MICHELIN, RENAULT AND ALONSO A WINNING COMBINATION After 18 closely fought races and an emotional rollercoaster of a season, Fernando Alonso, Renault F1 and Michelin secured both Formula One world championship titles in 2006. Confidence and...
MICHELIN, RENAULT AND ALONSO A WINNING COMBINATION
After 18 closely fought races and an emotional rollercoaster of a season, Fernando Alonso, Renault F1 and Michelin secured both Formula One world championship titles in 2006. Confidence and mutual respect were key factors as the winning trio performed in exemplary fashion throughout the campaign and a race-by-race seasonal breakdown illustrates the point to perfection.
Defending F1 world champion Renault began its title defence in sparkling style, with a thrilling success in the opening race of the season in Bahrain. The highlight was a fantastic duel between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher.
After savouring victory, Alonso said: "I knew I had to get back on track ahead of Michael Schumacher after my first scheduled stop. Our victory and today's strategy owed much to the fact that we were able capitalise on our Michelin tyres by running slightly longer stints than our rivals. I'd like to extend my compliments to everybody. We worked incredibly hard during the winter and today's result speaks for itself."
After finishing second in Malaysia, the Spaniard returned to the top of the podium in Australia. "In Melbourne," he said, "I think we heated our tyres more effectively than our rivals. That enabled me to get a better exit from the final corner, which helped me to pass people on the following pit straight. We plumped for an aggressive strategy in terms of tyre management a decision that paid off handsomely."
Two weeks later, at Imola, Ferrari notched up its first win of the season. Fernando Alonso was clearly quicker than Michael Schumacher, but was unable to pass the German during an intense, cat-and-mouse battle that raged for the final 15 laps.
He said:"Michael certainly had tyre troubles, but overtaking is incredibly difficult at this circuit. In fact, it borders on the impossible if the driver ahead doesn't make a mistake. I did everything I could but had to wait for an opportunity that never came. Once I realised there was no way through, I backed off. It wasn't worth jeopardising those eight points."
While overtaking Schumacher might not have been possible, the team was buoyed by many aspects of its San Marino weekend including the performance of its Michelin tyres. "In 2005 we won this race despite a number of tyre problems," added Alonso. "Victory might have eluded us this time, but paradoxically we had taken a great step forward in tyre performance."
Ferrari won again at the Nurburgring, in the Grand Prix of Europe, where Alonso took a comfortable second. "There wasn't a great deal to choose between the Ferrari and the Renault today," he said. "Our tyres worked well, but our main rival's package was just a little bit better."
The Renault F1 Team and Michelin responded magnificently in Barcelona, where a sublime performance earned them a memorable victory. Alonso said: "We thought the Ferraris had the upper hand, but the track temperature rose by five degrees as the race started. That slight fluctuation in the conditions brought our tyres into their optimum operational window."
"Michelin had chosen a very aggressive tyres strategy but its compounds proved to be more durable than those of the opposition. That allowed me to win my home race the fulfilment of a dream." Fernando didn't know it at the time, but Spain was to be the first of four consecutive victories: Monaco, Britain and Canada were just around the corner.
The Renault R26 emerged victorious at the end of a pulsating race in Monte Carlo, where, as Alonso pointed out, "We used the softest tyre compounds of the season. After conducting a series of pre-Monaco tests we asked Michelin to produce an even more extreme tyre."
"We used it for the first time during free practice and it turned out to be the right way to go. These tyres gave us the ideal blend of single-lap performance plus consistency over a race stint. During the grand prix, the key thing was to look after the tyres to make sure they still had performance in reserve at key strategic moments."
After his victory he paid homage to the late Edouard Michelin, who had tragically been lost at sea during the race weekend. "I would like to dedicate my victory to him," the Spaniard said. "After the events of the past few days, I think it appropriate that the three drivers on the podium were all using Michelin tyres."
Alonso was in a league of his own at Silverstone, where he shot away from pole position to dominate the race. "Track temperatures were unusually high," he said, "but Michelin anticipated the situation and understood how to react accordingly." In Canada, the Spaniard and his team recorded yet another success to reinforce their advantage at the top of the world championship table. It was also a significant landmark because it heralded Michelin's 100th Formula One victory.
"We were very strong in performance terms," said Fernando, "but track conditions were very difficult. You were in serious danger of having an accident if you strayed just a few centimetres from the racing line." At the season's halfway point, Alonso and Michelin were 25 points clear of Michael Schumacher, their closest rival.
By the time teams came away from Indianapolis, one week later, that gap had been reduced to 19. Ferrari swept to a one-two in the United States, although Giancarlo Fisichella defended the honour of Renault and Michelin with a solid third place. For once, Fernando had a difficult weekend and trailed home fifth.
"A demanding circuit like Indianapolis places a huge strain on tyres," he said, "especially when track temperatures are verging on 50 degrees. Michelin prepared diligently for this extreme challenge. We might not have won, but we have every reason to remain confident." Attention now turned to another important event: the French Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, however, the Ferraris were once again a hurdle that had to be overcome. The red cars annexed the front row at Magny-Cours and Fernando was forced to settle for third place on the grid. The outcome was effectively settled on the opening lap, when the Renault driver's best efforts were not quite enough to split the Ferraris at the start. With Felipe Massa acting as a protective buffer, his team leader Schumacher was able to ease away to put victory beyond Renault's reach.
Given the circumstances, Alonso minimised the damage by taking second place. "We thought our greater tyre consistency would give us the edge," he said, "but it wasn't enough. Competition between the two tyre manufacturers is extremely fierce, but we know Michelin will work relentlessly to help us regain the upper hand."
