Alonso holds off brilliant Schumacher to retain title

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The Independent Online

And so it is over. Fernando Alonso is still the world champion after finishing second in yesterday's Brazilian Grand Prix, and heads into his future as the man everyone will have to beat.

Arch-rival Michael Schumacher, seeking the victory in his 249th and final race that would have brought his score equal to the combined tallies of those other greats, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, was felled early by a puncture before driving a champion's race back up to fourth.

The race belonged from the start to Ferrari's Felipe Massa. He was thus the first Brazilian to win his home race since an emotional Ayrton Senna back in 1993, when he was just a schoolboy himself as his compatriot took that historic success.

The first lap saw a collision when Nico Rosberg ran into the back of Williams team-mate Mark Webber, before crashing heavily at the end of the lap and bringing out the safety car. That may have proved Schumacher's undoing. Soon after racing had resumed on the seventh lap, and he had pulled off a great overtaking move for fifth place round the outside of Giancarlo Fisichella in the final corner, his new jinx struck yet again. The Ferrari twitched alarmingly, and he was forced to crawl to the pits on lap nine with his left rear Bridgestone tyre in shreds. He had picked up a puncture, probably from the Rosberg debris.

As Massa easily opened up a lead over Kimi Raikkonen, and Alonso stroked along in third place with Fisichella riding shotgun, Schumacher fell way down to 17th place. Ten laps into the 71-lap race, the championship excitement had already fizzled out. For Schumacher the game was now over regardless of what happened to Alonso, the win he needed now just a dream.

Nevertheless, he never lost heart as he drove beautifully, setting a string of fastest laps as he clawed his way back to eighth place after 40 laps. And he kept climbing, passing Rubens Barrichello for sixth place on the 51st lap. That brought him back up to Fisichella, but yet again the Ferrari began to sputter intermittently and lose speed at crucial moments, as it had in qualifying. Nevertheless, he was able to push the Italian into a mistake on the 63rd lap, and then to outfox Raikkonen, who will replace him at Ferrari next year, on the 69th lap.

"The race was rather chaotic, I guess that's the right word for it," Schumacher said. "We had an insanely quick car today. We probably had enough speed to lap everyone, to be honest. We did that sort of anyhow. All in all, I'd have to say it was a class finale with the car, with the speed we've got. But it just wasn't meant to be today, for me.

"I'm really happy for Felipe that he could be the next Brazilian after Senna to win here. And naturally I congratulate Fernando as well."

In the end, on a day their car and tyres were dominant, Ferrari came away with 15 points, insufficient to relieve Renault of the constructors' title as they garnered 11 to bring their score to 206 to Ferrari's 201.

"It has been a fantastic weekend," Alonso said, ecstatic after winning back-to-back titles at the end of a bruising season. "It was a very good race for us. I only needed one point but for sure if I could help the team become constructors' champion, I was ready to do it. Ferrari were too quick for us today, and there was a lot of pressure from Jenson [Button], but after Michael's problem we turned down the revs and I managed to finish second."

And now he felt it was the time to pay due tribute to Schumacher. "It's been very close between us, and it's been good to fight with him. I have always said to become champion when Michael is still on the track made it more valuable. I was extremely lucky to win the last two championships, and we all wish him the best for his new life. It's been a pleasure to race with him."

It was a great day for Button and Honda, the Briton pulling off a wonderful passing move on Raikkonen on the 29th lap, and hounding Alonso to the flag. "A massive well done to both Felipe and Fernando," he said. "After yesterday's problems it's a great result to come from 14th to third, a great way to end the year and one of the most enjoyable races I've had, fighting through the field."

"It's just amazing, isn't it?" Massa beamed after the greatest day of his life. "For 13 years a Brazilian has not won here, now here I am in front of my people. I had a fantastic car, and maybe this was the easiest race of my life! I was just controlling everything. This is a dream come true, to see people bringing me the Brazilian flag, screaming my name, dancing. All drivers would love to be in my position, those who have been know just how special it is."

And so, as he and the four young lions who will vie for his mantle headed the field, Schumacher's honourable fourth place in a trying final race brought a fabulous career to a frustrating conclusion. Oft-criticised, he went out the way he came in with Jordan back in Belgium in 1991: a hero.

Brazilian Grand Prix (São Paulo): 1 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1hr 31min 53.751sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +18.658sec; 3 J Button (GB) Honda +19.394; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +24.094; 5 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +28.503; 6 G Fisichella (It) Renault +30.287; 7 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +40.294; 8 P de la Rosa (Sp) McLaren-Mercedes +52.068; 9 R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber +1min 07.642sec; 10 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +1 lap; 11 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 12 R Doornbos (Neth) RedBull-Ferrari +1 lap; 13 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 14 C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota +1 lap; 15 T Monteiro (Por) Midland-Toyota +2 laps; 16 S Yamamoto (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +2 laps; 17 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber +8 laps. Not classified (did not finish): 18 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Ferrari 14 laps completed; 19 J Trulli (It) Toyota 10 laps; 20 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 9 laps; 21 M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth 1 lap; 22 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 0 laps.

Fastest lap: M Schumacher, 1:12.162, lap 70.

Final championship standings: Drivers: 1 Alonso 134pts (champion); 2 M Schumacher 121; 3 Massa 80; 4 Fisichella 72; 5 Raikkonen 65; 6 Button 56; 7 Barrichello 30; 8 J P Montoya (Col) 26; 9 Heidfeld 23; 10 R Schumacher 20; 11 De la Rosa 19; 12 Trulli 15; 13 Coulthard 14; 14 Webber 7; 15 Villeneuve 7; 16 Kubica 6; 17 Rosberg 4; 18 Klien 2; 19 Liuzzi 1. Constructors: 1 Renault 206pts (champions); 2 Ferrari 201; 3 McLaren 110; 4 Honda 86; 5 BMW Sauber 36; 6 Toyota 35; 7 RedBull 16; 8 Williams 1; 9 Toro Rosso 1; 10 Midland 0; 11 Super Aguri 0.