A bad year for the Schumachers

Is Alonso a worthy world champ? Who gave the best party? And what happened to those normally reliable Germans? David Tremayne answers the key (and not so key) questions at the end of another Formula One season
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The Independent Online

It was a combination of brilliant teamwork and great driving talent. The Renault R25 was almost bulletproof, just like the Ferraris of old in contrast to the subsequently faster McLaren. It was relatively easy to drive fast, well developed, and did its winning when it mattered, at the beginning of the season. Whatever luck Renault had going they largely manufactured themselves. Alonso was able to tailor his driving to suit circumstances and thus perhaps eased a little bit of pressure, but he also kept the team fully motivated with his performances and, as he proved conclusively to doubters in Japan, he is as fast as Kimi Raikkonen but has fewer of the Finn's personality quirks. Undoubtedly, this private and reserved man is a worthy world champion.

Why did Michael Schumacher do so badly?

The tyremakers Bridgestone carried the can for Ferrari's spectacular fall from grace, but the truth was that the F2005 was a poor car, too. Its aerodynamics were no match for McLaren's, and it had a problem getting the best from its tyres. Insiders admit the blame lies 50-50 between themselves and Bridgestone.

Will Schumacher be back?

Of course. But possibly only for one last season of redemption. There were times in 2005 when even the legendary champion's driving lacked that final edge of commitment - such as the Nürburgring in May where he was only fifth - and even he admitted to feeling demoralised. But his drive at Suzuka showed he can still be as committed and forceful as ever. Recently, his manager Willi Weber has been suggesting that Schumacher will stay on until 2008, and that he would certainly stay with Ferrari if he decides not to hang up his helmet. Time will tell.

Given that Schumacher's dominance was widely regarded as a prime reason for Formula One's falling popularity, did the sport make a comeback with the public this season?

Not if you lived in north America, and race attendances were shaky in Europe. But French and German television audiences increased and of course the Spanish loved it. There were signs of revival in Japan, too.

What else does it need to do?

Until the warring factions within the sport thrash out a truce, Formula One will continue to spin its wheels. Sponsors welcome the gradual phasing out of tobacco sponsorship, but the uncertainty over the future is still a brake on progress.

Who is winning the off-track battle between Bernie Ecclestone and the 'rebel' owners?

This changes according to the day of the week, or to whom one addresses the question. Ecclestone has Ferrari, both Red Bull teams, Midland (née Jordan) and is likely to get Williams any day now as Mr E is waving a very large cheque at Sir Francis. But against that, the manufacturers have signed a binding agreement to stick together, which means that Renault, Mercedes-Benz (McLaren), BMW, Honda and Toyota are still ranged against him. Their threat to initiate a breakaway series is still regarded as a bluff, but they are not going to fold and Max Mosley was obliged to cancel a press conference in China in which he intended to outline the 2008 regulations, in order to avoid exciting further disruption. But the battle is far from over.

Which young talent had the most impressive season?

A guy who barely raced thanks to the debilitating internal machinations of his team's senior management. Tonio Liuzzi, the former karting world champion, was kept on ice at Red Bull for all but four races. Scared of heat from the Austrian media, the team owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, kept him on the sidelines, where he had the thankless task of doing all the set-up work on a Friday that helped Coulthard and, particularly, the Austrian Christian Klien, to shine. Talk to people within the team and they say Liuzzi's work on tyre selection, car set-up and aero evaluation was peerless, and the telemetry traces from his quick laps were electronic works of art. If Red Bull don't put him in their lead team in 2006, it would serve them right if they lost him to BMW.

And who was the most disappointing?

Patrick Friesacher didn't make much of an impression at Minardi, but if you want to talk disappointment there's only one nominee: Ralf Schumacher, on $18m (£10.3m) a year, at Toyota.

How did Jenson Button do?

It was a trying season for England's great hope but he kept his sense of humour, parted with an estimated $35m to secure his $90m future with Honda, and fought the good fight.

"Last year I'd say my driving was at 90, and I reckon this year I made a couple of mistakes but the car's been difficult to drive, so I'd say about 80 to 85 per cent. I've had better performances, that I've driven better when I've driven well, than I did last year. But I made a couple of mistakes, hitting the wall in Canada when it jumped out at me after I'd put it on pole, and in qualifying in Turkey. But that's sort of normal when the car isn't performing as well as it was last year. You saw that with Michael. If I'd had the same car as last year, I'd probably say 95 per cent for this year. You've got to take it as a package, haven't you?"

Which was the most lavish party?

Red Bull tried their best on numerous occasions, but Jenson Button's British media bash in Shanghai snatched away pole position in the revelry stakes. The most hardy scribblers cried off at 4.40am, but not before Button risked facing another $35m bill. Who says drivers don't know how to enjoy themselves these days?

Which driver best lived up to the sport's playboy image?

Button takes pole again. "I'm the only single guy out there. Everyone else seems to be married these days! I can't understand it." Honorary mentions to David Coulthard, Christian Klien and Tonio Liuzzi for manfully coping with the plethora of Red Bull Una models.

And which ones bucked the stereotype?

Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber lived up to their discreet married personae, while Juan Pablo Montoya and Antonio Pizzonia and their spouses were founder members of Formula One crèche.

Which was the greatest single bit of driving during the season?

Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher all helped to make the Japan Grand Prix the greatest race thus far in the 21st century, but the big prize goes to Alonso for his pass on Schumacher going into the notoriously challenging 130R left-hander there. Entry speed 205mph, 4.5g, overtaking the greatest driver of the generation. Beautiful enough to make your eyes sting.

And the worst mistake?

Jacques Villeneuve taking out his Sauber-Petronas team-mate Felipe Massa at Monaco when they were about to grab a decent haul of points. Peter Sauber's normally placid face left nobody in any doubt what he thought of that error of judgement.

What was the lowest point of the season?

Indianapolis, June 19. The day when politics overcame common sense and made even the most diehard fan in the paddock feel deeply ashamed to be part of the sport.

What are the biggest off-season moves?

Sauber become BMW, Minardi become Squadra Toro Rosso, Jordan become Midland and BAR become Honda. Rubens Barrichello leaves Ferrari for Honda; Takuma Sato moves to Honda's Aguri Suzuki-run 'B' team; Felipe Massa moves from Sauber to Ferrari; Nick Heidfeld from Williams to BMW; and the former champion Keke Rosberg's son, Nico, steps into Heidfeld's vacated seat at Williams.

When does next season start?

Yesterday. That's when teams began preparing for the next challenge. If a calendar is ever published, the first race should be Bahrain on March 12, 2006.

And who will win it?

Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren, but Fernando Alonso and Renault will run him close and Michael Schumacher will be in there, too, if Ferrari and Bridgestone can regain their old form.