Coming into the 2006 summer break the headlines were filled with one thing – Michael Schumacher vs Fernando Alonso. F1’s most successful driver and it’s reigning champion were going head-to-head in a fierce battle that was reaching boiling point. As they duelled a new star was about to rise to the top for the first time while another made his debut on the big stage. This is the race that was the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Round 13 of the 2006 season began in predictably controversial style as championship leader Fernando Alonso fell foul of the yellow flags during Friday practice. The Renault driver was first judged to have brake tested the Red Bull of Robert Doornbos in a dangerous manner, before going on to overtake another car under yellow flag conditions.
The stewards slapped the Spaniard with a two-second time penalty for qualifying which would almost certainly see him mired in the mid-field. It should have been an advantage for Schumacher, but he was also about to land himself in hot water.
In Saturday’s final practice session Schumacher overtook the BMW-Sauber of Robert Kubica and the Renault of Alonso under red flag conditions. The penalty was to also have two seconds added to his final qualifying time. Both title contenders would have their work cut out to bag a decent result on Sunday.
The penalty woe wasn’t just confined to the championship duo, with both Christijan Albers and Jenson Button both handed ten-place penalties for engine changes.
Button’s penalty helped promote Schumacher to 11th, with the Brit in 14th, just one place ahead of Alonso. McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen would line-up on pole position ahead of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.
As race day dawned the rain clouds came, spawning a deluge that pelted the track not long before the start. All year the Bridgestone intermediate tyre had been below par in comparison to the Michelin offering. For Schumacher, the rain was a complete nightmare.
Raikkonen led away rather comfortably on the first lap, and behind Alonso and Schumacher both achieved lightning starts. Seven-time champion Schumacher gained five places through Turn 1 alone and was fourth by the end of the first lap. Alonso followed close by in sixth after gaining a massive eleven places.
Further back, Button was taking it a little more tentatively; he rounded David Coulthard and Nick Heidfeld in quick succession. While the Brit took it steady, Alonso and Schumacher began to engage in a brilliant battle for third place. Lap after lap, the two would use every inch of the Hungaroring track to defend and attack. Eventually, Alonso won out with a sublime move around the outside of the final corner.
The rain was allowing moves to be made all around a track that rarely sees any overtaking. Button bashed Massa out of the way at Turn 1 for sixth place as his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, had to pit for intermediate tyres as he’d started in the inferior wet tyres.
Barrichello’s stop left the McLarens of Raikkonen and Pedro de la Rosa leading. Alonso was chasing them down hard, while Schumacher was rapidly falling back into the clutches of Giancarlo Fisichella and Button.
Schumacher’s Bridgestone tyres had left him 31 seconds behind Raikkonen in just 13 laps. On lap 16 de la Rosa peeled in for fresh rubber with Raikkonen following him in just one lap later.
Remarkably this left Alonso in the lead. In just 17 laps he’d gone from 15th to first and was shaping up for one of the best wins of his career.
Button and Schumacher would both stop just a couple of laps later. The Ferrari was forced to come in after an altercation with Fisichella’s Renault resulting in a broken front wing. This would drop Schumacher to ninth.
At this stage of the race, Alonso was in a league of his own. Indeed by lap 23 he had caught Schumacher to lap him. Alonso’s lead over Raikkonen in second was a mammoth 39 seconds. Button was a further nine seconds back with de la Rosa splitting him and Raikkonen.
The proverbial hit the fan on lap 27 after Raikkonen slammed into the back of Vitantonio Luizzi’s Toro Rosso. The accident was very strange with Raikkonen seemingly caught out as Luizzi slowed to let him by.
The safety car allowed every driver on the lead lap to stop, apart from Button, and saw Schumacher whittle a disadvantage of a minute-and-a-half down to just 25 seconds. The race re-started on lap 30.
Two laps later Alonso was going supremely fast. He put in a lap over five seconds faster than anyone in the field. His performance was almost certainly Senna-esque, and one for the ages.
Button soon began to up his own pace and by lap 37 the Brit was lapping quicker than the leading Renault. Schumacher too was starting to light up the timing screens as his Bridgestones finally entered their working range – Heidfeld was easy meat as Schumacher stole fifth place.
In fact so well were Schumacher’s tyres working, Ferrari chose not to change them as he stopped for a fuel top-up – enough to take him to the end of the race – on lap 46. The decision would come back to haunt them later in the race.
The race was turned on its head on lap 51. Alonso chose to pit and fuel to the end looking certain for a famous victory.
However a heartbreaking driveshaft failure as he exited the pit-lane put an end to one of the best drives in a decade. The Renault pitched itself into the barriers at Turn 2 and a desolate Alonso was helpless.
This left Button in the lead and a stop to switch to dry tyres didn’t affect his track position. Schumacher was an unlikely second with severely worn intermediates on a rapidly drying track. De la Rosa quickly caught him and Schumacher began to look very desperate.
A selection of questionable moves, including cutting the chicane twice, left Schumacher behind de la Rosa, with Heidfeld now on the attack for third. Schumacher and the BMW-Sauber would touch wheels leaving the Ferrari with damaged steering.
Schumacher limped home to the pits to finish in ninth place. However his would turn into eighth, and one crucial point, following the disqualification of Robert Kubica. The Pole was making his debut and had shone during the race in difficult conditions. However, his BMW-Sauber was underweight and sadly his result could not stand.
Schumacher would leave Hungary having cut Alonso’s title lead down to just ten points, but it so easily could have been twenty.
Up at the front Button was left unchallenged following Alonso’s retirement and took an emotional maiden victory. He’d had 13 podiums and 113 starts, a career of seven seasons of near misses and dodgy cars had led to this very moment. Indeed it remains the last Honda-powered win in Formula One.
For Button, it was the start of something great. For the rest of 2006, he would score more points than anyone else and those results persuaded him to stay on with Honda until 2009. Of course, the Honda story would end sourly, but that first win started the chain of events that led to Button driving for Brawn in 2009 and becoming Formula One World Champion.
The podium would be completed by Pedro de la Rosa and Nick Heidfeld. For de la Rosa it was his maiden podium, for Heidfeld he had taken BMW-Sauber’s maiden podium.
It had been a brilliant day of firsts, in Button’s case let’s hope it isn’t his last win with Honda power.