Two points and a lot of bad blood separated Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher going into the Chinese Grand Prix of 2006. Renault tried to play mind games with Schumacher insisting the German’s poor previous visits to the Shanghai track left Alonso with an advantage. Schumacher, of course, was rather bullish. Ferrari had won the previous two races and momentum looked to be firmly in their favour. The stage was set for a fascinating weekend on and off the track.
Qualifying went disastrously for the German. He was left lumbered in 6th place whilst Renault locked out the front row, with title rival Alonso on pole and Giancarlo Fisichella perfectly placed as his wingman alongside. Schumacher would have to battle to the front on his own with his own team-mate, Felipe Massa, even further down the grid in 20th after an engine change penalty. Renault looked correct in their claims that Schumacher and China simply didn’t not get on.
There was a further sting in the tail for Schumacher as everyone woke up to a soaked racetrack on Sunday morning. Wet conditions favouring the Michelin shod Renaults far more than the Bridgestone clad Ferraris.
A relatively tame race start saw Alonso and Schumacher hold onto their grid positions, Kimi Raikkonen being the main mover from 5th to 3rd and pressuring Fisichella in the opening laps. Schumacher began his charge on lap 8 as he blasted by Rubens Barrichello’s Honda, the conditions beginning to come to the Bridgestone runners as the track gradually dried out.
Six laps later Schumacher got by the other Honda of Jenson Button, but by this time he was a massive 25 seconds behind Alonso, who had pulled away at an alarming rate. Raikkonen sped by Fisichella on the same lap and began to cut into Alonso’s lead.
Lap 19 saw Schumacher right on the back of Fisichella’s Renault, the conditions now firmly in Ferrari’s favour as the Bridgestone intermediates entered their optimum zone. Critically for Schumacher, Raikkonen’s McLaren retired ahead of him leaving Alonso out front on his own and wide open to attack.
The first set of stops proved critical; Schumacher and Fisichella both opted to take fuel on but not change their tyres, Alonso chose to change his front tyres after becoming concerned with their wear rate. Alonso had made an error as the change made his car even harder to handle on the limits of adhesion. Soon his 20 second lead had whittled down to absolutely nothing, and he had Fisichella and Schumacher swarming all over his gearbox. Fisichella unsuccessfully attempted a pass on Alonso on lap 29 before making the move stick the following time around. The failed move had left Alonso vulnerable to a patient Schumacher who swept by the championship leader on lap 31. Soon Schumacher was back on Fisichella’s tail but he could not find a way past.
The track was still drying by lap 35 and some drivers had even began to pit for dry weather tyres. Alonso continued to lose bags of time to Schumacher and Fisichella up ahead. The Spaniard had to do something and pitted himself for dry tyres, only for a wheel nut to stick and his stop to go on for an agonising 19 seconds. He rejoined in 4th and a massive 50 seconds off the lead. Schumacher and Fisichella finally came in for dry tyres on laps 40 and 41 respectively.
Upon rejoining the track Fisichella slid wide at Turn 1 allowing Schumacher, who had his tyres fully up to temperature by this point, to fly by and into the lead. Alonso was also flying and set fastest lap after fastest lap in desperation to catch Schumacher. Fisichella moved out of Alonso’s way suspiciously easily but it wasn’t enough, as Schumacher held on to win by just three seconds as the checkered flag fell.
Both title rivals had put in barnstorming drives; Schumacher to even be near the Renault cars in conditions his Ferrari hated, and Alonso to come from so far behind after selecting the wrong strategy mid-race. Schumacher’s win brought him level on points with Alonso in the championship battle with just two rounds to go. The fairytale of retiring with title number eight was bright and alive, but Alonso was not going to relinquish his championship without a fight.
It proved to be the 91st and final win of Michael Schumacher’s F1 career. Fitting that a man nicknamed the ‘reinmeister’ would win his last in such inclement conditions.