Schumacher in pole position as Alonso runs into trouble

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The Independent Online

If Giancarlo Fisichella's performance in China yesterday was a guide, Renault are going to be in trouble in 2007. The Italian could have taken a damage-limiting victory over Michael Schumacher, once the early leader Fernando Alonso had run into trouble. Instead, a mistake from the Italian gifted the German his seventh win of the season and the 91st of his career. And it gave him the lead for the first time in the 2006 title chase even though he and Alonso, who recovered to finish second, share 116 points; Schumacher has seven wins to Alonso's six.

To begin with, it was Schumacher who seemed to be in trouble as Alonso sprinted into the distance on a wet track made treacherous by standing water and heavy spray. As Fisichella ran second, Schumacher had to fight his way past the battling Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, and Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren. After 13 laps, Alonso was 16.4sec ahead of Raikkonen, who had outfoxed Fisichella that lap. Schumacher had just disposed of Button, and was fourth, 25sec adrift of his championship rival.

At that stage, another win seemed in the bag for Alonso. But then it started to go wrong. Schumacher refuelled first, on lap 21. Alonso did so a lap later, Fisichella a lap later still. But where Schumacher and Fisichella stayed on their original intermediate tyres, Alonso was concerned about the wear rate on the left front, and elected to change both front tyres. Doing so dramatically hampered his pace, however, as the new tyres refused to reach their optimal operating state for lap after lap. Suddenly both Fisichella and Schumacher, now third after Raikkonen had retired his McLaren with a throttle problem after 19 laps, were hauling him in.

Incredibly, within a mere five laps, Alonso was having to block Fisichella, who had Schumacher over him like a red cloak.

Alonso resisted until inevitably having to yield to his team-mate on the 30th lap and all the while Schumacher was metaphorically rubbing his hands. Historically this was the one circuit that had never smiled upon him, but soon it would give him a very nice going-away present. He overtook the struggling Alonso on lap 31, and the Spaniard lost further time - a crucial 13sec - during his second stop on the 35th lap when the wheelnut fell out of the securing gun for the right rear wheel when he changed to dry tyres.

Now only Fisichella could stop a disaster for Renault. Schumacher stopped for new, dry tyres on lap 40, by which time his intermediates were just about finished. Fisichella did likewise a lap later, and rejoined in the lead. At least, until he reached the first corner. And there he had his fateful error.

"It was clear that turn one was going to be difficult," Schumacher said. "I had a moment there myself. I took it reasonably easy, but still almost went in too fast. So I was thinking it could be an issue with Giancarlo and there it was, he went wide, I took my opportunity, and I was then able to turn down the revs and drive safely home."

The Italian, who will lead Renault next year as Alonso transfers to McLaren, looked as crestfallen as he had after losing to Raikkonen in Japan last year in similar circumstances. And well he might have.

Now Alonso's fresh tyres were working and he proceeded to set a string of fastest laps.

He overhauled Fisichella for second, and two valuable extra points, on the 48th lap, and by the finish was only 3.1sec adrift of Schumacher. But his title lead was all but gone. Had Fisichella been able to contain Schumacher, who knows what opportunity that might have created for the champion?

"Giancarlo and Michael came to me really quickly," Alonso said of his middle stint. "When I stopped again we changed early to dry tyres and hoped to find a miracle. But I think that the weekend has been fantastic and we have to take the positive thing, that the middle stint was the only part of the race when we weren't quick. I am very confident for the last two races, but this was one opportunity lost."

Nick Heidfeld felt the same way. He should have been fourth for Sauber-BMW after a strong run, but the final corner proved his undoing. Jenson Button had been battling hard for fifth with Honda team-mate Barrichello in the closing stages, when slight rain turned the track into a skating rink. Button slid wide at one stage and fell behind Pedro de la Rosa's McLaren. But he recovered, repassed the Spaniard, and going into the final lap used traffic to go round the outside of Barrichello. Going into turn 16 he caught Heidfeld and trapped him behind Takuma Sato's lapped Super Aguri.

As Button ducked down the inside, Barrichello slid into the back of the BMW and spun it, damaging his own nose. Button thus grabbed an unexpected fourth, De la Rosa gratefully took fifth from Barrichello, and Heidfeld had to be content with seventh ahead of Mark Webber, who earned the final point when David Coulthard half-spun out of eighth place on lap 49.

If one German was disgruntled, another was ecstatic. "It was quite an exciting and extreme weekend," Schumacher smiled. "It was a gamble to stay on the original set of tyres, but it paid [off]. Now we are on equal points. If we look back some while ago, it is a miracle we are here, but thanks to great work from everyone we've managed it and [we] go to [the] last two races fighting. I believe we will have to wait until the last one for a decision to be reached, so it's an interesting couple of weeks we face. I really look forward to that."

l Sato was disqualified after the race for ignoring blue flags waved by officials. This is the second time this season the Japanese driver has been called up by stewards for the offence. The Spyker MF1 driver Christijan Albers was given a 25-second time penalty for the same offence and given a reprimand.