lap nine, Schumacher pulled off an overtaking manoeuvre on his ex-teammate Rubens Barrichello to move to fifth.  Next up was Jenson Button, and this time it was the use of sheer straight-line speed advantage over the Honda powered engine of Button's. End of lap 14 and Michael Schumacher was in fourth position and his gap to Alonso, the race leader was 25.3 seconds, with 43 laps more to go.

The Ferrari was a touch faster than the Renaults and the pressure was felt by Alonso, who went off the track for a second or two onto the grass.. it was all playing into the hands of Ferrari maestro. Kimi Raikkonen, by this time having overtaken Fisichella was in second position and on lap 18 he retired from a mechanical failure (throttle problem) having just made his first pit-stop.

Michael Schumacher was now in third position and made his first pit-stop on lap 21, followed by Fisichella a lap later and Alonso, two laps later. At the end of these pit-stops, Michael Schumacher had retained his third position and was in pursuit of the two Renaults. Alonso opted for just the change of his front tyres while sticking to the rear-tyres.

The decision to go with unchanged rear tyres would soon haunt Alonso. At the race midway, Fisichella and Schumacher take advantage of a relatively slower Renault of Alonso. Fisichella makes his move to take the lead. A lap later at turn two, Michael Schumacher moves inside and overtakes Alonso to move into second position. Twenty-six laps to go and Schumacher has a Renault and a pit-stop ahead of him.

Struggling for grip with his existing tyres and reacting to other drivers make the switch to the dry tyres, Fernando Alonso makes his second and final pit stop on lap 35 and he found himself stationed for 19.2 seconds owing to the problem with the right rear release. This little drama now put focus on Fisichella and Michael Schumacher and their battle in the remaining twenty laps.

On lap 40, Ferrari call in Michael Schumacher and release him at the end of 6.9 s with dry tyres. A lap later Fisichella, having had a track advantage over Schumacher comes into the pit-stop, stays for 6.6 s and off he goes to join the race track. There was a clear gap between Fisichella as he exited the pits to Schumacher as he had just crossed the start/finish line.

A turn later, Fisichella struggling for grip on his fresh and relatively colder set of tyres and Schumacher zooms past him nonchalantly with two wheels on the track and two wheels on the kerbs and Astroturf. He chased, chased all this while and now he was presented with the only opportunity the Renault team would give to take the lead. At the height of Renault's vulnerability, there he was, Michael Schumacher in full authority ruthlessly getting past Fisichella to take the lead. He went to say about the move - "I knew he'd see I was coming and that he would be pressing (with fresh and cold tyres) and I sort of expected he would be having a moment".

 What would be Alonso and Renault's response? Alonso puts in fastest laps, one after the other, seven in a row, takes second spot and chases Michael Schumacher. But the damage had been done and unless Michael would make a mistake, even those rain drops which were beginning to accumulate on the race track would not come in the way of his victory.

An enthusiastic Michael goes past the chequered flag to win his first Chinese Grand Prix, his 91st Grand Prix and what turned out to be the last win of his career - but little did I or he knew about it on that evening of 1st October in Shanghai. With two races left in the 2006 season, both Alonso and Michael Schumacher were tied in first place with 116 points. "It's clear that if I win in Suzuka (and Alonso went scoreless) we have done it. We have it in our hands. We'll go for it as hard as we can, and the better one will be the winner".

Oh, Michael, you didn't win your title that year - but there is no arguing who the better winner was and is!


Sebastian Vettel, then aged 19 was a reserve driver with BMW-Sauber and had participated in one of the Friday free practice sessions. Come Sunday, he and Ferrari would hope to emulate that performance of 2006 against the Mercedes.