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Alonso Champion Again

The Brazilian Grand Prix was an exciting end to a season that became nerve-wracking towards the end. Strangely enough, Michael Schumacher’s puncture actually added to the tension, bringing back memories of other races where he has seemed to be out of contention only to win in the end. Had things gone to plan, Michael would have won, Massa come in second and Alonso third; in other words the net result would still have been Alonso’s second championship.

Alonso

Fernando Alonso, 2006 World Champion

So the race delivered beyond expectation. Massa won, to the delight of all Brazil, Fernando collected his second championship in a row, Michael supplied us with yet another determined drive all the way from last to fourth and Jenson Button underlined his potential for greatness next year by grabbing a podium spot. What more could we ask for?

There were sad tales as well; Williams ended one of their worst ever years by their drivers colliding on the first lap and Toyota remained consistent, shooting themselves in the foot (well, okay, the rear suspension) and exiting stage left very early on. Kimi Raikkonen did his best but the McLaren was just not up to the task of beating the front runners on the day; fifth was a poor reward after a long, hard season for him.

So now the accolades and reviews of Michael Schumacher’s astounding career begin. Such has been his stature in the sport that his leaving has overshadowed Alonso’s achievement of the 2006 championship. But some remembered Fernando and Autosport magazine has an interesting interview with Damon Hill and Jackie Stewart in which they assess Alonso’s skills.

Damon Hill: “He’s a very determined competitor, and I like that. I’m sort of riding with him a little bit when I watch him drive.

“In Suzuka, he was just pounding away at Michael. I think he broke Michael. The car broke. It had to break some day.

“Michael has had six years without an engine failure, but put under serious pressure for lots of laps and something had to give.”

Jackie Stewart: “Of the 22 Grand Prix drivers there’s usually only about six that are really, really good. And out of those six there are usually only three extraordinary talents at one time. And out of those three there is generally only one genius at any one time.

“For a short window of time there might have been Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna together, but that was a rare occasion.

“There is generally only one genius at any one time and I think you’re going to see Alonso taking on that mantle.

“I think the time has come when it is clear that Alonso is tomorrow and Michael is yesterday.”

Food for thought. And one more thought from me: on Sunday we may have seen an instance of the FIA at last bowing a little to common sense. It is well known that the practise of the winner accepting his national flag from a fan and then waving it on his slowing down lap was banned several years ago. So, when Massa did exactly that, I think we must all have held our breath in anticipation of dire penalties being imposed by the officials. Yet so far there has been nothing; perhaps the FIA decided to be looking the other way at the moment of Felipe’s achievement of a lifelong ambition.

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Bernie’s Thoughts on 2007

Bernie Ecclestone has been interviewed by The Times newspaper regarding his opinion on how things will go in F1 next year. There are no great surprises, but “Mr. Formula One” has a few words to say to Jenson Button, my tip for the title. To be champion, Button needs to display the drive and commitment so evident in Michael Schumacher, says Bernie.

Bernie

Bernie Ecclestone

“Michael has given up so much to achieve what he has achieved,” Ecclestone said. “He is dedicated to what he is and puts himself under an awful lot of pressure. He’ll win a race and next day start testing. I’m not sure whether Jenson is prepared to do that.

“I would say that Jenson is much like the old-time drivers. The Graham Hill type of driver with all the talent that they need, except nowadays you’ve got to be dedicated, too.

“The biggest thing that can help Honda is Jenson,” he said. “He needs to get stuck into it and stuck into them, making sure they deliver him the equipment to make him a consistent winner.”

Nothing much to argue with there, although I sometimes wonder if Michael is really so much more dedicated than the other drivers. Everyone knows the level of commitment and fitness required these days and I suspect that most of the drivers work just as hard as does Michael. They would be fools to do otherwise and none of them strike me as lacking in intelligence.

There is no doubt that Michael does have something special, however; you don’t win seven world titles without that. If I were asked to name the difference, I would have to say just two words: Flavio Briatore.

It was Briatore who saw Michael’s potential and gave him everything he needed to fulfill it, including the adoration and obedience of the Benetton team. By the time the German went to Ferrari, he knew exactly what was required to win consistently. He supplied the talent, determination and fitness to succeed as an individual but he also insisted on the same level of commitment from his team. In effect, he created a new Ferrari team by bringing in the personnel he needed and concentrating their minds on the task ahead.

But it was Briatore who gave Michael the understanding of what it takes to win: the undivided support of the team. And one suspects that Bernie is right in doubting that Jenson has the monomania necessary to achieve that – he seems too nice a guy. At the moment the Honda team are betting on both horses, giving Button and Barrichello equal attention without preference. I wonder whether this can be the right approach for a team on the edge of success but not quite there yet.

