Michael Schumacher took the Formula One drivers' championship points lead for the first time this season with a wet-to-dry victory in the Chinese Grand Prix. The German jumped for joy on the podium, having snatched the win on the Shanghai circuit after a disappointing qualifying run.
Fernando Alonso, the chief rival for the 2006 title, placed second, falling victim to a combination of a poor tire change decision, Schumacher's outright speed on a drying track -- and a fumbled second pit stop.
"This is a race we should have won," Renault's engineering director Pat Symonds explained, clearly frustrated. "As we approached the first stop, [Fernando] told us on the radio that his front tyres were very badly worn. In consultation with him and Michelin, we decided to change them and leave the rears on. It soon became clear that the track was drying quickly, and that the decision had been the wrong one."
Schumacher's victory evens him in points with Alonso, but his seven Formula One wins this season, compared to Alonso's six, give him the edge in his chase for an eighth world championship.
Schumacher did not have a great beginning in today's race in the wet conditions. Alonso started on the pole and kept the race lead despite the track conditions, placing his Renault out in front of teammate Giancarlo Fisichella by over five seconds as the two Renault racers completed their second lap.
Kimi Raikkonen could taste a possible podium finish, if not an outright win, with a brilliant start that moved his McLaren from fifth to third on the opening lap. The McLaren driver eventually made it to second place until a throttle failure dropped him out of the race.
"Kimi's strategy and car set-up were more than capable of winning the race," Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, claimed.
Once Schumacher sailed past Barrichello, he was clicking off faster laps, with the track starting to dry, but the real fight in the early laps was between Fisichella and Raikkonen. The Finn moved into second when Fisichella bobbled on lap 13.
When the first round of pit stops was completed where all elected to remain on intermediates -- albeit with Alonso and Renault fatefully deciding to switch the worn fronts for new ones. Alonso still held the lead with Raikkonen all over him, looking for the door to open, when Raikkonen pulled off.
"I don't know exactly what happened, but all of a sudden the throttle didn't react correctly and the engine went into safety mode and selected neutral," the Finn recounted.
That left Fisichella to now battle with Schumacher, who had moved into third with Alonso showing first signs of trouble. By the 28th lap, both his teammate and rival had closed within one second as the Spaniard struggled to protect his race lead.
With the drying track, Alonso's fresh intermediate fronts had little grip, leaving him helpless against Schumacher and Fisichella. It was not surprising, then, that Alonso was the first of the front-runners to come into pits for slicks, on lap 37.
This is when things went from bad to worse for the young Spaniard: as the new tires were going back on, the left-rear wheel nut fell out of the gun, and priceless seconds ticked away as the mechanic retrieved and repositioned the nut. It took Alonso 19 seconds to get back out on track, nearly triple what a good stop might have taken.
Both Schumacher and Fisichella made their stops for dry tires and fuel. The German came in first, on lap 39, and got up to speed quickly. When Fisichella pitted two laps later, Schumacher had made up the gap, and was filled up the Italian's mirrors as he exited the pit lane. Before Fisichella could get his tires up to temperature, Schumacher dove inside to take the lead for good.
Alonso was turning the fastest race laps at the end, trying to move up to protect his point lead, even as rain drops appeared. His teammate waved him by for second, but with five laps left in the race, the gap between first and second was nearly 12 seconds -- coincidentally about as much time as Alonso lost in his second pit stop.
Schumacher scored the needed win with two races on the calendar: Japan and Brazil. Alonso did not give up easily in today's race, both showing signs of what can expected in the final two rounds.
"It's quite a miracle that we are here," said Schumacher. "It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks."
Renault finished today with second and third with Fisichella on the podium alongside Alonso. For Ferrari, Schumacher had the top step but Felipe Massa only completed 12 laps.
Jensen Button finished fourth for Honda followed by Pedro de la Rosa for McLaren in fifth.