New year, new champion. The 2006 season is the first since 1999 in which the driver to beat is a new Formula 1 World Champion, and the first of the new millennium in which the Scuderia to beat is not Ferrari. Fernando Alonso is called to defend his first title, at the end of a maturation that led him to forge ahead from 2003 to 2005, that is to say from the official arrival in the French team to the first World Championship in Renault history.
This time the consecration will have to pass through the man of records: to confirm themselves as champions, Michael Schumacher and the Scuderia del Cavallino Rampante, which are back to being overwhelmingly competitive, must now be beaten.
A cold winter...
Unlike the previous year, the team does not breathe an idyllic climate in the winter that will lead to the world championship: Alonso, in fact, in December 2005 announced his move to McLaren-Mercedes starting from the following season.
The team principal of the French team, Flavio Briatore, welcomes the news coldly, and at the same time some rumors begin to circulate concerning the fact that Renault could even try to favor his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella in the race for the title. The value of the opponents and the talent of Fernando will subsequently remove any doubts in this regard.
The new regulations
In 2006, the FIA approved some innovations relating to the technical regulations: along the lines of the measures implemented in 2005, the goal is to reduce the performance of the single-seaters, bringing the engine capacity of the cars from 3000 to 2400 cm³ and the number of cylinders from ten to eight. Despite this reduction, after a few races many teams bring engines to the track capable of equalling the lap times of cars equipped with powerful ten cylinders, even if a maximum power loss of around 200 horsepower was expected.
Tire changes at pit stops are also back: there will no longer be a single set of tires for qualifying and the race, but fourteen sets per weekend distributed as follows: seven dry trains, four intermediate and three wet trains.
As far as the sporting regulations are concerned, however, the main novelty is the qualification: after just one year the format changes again, introducing a type that provides for a first elimination of positions 17-22, called Q1; a second elimination of positions 11-16 called Q2; and a final sprint to ten for the conquest of pole position, called Q3. The three sessions last fifteen minutes each, and before the last session it is necessary to declare the quantity of fuel with which the first part of the race will be tackled, because it must be used for your own fastest lap, and then it must be topped up by the same quantity for the race.
Mass damper: the new Renault in the eye of the storm
The new Renault R26, presented to the press on January 30, 2006, is designed by Bob Bell, former designer of the R25, and Tim Densham; the latter takes over from Mark Smith who had worked with Bell the year before. It substantially adapts to the new regulations: many mechanical components, especially on the front, are reduced to reduce the weight of the car up to 580 kg (without fuel and driver).
The Renault engine goes from being a V10 to a V8 as required by the regulation, and the displacement is reduced from 3000 to 2398 cm³. As a result, the power decreases from 910 to 750 horsepower. The semi-automatic longitudinal transmission goes from six to seven gears, while the tires will still be Michelin.
However, what Renault will be most talked about this season is a brilliant solution adopted on the suspension system of the single-seater: in fact, from the 2005 Brazilian race onwards, Renault will adopt a system called Mass Damper.
This device is composed of a harmonic oscillator that acts inside the nose of the car; this oscillator serves to stabilize the vibrations of the front end, allowing you to deal with curbs and roughness, offering greater driveability thanks to the much more stabilized air flow that hits the car. All this, logically, translates into a considerable advantage in the management of tire degradation.
This system, however, according to the Federation violates an article which establishes that any device that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car must be fixed and have no degree of freedom (Article 3, paragraph 15). To this, however, the Renault team principal Flavio Briatore will oppose the fact that Article 1 paragraph 4 establishes that the chassis does not include the devices inside the bodywork, but only the parts in direct contact with the outside air.
In short, it was a typical case of a regulation gray zone: is the Mass Damper a mobile aerodynamic device, and therefore illegal, or a part of the suspension system, and therefore legal? After a few heats up, the system will eventually be outlawed starting with the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix, five races to go. This decision, as we will see, will have a considerable impact on the end of the championship.
