If the topsy-turvy, thrill-a-minute, Hungarian Grand Prix wasn’t indicative enough, then the sight of 10 Bridgestone runners in the bottom 10 places of the first qualifying session for the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix said it all: Bridgestone were in serious trouble with its intermediate tyre in the wet.
Amazingly, Bridgestone-clad Michael Schumacher fought his way through to the third session and then, with temperatures slowly climbing and the track beginning to dry, he was able to replicate his balls-out Q2 lap into sixth on the grid. Still, Renault’s Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella looked well set for the race, having qualified on the front row.
Sunday saw even more rain and although it stopped just after the drivers’ parade, the track remained wet and slippery – intermediate tyre territory, which the majority of the grid started the race on.
Schumacher tiptoed carefully through the first few laps, keeping his sixth place, as he waited for the tyre advantage to swing in his favour. By lap 10 his Bridgestones were coming to life and his pace was beginning to exceed that of the Michelin runners around him.
With Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen picked off in quick succession; Schumacher was up to fourth by lap 14, where the gap to race leader Alonso peaked at 23.5 seconds before beginning to drop as the stops approached.
The seven-time world champion pitted on lap 21, to be followed by Alonso and Fisichella over the next two laps, and that’s when Alonso’s nightmare began.
Erring on the side of caution thanks to his 20 second cushion, Alonso adopted a different tactic to the rest of the field who were leaving their used intermediates on – taking advantage of their eventual progress to slicks – and bolted on a fresh set of Michelin rubber to the front of his Renault.
The somewhat unusual mixture of old and new tyres didn’t work. They quickly grained and proved to be slower than the well-worn inters of Fisichella and Schumacher. After his stop, Alonso had a 15 second advantage over his German rival, and then it began tumbling down with every passing lap.
Fisichella passed him on lap 29 and Schumacher did too – slipstreaming by him down the straight like he was a backmarker – two tours of the circuit later.
The timing of the second stops would now be crucial as the window for the change to dry rubber had now opened properly. Ferrari used Felipe Massa as a guinea pig and put him out on slicks on lap 34 to see how he faired. “He was reporting back on how the tyres were doing,” said Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn, “he said it was difficult to warm them up but, after one or two laps, they were good.”
Schumacher stopped for slicks on lap 40 (with 16 to go) and Fisichella duly responded by bolting on a set of dries a lap later, emerging approximately 20 yards ahead of the Ferrari driver as they braked for Turn 1.
Fisichella thought he had secured his position at the front of the field, but the Italian slid off line and Schumacher vaulted to his right, diving for a gap that didn’t really exist, with two wheels bouncing over the rumble strips – a classic Schumacher manoeuvre.
By this stage Alonso was making a late comeback as his dry tyres now had some bite in them. He made light work of Fisichella on lap 47, but it was too late to reclaim P1 as Schumacher had the race under total control. Even the appearance of rain in the closing minutes did nothing to unsettle him from taking the chequered flag for the 91st time – his final victory before retiring at the end of the season.