<
>

Schumacher's win builds momentum for eighth title

10/2/2006

Michael Schumacher looks likely to head into retirement with his reputation as Formula One's rain king undiminished after a weekend performance that defied both weather and tire conditions propelled him into a tie for the driving championship with momentum in hand for the season's last two races.

First, Schumacher overcame a wear issue with his Bridgestone Corp. tires on a wet Saturday to qualify sixth, when no other Bridgestone-shod runner placed higher than 14th on the starting grid. He then earned his 91st career win in Sunday's race, using his intermediate tires and pit strategy to take advantage of drying conditions and errors by Renault, his Ferrari team's closest rivals for the constructors' championship.

Victories in adverse conditions have been Schumacher's calling card since his first career win, achieved in the rain at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix. Although he's added to his renown with further mastery of wet weather over the years -- the 1998 British and 2001 Malaysian GPs spring most readily to mind -- it's unlikely any of those results brought him more satisfaction than Sunday's, or had a greater consequence on both championship outlooks.

"I thought [Saturday] that the way the weekend was going it may be one of the unlucky ones again when things don't work out for you," Schumacher said Sunday. "Obviously the pendulum of luck has swung the other way and hit me, and I am naturally very delighted about having another win for the championship.

"It's quite a miracle that we're there, but thanks to great work from everybody, we managed it. Now we go to the last two races and I believe that we will have to wait until the last one before a decision can be reached."

It would have seemed ludicrous to give Schumacher or Ferrari any chance to win either title after defending champion Fernando Alonso earned his sixth win of 2006 at the Canadian GP in June, giving him a seemingly comfortable 25-point lead in the drivers' standings and Renault a commanding 44-point constructors gap.

Ferrari responded by winning six of seven races, with five of those going to Schumacher, who now holds the tiebreaker over Alonso with seven victories. The remaining races will be held Oct. 8 at Suzuka, Japan, and Oct. 22 at Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Although Schumacher earned his latest win with his talent and with tires better suited to the drying track conditions, he also benefited from Renault's mistakes and from a strategy in which he took on and warmed up dry-weather tires one lap before then-race leader Giancarlo Fisichella came in for similar rubber, allowing Schumacher to pass for first place at the first corner as Fisichella exited the pit lane on cold tires.

Schumacher also gained ground from an error by Renault's pit crew during Alonso's last stop that cost Alonso 12 extra seconds while stationary, as well as through Alonso's decision to change both Michelin front tires during his first stop while Schumacher did not.

"I built up a good lead in the first 20 laps, but my front tires were badly worn and the conditions were difficult as the track was drying very slowly," Alonso said afterward. "We made the decision to change the fronts for a new pair and it was the wrong one, as we saw with Fisi and Michael, who kept all four tires on the car [at their first stops] and were much quicker. After that the only thing we could do was go to dry tires as early as possible and hope to catch up the time to Michael. In the end there were not enough laps left."

Schumacher would appear to have the edge going into this week's race at the figure-eight Suzuka circuit, as he's done well there in the past with five wins, one of them in wet conditions in the 2000 Japanese GP.

That doesn't bode well for Renault or Alonso; Schumacher hadn't scored a point in either of the previous two races held on the Shanghai International Circuit before Sunday and still came through in fine style.

The likelihood of his earning an unprecedented eighth driving championship on tracks where he has a better record than in China -- he has four wins at Brazil's Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace -- would seem to be far greater than Alonso's chances to win a second straight championship, as the latter has never won on either remaining circuit, albeit in a much shorter career. Alonso's best finish in either Brazil or Japan is third place, a feat he's achieved three times.

Schumacher has said he won't consider his place in F1 history until after he's retired, sitting back on the sofa with a cigar in one hand and a beverage in the other.

He'll have another fine rain-induced memory to reminisce over after winning in China. Whether he'll have another title to savor remains to be seen, though it would appear he's got the inside track.

Shanghai Surprises

The newly minted Spyker team, formed when Spyker Cars NV bought the former Midland F1 squad last month, has said it will retain driver Christijan Albers for next season. Should the team wish for a second Dutch pilot, it might consider Robert Doornbos, currently racing in the departed Christian Klien's stead at Red Bull Racing. Spyker, a Dutch maker of $350,000 hand-built sports cars, has its work cut out for it in a major way in F1, taking over an underfunded, underdeveloped team while going up against teams funded by automakers hundreds of times its size. Still, it made waves this weekend by announcing it will carry Ferrari engines next season. … Penthouse to outhouse?: Juan Pablo Montoya, recently released from his contract by the free-spending McLaren team, will make his U.S. stock car debut Oct. 6 in the ARCA feeder-series race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Montoya, who'll race for former CART (now IndyCar) boss Chip Ganassi, is likely to suffer a bit of culture shock when it comes to facilities and such in his new job, going from the high-tech world of the F1 paddock to the somewhat less posh surroundings of a minor series. He's expected to compete in ARCA, NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Nextel Cup events the rest of this season in preparation for a full-time Nextel Cup ride in 2007.

Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.