Schumacher's legacy leaves F1 awestruck

The 2006 Formula One season will be remembered for the gripping battle between the old Old Guard and the new, Michael Schumacher versus Fernando Alonso. Ferrari versus Renault. Their on-track confrontations, together with off-track chicanery and controversy, made it a memorable year rendered all the more significant when Schumacher finally revealed after victory at Monza in September that he would be retiring.

Such was the quality of the racing that nobody really cared that 2.4 litre V8s had replaced the old 3 litre V10s, or that tyre stops were once again a feature (in a direct sop, cynics said, to Ferrari). But spectators liked the new knock-out qualifying system.

Renault were stronger to begin with, Alonso winning in the opening race in Bahrain, finishing second to team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella in Malaysia, then winning again in Australia. But then Schumacher asserted Ferrari's authority in Imola and Nurburgring, forcing Alonso to settle for second on each occasion.

Alonso and Renault hit another purple patch with four consecutive victories that stunned Ferrari, Alonso winning at home in Spain, in Monaco, Silverstone and Montreal. Schumacher, however, took second place in three of those four. His controversial behaviour in qualifying at Monaco, and subsequent banishment to the back of the grid, restricted him to fifth place.

Alonso and Renault won again in Canada, but in Indianapolis the tide began to turn. Schumacher won from team-mate Felipe Massa, with Alonso struggling home fifth.

Schumacher and Ferrari won again at Magny-Cours, where Renault had expected to get back into the groove, and only cunning pitwork earned Alonso second place ahead of Massa.

Hockenheim marked another appalling weekend for Renault, compounded by the FIA's sudden decision to "reinterpret" its own ruling concerning mass dampers, which only Renault had. Some openly accused the governing body of favouring Schumacher and Ferrari, especially after the German won again. What made people suspicious was that the ban coincided with the summer break, when testing was not allowed, hampering Renault even more.

The Anglo-French team forgot about the dampers for Hungary, but just as Alonso had that tricky damp race in the bag a broken rear-wheel retaining clip pitched him off the road. Jenson Button finally took his Honda to victory, after 114 attempts, and Alonso could count himself lucky that Schumacher, after a couple of clashes with Nick Heidfeld and Pedro de la Rosa, managed only a point for eighth place.

Straight after Button's win came Massa's first, when a safety car incident in Turkey stymied plans to have the Brazilian "surrender" the lead to his team leader during the first pit stops. Schumacher fell behind Alonso as he queued behind Massa.

At Monza the tension was heightened by the expected announcement that Schumacher would be retiring at the end of the year. But before that, further controversy erupted when Alonso was moved back from fifth on the grid to 10th after allegedly impeding Massain qualifying.

An angry Alonso openly spoke of F1 no longer being a sport. The following day Schumacher won, and duly announced his imminent departure; Alonso retired with a broken engine. His once majestic advantage was now down to only two points with three races left.

In China, Schumacher benefited when Alonso struggled with new front tyres after his first pit stop. Now, incredibly, Schumacher and Alonso headed for Japan neck and neck, each with 116 points. But because Schumacher had seven wins to six, he held the lead for the first time in the season. In qualifying the Schumacher/Ferrari/Bridgestone package stunned their rivals, but Alonso, Renault and Michelin hit back in the race as the two rivals proved evenly matched. They were running first and second, battling it out, when Schumacher's normally super-reliable Ferrari suffered an engine failure. Alonso romped home to open up a 10 point advantage.

Now all Alonso needed was a single point here to frustrate Schumacher's aspiration to retire with an eighth title. As it transpired, he finished second to Massa and Schumacher had to fight back to fourth after a puncture. Alonso thus secured his back-to-back title.

Inevitably the Alonso/ Schumacher battle overshadowed all else, but the successes of Button and Massa were also highlights in a wonderful season, at the end of which Schumacher's departure brought down the curtain on a dramatic era.

2006 A year of drama

* BEST MOMENT

The final race of the season. Felipe Massa (below), won at home; Fernando Alonso fended off Jenson Button to finish second and take his second consecutive world championship; a retiring Michael Schumacher driving a blinding race to check out with dignity.

* WORST MOMENT

Schumacher's feeble "parking" effort at the Rascasse corner during qualifying in Monte Carlo, when he attempted to block the track with a perfectly healthy but supposedly stalled Ferrari in an effort to frustrate Alonso.

* BEST RACE

The Hungarian Grand Prix, which featured some superb driving by Button, Alonso and Schumacher on a very slick surface, and finally saw Button score his maiden victory.

* MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

Ferrari's Felipe Massa. He had a reputation for being a trifle headstrong, but drove with growing maturity.

* NEXT YOUNG STARS

BMW have Robert Kubica and Sebastien Vettel; Renault the Finnish newcomer Heikki Kovalainen; McLaren will surely give Lewis Hamilton a race seat; ditto Super Aguri with Anthony Davidson; Williams should run Timo Glock; and, if Gerhard Berger and Red Bull stop messing about, Toro Rosso's Tonio Liuzzi can fulfil his potential.

In the driving seat: Who is going where in Formula One for 2007

* RENAULT Giancarlo Fisichella, Heikki Kovalainen. Test driver: Nelson Piquet Jnr.

* FERRARI Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa. Test driver: Luca Badoer.

* McLAREN-MERCEDES Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton? Test driver: Pedro de la Rosa? Gary Paffett?

* HONDA Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello. Test driver: Christian Klien?

* BMW SAUBER Nick Heidfeld, Robert Kubica. Test driver: Sebastien Vettel

* TOYOTA Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli. Test driver: Franck Montagny

* RED BULL RACING-RENAULT David Coulthard, Mark Webber.

* WILLIAMS-TOYOTA Alexander Wurz, Nico Rosberg. Test driver: Timo Glock?

* SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO-FERRARI Tonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed? Robert Doornbos?

* SPYKER-FERRARI Christijan Albers, Tiago Monteiro? Christian Klien? Dan Wheldon?

* SUPER AGURI-HONDA Takuma Sato, Anthony Davidson. Test driver: Sakon Yamamoto?

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