Chinese Grand Prix 2006 preview

Vitantonio Liuzzi, Red Bull, Shanghai, 2005With Michael Schumacher’s retirement confirmed, all eyes turn to the nail-biting championship battle between the Ferrari driver and reigning champion Fernando Alonso.

For evidence of that, look no further than this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, where the Shanghai International Circuit owners have devoted a grandstand each specifically to supporters of Alonso and Schumacher.

Schumacher may have a car advantage in the ultra-competitive Ferrari, but there is plenty to suggest he won’t have things all his own way in Shanghai.

Up until 2003, people used to think of the A1-Ring in Austria as being Michael Schumacher’s ‘bogey’ track. The Shanghai circuit replaced it in 2004 and Schumacher is yet to have a strong performance there either.

Fernando Alonso, Renault, Shanghai, 2004Past form on particular circuits generally seems to count for little in Formula One – at least where the Schumacher winning machine is concerned. But Fernando Alonso will take heart from it as he seeks to turn every tiny weapon he can lay his hands on against his opponent.

He may never get the chance to win a more valuable championship than one he can keep Michael Schumacher away from.

Chinese Grand Prix, ShanghaiRenault are considering bringing an up-rated version of their engine to Shanghai – but after his Monza retirement Alonso would probably settle for a reliable one. Renault reckon they’ve got that problem licked too.

The team will be buoyed to the scene of their constructors’ championship triumph last year, when Alonso romped to victory aided by team mate Giancarlo Fisichella. But Fisichella has not been the supportive number two to Alonso that Felipe Massa has been to Schumacher.

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Shanghai, 2005Schumacher will need that help badly, though, if he puts on the same kind of performance he did last year. He smacked Christijan Albers’ Minardi on the way to the grid and had to start from the pit lane. Then he spun out of the race while behind the safety car.

Add to that his spin during qualifying in 2004, another spin and clash with Christian Klien during that race and Schumacher has a lot of demons to exorcise in Shanghai.

Were he to beat Alonso into second place, though, the two would be level on points with two rounds to go, virtually guaranteeing the battle would continue to the final race of the season.

There are nine other teams in this race of course and quite a few of them could have an impact on the championship battle.

Top of that list is McLaren, for whom Kimi Raikkonen has taken pole position in three of the last four races. If he or Pedro de la Rosa finishes in between the championship protagonists it could be enough to decide the championship.

Jenson Button, BAR-Honda, Shanghai, 2005A resurgent Honda team believe they have ironed out the faults in their 2007-spec engine which they pulled the plug on at Monza at the eleventh hour. A sky-high confident Jenson Button will relish the extra power down Shanghai’s long straights.

The relative performances of BMW and Toyota hinge upon how competitive the Michelin and Bridgestone tyres are (respectively).

Ralf Schumacher, Williams-BMW, Shanghai, 2004At BMW the rookie Robert Kubica has been a revelation, climbing the podium in only his third race (something neither of the championship duellists achieved – although that isn’t really fair to Alonso who began his career with minnows Minardi.) Kubica’s prodigious speed is a massive wake-up call to Nick Heidfeld, who must assert himself over the Pole at a track Kubica has not raced on before.

Williams have already tested their 2007 Toyota engines and Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg must just be waiting for the grinding agony of successive non-points-finishes to stop.

David Coulthard, Red Bull, Shanghai, 2005The championship battle may also overshadow Robert Doornbos’s first race outing of 2006. With no realistic chance of getting a race seat for 2006, Doornbos says he is just going to enjoy himself.

Dutchman Doornbos will also be joined by a new Dutch team – Spyker MF1, who have taken over the Midland team and painted it a patriotic shade of orange. A first points finish would be the best way to announce their arrival – but it will require a lot of retirements for that to happen.

The Shanghai circuit has not given us a particularly exciting race since it was first used two years ago.

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren-Mercedes, Shanghai, 2005At the very least hopefully the circuit owners will have kept it in a decent enough state of repair for the championship not to be influenced by it in the way it was last year – when a loose kerb wrecked Juan Pablo Montoya’s race and McLaren’s hopes of winning the constructors’ championship.

Above all, let’s hope the remainder of the championship is not spoiled by the kind of nonsense the stewards came up with at Monza. Unsurprisingly, the FIA have now effectively admitted they were wrong to punish Alonso for accidentally impeding Massa by changing the rules so that, in future, no driver will be penalised in the same way.

It’s too little, too late, but let’s hope the outcry from journalists and fans during the Italian weekend has taught them to intervene only when absolutely necessary.

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