There is a big wheel in the funfair at the Suzuka circuit, but yesterday, on the 37th lap of the Japanese Grand Prix, the bigger wheel of fortune turned in favour of Fernando Alonso and against Michael Schumacher just when the opposite outcome seemed inevitable. After his Ferrari engine exploded, the German conceded that the fight for the world title is lost.
From second place on the grid Schumacher chased after his team-mate, Felipe Massa, who started from pole position, and grabbed the lead from the Brazilian at the start of the third lap. Thereafter the race seemed his to lose.
Alonso took a big risk overtaking Jarno Trulli's Toyota at the first corner, and later the Renault driver outfoxed Trulli's team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, on the 13th lap. As soon as the champion was running in clear air it became clear that his Michelin tyres were at nothing like the disadvantage they had been to Schumacher's Bridgestones in qualifying. Once Massa had been obliged to go into the pits three laps earlier than planned, on lap 13, because of a punctured rear tyre, the two title protagonists could fight mano a mano. Until the moment of Schumacher's demise the gap was never more than six seconds.
"In the second stint the gap was more or less the same, depending on traffic, and I was thinking it was possible to win. Why not?" Alonso said. "We were only halfway through."
But when he came across Schumacher's stricken Ferrari, whose engine had suddenly blown up as he went through the first Degner Curve, he admitted he had initially thought it was one of the Dutch Spyker cars. "From a distance it looked more orange than red, so immediately I braked, thinking there might be oil on the track." Alonso had already survived a moment there earlier while chasing Ralf Schumacher. "I didn't realise until we were side by side that it was Michael."
The Spaniard admitted that he smiled to himself at that moment. "I have had so many problems these last couple of races, and I needed to recover these unlucky moments. But Michael was leading the race and I just didn't believe what I was seeing. A mechanical problem from a Ferrari car doesn't happen often. So after the pace of my car, that was the second surprise, the biggest one of the race."
Schumacher was philosophical in his disappointment. "We are a great team," he said. "Our guys are the best and I have a great affection for everyone at Ferrari and am always more than satisfied in the way we work. Incidents like today's can happen and they are part of racing. You win together but you also lose together. Today we did our best, I was leading the race and then my engine broke. That's the simplest way to sum it up. That is Formula One."
A tidy race for Alonso's team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella, saw him dispose of the troublesome Toyotas, then Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren and, finally, Jenson Button's Honda, and as Massa eased his pace late on, the Italian closed in a little as they finished second and third.
Britain's Jenson Button was a distant but unchallenged fourth. "I'm reasonably pleased," he said. "We had a solid race and I think we did the best job possible, given the fight going on for the championship. We just haven't quite got enough to beat the two contenders right now, but we will get there."
The final points went to Raikkonen, Trulli, Schumacher Jnr and Sauber-BMW's Nick Heidfeld, who just fended off his team-mate, Robert Kubica, to the chequered flag.
Two spectacular incidents saw Christijan Albers retire his Spyker when the rear suspension broke exiting the chicane, tearing off his rear wing, while Mark Webber later crashed his Williams there. But the really spectacular thing about the last grand prix at Suzuka was Alonso's success. He now needs only to finish eighth in Brazil, regardless of what Schumacher and Ferrari achieve there, to keep his crown.
"I don't say that I have one hand on the trophy, not at all," he insisted. "It's a bit too early to realise what happened today, and the same thing can happen in Brazil and you can lose everything. We always thought the title would be decided there, and we are in a much better position than before. When we were equal on points we needed to beat Michael and Ferrari, and it was not easy to approach this weekend with that pressure. Now we only need a few points, but we need to finish the race and sometimes that is not the case."
Where Alonso was cautious, Schumacher was candid and gracious. "We are nine points behind in the constructors' classification and we will do all we can to win this title in Brazil. As for the drivers', it is lost. I don't want to head off, hoping my rival has to retire. That is not the way in which I want to win the title."
1 F Alonso 126
2 M Schumacher 116
* IS TITLE RACE OVER?
Schumacher has to win the final GP, in Brazil on 22 Oct, and Alonso finish worse than eighth if the German is to win an eighth world title.
Race details and standings
1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1hr 23min 53.413sec; 2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:24:09.564; 3 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:24:17.366; 4 J Button (GB) Honda 1:24:27.514; 5 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24:37.009; 6 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:24:40.130; 7 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:24:42.282; 8 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-BMW 1:25:09.508; 9 R Kubica (Pol) Sauber-BMW 1:25:10.345; 10 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth +1 lap; 11 P de la Rosa (Sp) McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap; 12 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +1 lap; 13 R Doornbos (Neth) Red Bull-Ferrari +1 lap; 14 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth +1 lap; 15 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +1 lap; 16 T Monteiro (Por) Spyker-Toyota +2 laps; 17 S Yamamoto (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda +3 laps.
Not classified: 18 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth 48 laps completed; 19 M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth 39 laps completed; 20 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 36 laps completed; 21 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Ferrari 35 laps completed; 22 C Albers (Neth) Spyker-Toyota 20 laps completed.
Fastest Lap: Alonso 1min 32.676 on lap 14.
World Championship standings: Drivers' Championship: 1 Alonso 126pts; 2 M Schumacher 116; 3 Massa 70; 4 Fisichella 69; 5 Raikkonen 61; 6 Button 50; 7 Barrichello 28; 8 J P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes 26; 9 Heidfeld 23; 10 R Schumacher 20; 11 De la Rosa 18; 12 Trulli 15; 13 Coulthard 14; 14 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-BMW 7; 15 Webber 7; 16 Kubica 6; 17 Rosberg 4; 18 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull-Ferrari 2; 19 V Liuzzi 1. Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Renault 195pts; 2 Ferrari 186; 3 McLaren 105; 4 Honda 78; 5 Sauber-BMW 36; 6 Toyota 35; 7 Red Bull 16; 8 Williams 11; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 1.
Schumacher's shoot-outs: Why the German is dangerous with title at stake
* AUSTRALIAN GP (Adelaide, 13 Nov, 1994)
Schumacher had to beat Damon Hill but crashed into a wall. Hill arrived just as Schumacher wobbled away. Seeing the Briton about to snatch the lead, the Benetton driver drove into him. Hill's Williams was forced to retire, thus ensuring that Schumacher, who also retired, was champion.
* EUROPEAN GP
(Jerez de la Frontera, 26 Oct, 1997)
Schumacher had to beat Jacques Villeneuve and was leading when the French-Canadian dived inside at the first corner on lap 48. Just as with Hill, Schumacher's Ferrari turned into Villeneuve's Williams but came off worse and had to retire. Villeneuve, with third place, clinched the title.
* JAPANESE GP
(Suzuka, 1 Nov, 1998)
Schumacher, in the Ferrari, had to beat Mika Hakkinen. He took pole position from the Finn but stalled at the start. The German recovered well but was forced to retire after a tyre exploded. Hakkinen won the race for McLaren-Mercedes and took the title.
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