Bad news lay ahead at Hockenheim, where the Renault R26's vibration-reducing mass damper system which had been fitted to the car all season was declared illegal. This was a bitter blow for the team, which had designed and optimised its car around this very principle. Its drivers' subsequent performances reflected as much: Alonso was seventh on the grid and fifth in the race.
Germany marked a seasonal low for Renault, Michelin and the defending world champion. Afterwards Alonso said: "Our rear tyres suffered from blistering the compound we chose was perhaps a bit too aggressive." To complicate matters further for the engineers, the mid-season testing ban was now in force and would remain so until the end of August.
Alonso seemed to be on the brink of revenge during the following race, in Budapest. Condemned to the middle of the grid after being penalised for his tactics during free practice, he stormed through the field on a rain-soaked track. His Michelin wets enabled him to establish a comfortable lead and he looked dominant. Just as he appeared set for victory, however, a wheel nut problem intervened and forced him to retire.
By the end of the weekend, the gap between Fernando and Michael Schumacher was down to 10 points. "Our tyre advantage in wet conditions was clear for all to see," he said. "It's a pity we were unable to capitalise on that, but the weekend wasn't a complete disaster because Michael Schumacher only scored one point."
In Istanbul, for the first time since Montreal, the number 1 Renault gained a little bit of ground in the championship. Alonso finished second, behind Felipe Massa, and collected two points more than Schumacher. "Today's conditions were very demanding for tyres," he said. "The track temperature was about 55 degrees and Turn Eight the long, long left-hander took its toll."
"Our Michelins stood up well, though, and that allowed me to beat my main title rival. My first set of tyres suffered a little too much graining, which cost me time. I was slightly concerned about the next stint, but I used scrubbed tyres and they worked perfectly." F1 testing resumed after the Turkish Grand Prix. Michelin's engineers had a huge number of developments to try out and simulation tests had been very encouraging.
The French tyre company's progress was much in evidence at Monza. Michelin had found about 0.2s in terms of first-lap performance without compromising its impeccable long-run consistency. Fernando was penalised for alleged obstruction during qualifying, but he had fought back spectacularly from 10th to third when an engine failure nipped his hopes in the bud. "There's no need to panic," he said afterwards. "We are making progress and I am confident that we will retain our world championship titles." His advantage, though, had now been slashed to just two points.
In China, venue for the 17th of the season's 19 races, rain once again made its presence felt. Fernando dominated the early stages of the race and he remained in a class of his own, well clear of the rest, as he rejoined following his first scheduled stop. Unfortunately, however, a tactical error was about to cost the leader dearly: he changed his front tyres (intermediates) during his stop and that compromised his pace for about 10 laps.
Michael Schumacher capitalised on the situation to seize the lead. The German went on to win and draw level on points with the Spaniard. Afterwards, Alonso said: "The racing line had become almost completely dry and it was better to stick with tyres that had worn away most of their grooves they offered superior grip. Michael Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella stuck with their original tyres, caught me up and were able to pass very easily. Once I'd worn down the grooves on my fresh fronts, after eight or nine laps, I began setting competitive times again, but by then it was too late."
One week later the teams regrouped in the paddock at Suzuka. The weekend's big surprise was the qualifying performance of the Ferraris, which were almost 1.5 seconds faster than anything else. Rivals might initially have been perplexed by this turn of events, but the weekend's complexion changed again in the race. The Scuderia never came close to matching its performance of the previous day and, better still, Alonso was able to close on Schumacher's leading Ferrari.
The German's engine suddenly let go in the closing stages and the Spaniard swept to victory to open a 10-point championship lead with just one race remaining. "We expected to be closer to the Ferrari in terms of race pace," Alonso said, "because yesterday Michael was almost two seconds quicker than us in Q2, which simply isn't normal. We thought things would become more evenly matched. My Michelins performed consistently on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so I believe the rival tyres suffered a drop in performance."
The seasonal finale at Interlagos proved to be a race worthy of a world title decider. Fernando needed just one point to be sure of the crown, no matter what else happened. In the constructors' battle, Renault was nine points clear of Ferrari with 16 at stake. Fernando went on to finish second, which guaranteed him the title, while Fisichella came home sixth to make sure Renault stayed ahead of Ferrari, too.
In its final season as a Formula One supplier, Michelin thus provided tyres for the champion driver and constructor. Alonso paid tribute to the French tyre company during the final race weekend of 2006 and gave a vote of thanks to everyone at Michelin on the eve of the race. "Michelin has done a fantastic job this season," he said.
"Ever since the opening race it has been determined to provide us with the very best tyres. We are on the verge of clinching the world title for a second successive year and that is a by-product of non-stop commitment and effort. The relationship between Renault and Michelin goes back many years it's an effective partnership and our mutual confidence is absolute. I hope to proves as much once again on Sunday."
A few hours after the race, the newly crowned world champion was out in S?o Paulo with his fiancee, at the Cafe de la Musique a trendy bar Renault had booked to celebrate the end of another season... and two more world titles.
It was an opportunity for Alonso to address the whole team: "You provided me with a fantastic car and I did my best to become champion and to help you win the title for constructors. We should also thank everybody from Michelin for the work they have done during these past few seasons. Last year we beat McLaren and this year we vanquished Ferrari a more difficult task because we had to fight them both on and off the track."
Like Michelin, Spain's double F1 champion was about to move on to fresh pastures. And for both parties, it was a case of mission accomplished.