So it comes down to the old argument between having two star drivers or a clear number one and number two. Looking at Michael’s success, we would have to say that the second system is more effective. Pour your energies into the faster driver and keep the second man as back-up if needed, that is the way to go. Equality brings competition between team members and can result in the loss of a championship, as Williams discovered when both Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann were their drivers in 1981, splitting the points and losing out ultimately to Nelson Piquet (who was a definite number 1 in the Brabham team).

Can Button persuade Honda to favor him over Barrichello? Perhaps if Button has a very special race in Brazil this weekend, he might achieve it. But Rubens isn’t going to like that one bit…

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Pascal Vasselon on Interlagos

In the recent FIA survey, Toyota emerged as the least popular of the F1 teams. Why that should be so I have no idea, especially when one considers that the team’s main spokesperson, Pascal Vasselon, is one of the most articulate and level-headed people in the sport. When he speaks, I listen.

TF 106B

Toyota TF 106B

Autosport magazine has posted an interview with Pascal today and he discusses the Brazilan race from a position of considerable knowledge and understanding of the Interlagos circuit. For instance, we have heard a lot about the bumps on the track but only M. Vasselon has pointed out that they are a problem that won’t go away. As the name suggests (Interlagos means “between the lakes”), much of the circuit is built upon a lake bed and it is the instability of the underlying ground that causes the bumps.

He then goes into some detail on how the unpredictability of the Brazilian weather affects race strategy and it makes interesting reading. The fact that the rain does not cool the track surface much has an effect on the suitability of wet weather tires, for example. It all adds up to an explanation for the Brazilian Grand Prix often springing surprises. And that has to make the racing more exciting for the fans.

Most team managers are very bullish when asked about a team’s prospects for the next race; they will talk about it as if they were in with a real chance of victory (and we know they can’t all be right). But Pascal is refreshing in his sober assessment of Toyota’s chances. They are “reasonably optimistic of a strong performance” it seems.

To me, that seems exactly the right blend of optimism and realism. Pascal is one of those who are not afraid to “tell it like it is”.

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Shootout in Brazil

Looking ahead to Brazil, Michael Schumacher’s goal seems as simple as it has ever been – to win the race. Whatever happens to Alonso, Michael needs to win this one to leave the sport on a high. So the current situation has actually removed all pressure from the German – he can concentrate on winning without thought of points in the bag. And, of course, if Alonso does encounter a problem that prevents him earning the single point that he needs, Michael will have the bonus of one more championship to add to his collection.

Button

Jenson Button in Japan

Paradoxically, this leaves all the pressure still on Renault. They know only too well that, if Alonso does not win, Michael will, so they have to ensure that the Spaniard finishes the race and in the points. The dithering over which engine spec to use, the new E or the tried and tested D, has already begun. There are tires to think of too – a puncture could ruin everything – plus all the other things that could go wrong, like a back marker who fails to notice that he is being lapped and drives into Alonso. The heat remains on Renault until the end.

There have been other years when similar scenarios have occurred. In 1983, Nelson Piquet needed to win in South Africa to make sure of stealing the championship from Prost. Piquet built a huge lead right from the start and was still going like the clappers in the Brabham BMW when he heard that Prost had retired. Suddenly, Nelson only needed to finish fourth or higher and he turned the boost way down to spare the engine, even allowing himself to be passed a couple of times. Patrese went on to win that race and Piquet duly sauntered into third and the championship.

I doubt things will be as easy for Alonso at Interlagos, however. Retirements for Michael are about as rare as hen’s teeth and Alonso will have to drive a narrow edge between speed and reliability for the entire distance. He will have earned his championship by the time he crosses the line.

What I would really like to see, even though it would defuse the whole championship battle, is for someone else to win in Brazil. Realistically, that would have to be Kimi Raikkonen. He has been close several times this year but has yet to win one and the lack of pace from the McLaren in Japan is unlikely to be repeated at Interlagos. It would be good if he could avoid a year without victories by taking the last race of the year.

Otherwise, the only ones in with a possibility of the win are the Ferrari and Renault number twos, Massa and Fisichella. As long as Michael is running, Massa will not be allowed to win, however. Fizzy stands a better chance, since Alonso would be content with a points-scoring finish, but somehow I can’t see him beating Schumacher unless it rains.

Which leaves only the Hondas and BMWs – and I don’t think they’re quite up to beating the top three as yet. Next year, maybe. And, of course, Toyota will find a way to shoot themselves in the foot…

It is going to be a fascinating race in Brazil and no-one is going to turn away for a moment, even though the championship looks as good as decided. After all, anything can happen in motor racing!

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