Alonso, Massa step up in Schumacher's last race
The now and possibly future kings ascended Formula One's throne side by side after Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix as the sport's retiring ruler left behind another in a long line of exemplary performances for them to seek to emulate.
Fernando Alonso, the de facto heir to Michael Schumacher's kingdom, earned his second consecutive driving title with a second-place finish for Renault, becoming just the seventh man in F1 history to win back-to-back championships.
Felipe Massa, Schumacher's teammate at Ferrari, won his second career race with a dominant performance in his home event, showing his team is in talented hands going forward. Meanwhile, the legend himself, never one to take it easy behind the wheel regardless of the circumstances, ended his spectacular career by producing a ferocious drive to finish fourth after falling to the rear of the field because of a punctured tire.
Formula One must now look to its young princes to fill the galaxy-sized void left by the most accomplished driver the sport has ever seen. Foremost among them is Alonso, who has in six years risen from modest beginnings at Minardi to the pinnacle of accomplishment at Renault, where he also helped the team to consecutive constructors titles.
He moves to McLaren-Mercedes next year as the sport's most recognizable face and as its most talented pilot.
"It is such a special moment to win both titles on the same day, and the atmosphere in the team is unbelievable right now," Alonso said after the race. "I have to say thank you to everybody in the team. In 2006 they have taught me many lessons: to always stay fair play, to put in the effort, to keep the focus and the determination to win. It has been up and down for us but they never forgot the target.
"I am proud to have been racing with Michael as well. It is an honor to have won the final two championships of his career and I think they will mean more than any others I can win in my career. He is retiring as the man with all the records and it has been big pressure to race against him -- and a big privilege, as well."
Alonso joins Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna, Jack Brabham, Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari on the list of consecutive driving champions, putting to rest any doubt about his ability or his team's determination or depth of talent. Renault will put its considerable resources behind incumbent race driver Giancarlo Fisichella and test driver Heikki Kovalainen next season as it seeks to join Ferrari, Williams and McLaren as winners of three straight constructors crowns.
Although Alonso is currently recognized as the best young driver, he'll have plenty of challengers ready to snatch that designation away. Among them is Massa, who staked his claim to at least some of Schumacher's former fief by taking the lead from pole position at the start of Sunday's race and running away from the field to claim the first win by a Brazilian at Sao Paolo's Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace since Senna's 1993 triumph.
Massa did so while sporting a driving suit featuring the colors of Brazil's flag, a startling contrast to Ferrari's usual red uniform, and he gestured repeatedly to the nation's green, blue and gold banner from the top step of the podium.
"The dream of my life has become a reality," Massa said at a postrace press conference. "I want to dedicate this race to my family, to my friends, to all those who helped me in my career and to the Brazilian people who, today, made me feel their warmth. Over the last few laps I was trying to maintain concentration, but I could not stop myself from watching all the fans celebrating in the grandstands!"
Massa recovered from a shaky start to his Ferrari career to take three pole positions and two wins in 2006, earning third place in the driving standings ahead of the more experienced Fisichella. He'll be pushed next year by new teammate Kimi Raikkonen, who arrives after a frustrating six years of driving either less developed or less reliable equipment at Sauber and McLaren. Still, Raikkonen has nine wins to his credit and a reputation for being very determined about his task. Each should be wary of the other's ability.
Determination and ability were the hallmarks of former despot Schumacher's career, and he displayed both in abundance in his farewell race after a flat tire dropped him to 18th place from 10th on the starting grid. Instead of touring the circuit waving to the crowd or pulling into the pits to call it an early day, which he had earned every right to do, he charged through the field making pass after pass in an effort to earn the most possible points for his team and topped off his efforts by setting the fastest race lap for the 76th time in his career.
Although Ferrari fell five points short of its goal of a record 15th constructors title, it wasn't because of a lack of effort from its most decorated driver.
Schumacher won seven races in 2006, matching Alonso, and clawed his way back from a massive points deficit to make his principal rival sweat all the way to the season's last weekend.
Schumacher leaves behind an unmatchable legacy to those who will follow in his footsteps. While summing up his emotions after his last race proved difficult, he still had the presence of mind to thank the people who backed him.
"What I'll miss is the moments, the good and the bad, that we had in the last 16 years -- the support the fans gave me that restored my self-confidence at times where things weren't going so well," Schumacher said. "That was immensely important for me over such a long sporting career. I'd like to say a huge thanks to them all. I know that's not nearly enough to pay that back but I'm afraid I can't do more at the moment."
Those who aspire to follow in his footsteps should take heed of the fact that the departing -- perhaps deposed -- monarch took the time at his last official opportunity to acknowledge those without whom sport is just a private exercise. Alonso and Massa, maybe the most likely successors to the throne, would do well to copy their predecessor through their efforts on and off the track. His legacy demands it.
BMW Racing has confirmed that it will retain incumbent drivers Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica for 2007. Sebastian Vettel, the team's 19-year-old wunderkind, will fill the roles of third driver and test driver. &Last dance(s)? The final race of the season always means a few last occurrences in the paddock, and this event was no different. Tire supplier Michelin et Cie ran its final race, exiting F1 for the time being with 102 victories while leaving the field to rival Bridgestone Corp. in 2007. Engine maker Cosworth departs the sport with 176 victories after running its last race with the Williams team, which takes on Toyota power next season. ... Cigarette maker British American Tobacco will end its affiliation with the Honda team just as competitor Mild Seven exits in favor of new title sponsor ING Group NV at Renault.
Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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