A season full of satisfactions
The start of the season immediately shows a Ferrari that, beyond the results of the individual races, is back decidedly competitive compared to last season: the first pole is in fact from Schumacher (with Massa completing the front row), but this does not prevent to Alonso to take home the debut match in Bahrain, winning a beautiful head-to-head against the German.
In the second round in Malaysia, Fisichella's Renault triumphed, with the Spaniard completing a fantastic Renault double. Still Alonso also makes his victory in Australia, on the Melbourne circuit, with Schumacher forced to retire: after three races the classification sees Alonso in the lead with 28 points, while Schumacher is still at 11.
At this point comes the moment of the German, who slips a double of victories in Imola and at the Nurburgring (a few kilometers from Hurth, his hometown), with Alonso who, however, places second on both occasions, maintaining the leadership with 44 points against 31 of the German driver.
Although the duel is very open in qualifying, Renault is on average superior to Ferrari in the race. For this reason, the Maranello team compensates for the shortcomings of the car with the strategies and talent of the Kaiser.
In Barcelona, Fernando runs at home and does not miss the appointment: pole and victory at the end of a dominated race, with Schumacher finishing second ahead of Fisichella. The same scenario is repeated in Monte Carlo, where Renault repeats Jarno Trulli's 2004 victory, with the Ferrari driver remaining bottled in fifth position.
England and Canada mean three of a kind and four consecutive victories - with Schumacher second - for an unleashed Alonso, who after nine games - exactly halfway through the season - has already accumulated six wins and 84 points against the German's 59. A booty that the most optimists already consider as a world championship well channelled on the Renault tracks.
However, there is no ordinary team ahead, nor any team: Schumacher and Ferrari still believe in it, and with three wins in a row at the Indianapolis, Magny-Course and Hockenheim circuits they get back on track; Alonso, for his part, collects only a second and two fifth places. The ranking now sees Alonso always in the lead, but with 100 points, while Schumacher climbs to 89.
The circus then moves to Hungary, on the Hungaroring circuit, where a weekend that is nothing short of incredible is consumed: Alonso is penalized by two seconds on the qualifying time for an incorrectness committed in free practice against the Dutch test driver of the Red Bull Doornbos; Schumacher, on the other hand, instead of taking advantage of the situation, contracts the same penalty as the Spaniard for having made two overtakes under the red flag on Saturday morning.
The chaotic race, which took place in variable weather conditions, still reserves surprises: Alonso, while he is sensationally in the lead, is forced to retire due to a badly screwed tire at the pit stop; Schumacher, finished in the rear, recovered up to second place, and then paid hard for the stubborn attempts to resist the faster De La Rosa (McLaren) and Heidfeld (BMW-Sauber), remedying the break in the right steering link however 1 point since only seven cars reached the finish line). Jenson Button will take the only win of the season by a Scuderia other than Ferrari and Renault.
From the following Turkish Grand Prix, Ferrari began to show superiority never seen up to that point of the season, and it is no coincidence: from this Grand Prix, in fact, Renault will no longer be able to use the Mass Damper system, becoming the de facto second force in the championship.
In Istanbul, a mess at the Ferrari pit stop cost Schumacher overtaking Alonso, who managed to control him for the rest of the race while Massa took his first career victory. Italy and China are two more Schumacher wins, with Alonso retiring in Monza and defending himself in Shanghai by finishing second. Two races to go, the two title contenders are sensationally tied on points: 116 for both.
At Suzuka Schumacher dominates the race from the third lap, but Alonso comes back from fifth place and gets behind him. On lap 37 the twist: the engine of the German driver's Ferrari 248 F1 breaks. Ferrari had not retired for six years due to engine problems. Alonso and Renault cannot believe it, but it is the episode that paves the way for the second consecutive world title.
The last race in Brazil becomes almost a catwalk: Alonso, who just needs to score points to be sure of the title, is second behind the host Massa. Schumacher instead bids farewell (not final) to Formula 1, with an unforgettable performance in comeback from last to fourth place. After the first title, Alonso beat Schumacher on the track: now it can be said, without any hesitation, that from here on Alonso becomes the new reference driver for Formula 1.