After China it seemed that the title battle had swung firmly in Michael Schumacher's favour but in Japan the advantage went back to Renault's Fernando Alonso. The defending champion regained the top of the standings with victory at Suzuka when ...
After China it seemed that the title battle had swung firmly in Michael Schumacher's favour but in Japan the advantage went back to Renault's Fernando Alonso. The defending champion regained the top of the standings with victory at Suzuka when Schumacher retired from the lead with an engine failure. Felipe Massa gained scant comfort for Ferrari with second behind Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella made it a double Renault podium in third.
It was sunny and dry for race day and it was a clean start with pole sitter Massa leading from Michael and Toyota's Ralf Schumacher. Alonso dispatched the second Toyota of Jarno Trulli for fourth and Honda's Jenson Button moved up to sixth. Fisichella dropped to seventh while BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld gained one to eighth and Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren did likewise to 10th.
By the second lap Raikkonen was up to ninth but the Williams of Nico Rosberg had dropped a couple of places to 12th. Michael took the lead from Massa and Rubens Barrichello had to pit for a new Honda nose cone after an incident with Heidfeld. Toro Rosso's Tonio Liuzzi spun but recovered, while the Red Bulls of David Coulthard and Robert Doornbos were 15th and 17th, separated by the Spyker MF1 of Christijan Albers.
Fisichella got past the Honda of Jenson Button for sixth and Alonso went a bit wide at the second Degner which allowed Trulli to close in. Michael held an eight tenths lead from Massa and Ralf and Alonso, third and fourth, were four seconds behind. Trulli was an early first-stopper, around lap 12, and Alonso swept past Ralf down the pit straight into turn one. Massa and Fisichella were next to visit the pits.
Alonso was closing on Michael but then took his first pit stop and rejoined ahead of Massa. Raikkonen was up to fifth but not stopped, while Michael paid his first visit to the pits and retained the lead. Albers had a dramatic exit with some kind of failure at the rear of his Spyker. "I had some problems," he said, "a lot of vibrations. When I braked at the chicane the rear wing went past me!"
There was a lot of debris on the track but everyone seemed to pick their way through it without incident. Raikkonen pitted on lap 22 and at the front Michael was five seconds ahead of Alonso. Massa was third, then came Trulli, Ralf, Fisichella, Button and Raikkonen making up the points positions. Heidfeld and BMW Sauber teammate Robert Kubica were fighting over ninth.
Alonso was slowly but steadily closing on Michael until he was slightly delayed by traffic, while Massa was dropping back. Kubica had an off-track moment in the gravel but recovered, while Fisichella made his second stop and rejoined in front of the Toyotas, who were fairly off the pace and lapping in seventh and eighth, with Heidfeld closing in behind.
Super Aguri's Sakon Yamamoto had a very long stop but was at the back anyway and Michael, Alonso and Massa all made their second stops. It all looked rather rosy for Michael but unbelievably the German suffered a smoke-belching engine failure and retired, handing the lead to Alonso. Due respect to the Spaniard for being there to take advantage but also a big stroke of luck for Renault.
Mark Webber, whose Williams was lapping outside the top 10, was the next retiree when he got rather wide at the chicane and skidded over the grass. The car hit the barrier and Webber was out. "I was struggling for balance at that chicane all day really," he said. "When we put fresh boots on after the first stop, I had massive power understeer. I had no front grip and the car then went just two inches onto the grass and I couldn't bring it back."
Coulthard also went out with some kind of gear gremlin. "I had to retire my car when it lost fourth gear," he commented. "We were racing the Spyker team for much of the race and it was clear we were quicker in some areas, but slower in others. After Tonio (Liuzzi) spun, I got stuck behind Scot Speed's car who was running a little slower than me, that held me up a bit, but other than that I was just trying to run my race."
Raikkonen made a late second stop with 12 laps to go and rejoined in front of the Toyotas for fifth. Kubica was having a go at Heidfeld for the final point and Toro Rosso's Scott Speed retired with just a few laps left with a power steering failure. Yamamoto spun at Spoon curve but managed to continue and at the front Alonso sailed to the chequered flag untroubled by Massa and Fisichella behind.
"You know I had so many problems in the last couple of races," said Alonso. "I lost one tyre in Hungary, I lost one engine in Monza. Sometimes I need to recover (the deficit from) those unlucky moments and for sure, when I saw the problem of Michael, I was at that point leading the race and I just didn't believe what I was seeing, because it's not often that you see a mechanical problem from a Ferrari car, so it was a second surprise, the biggest surprise of the race for sure."
"You have to finish the races and looking at the championship, these ten points, for sure, are very important, but as we all thought, the championship will be decided in Brazil. You never know what is going to happen there. The same thing can happen (to us) so we just need to be really safe and don't take too many risks there. I think we have a good advantage, let's try to win the championship."
Massa was disappointed for Ferrari but is looking ahead to his home race in Brazil. "For sure, we will try to do our best and to win the race, a very important race for us, you never know what can happen in a race and of course Renault is quite comfortable in the championship now, but let's try everything and anything can happen. Racing is racing. And, you don't know what happens -- like today with Michael..."
Fisichella was emotional on the podium due to the death of his best friend recently and dedicated his third place to him. "I didn't have a fantastic start, I lost a position to Button," he said. "Then after a few laps, I overtook him and I was catching the Toyota guys. After that, the car balance wasn't too bad. I had a good race, I overtook them in the pit stops so the strategy was good, the tyre behaviour was good too so today is a fantastic result for Fernando, for myself, for the team."
Button was a respectable enough fourth for Honda but Barrichello had a troublesome day and was down in 12th. Raikkonen came home fifth, which was a reasonable result from 11th but it was a poor weekend for McLaren, Pedro de la Rosa an anonymous 11th. Trulli and Ralf couldn't hold their qualifying pace but were both in the points, sixth and seventh respectively. Heidfeld held off Kubica for eighth.
Rosberg finished where he started in 10th while Doornbos was the sole Red Bull survivor in 13th. Liuzzi was 14th and Speed classified 18th despite his late retirement, while the Super Aguris both finished, Sato 15th and Yamamoto 17th, which was some consolation at their home race. Tiago Monteiro's Spyker MF1 split the pair in 16th.
Suzuka was not the most eventful of races but it had its moments and Michael's retirement has stirred up the title fight even more. He needs to win in Brazil and have Alonso not score to clinch the championship, whereas Alonso only needs a single point to retain his crown. They are now tied on race wins but Alonso has a 10 point advantage.
Massa regained third in the standings but Renault's double podium has put the French squad back in front of Ferrari with a nine point lead. It appears that Alonso and Renault are in charge again but we thought that about Michael and Ferrari after China, didn't we? Final top eight classification: Alonso, Massa, Fisichella, Button, Raikkonen, Trulli, R. Schumacher, Heidfeld.