F1 2006 Review: The highs & lows

Michael Schumacher, Jean Todt, Ferrari, Monza, 2006As ever, the season had its dizzying highs and depressing lows.

With two champion drivers and one champion engine builder leaving the sport there were a lot of farewells. And the action on the track oscillated between the dramatic, the controversial, and the just plain dull.

We look back on the best and worst moments of 2006.

Highs

Jenson Button’s first win

Jenson Button, Honda, Hungaroring, 2006 (1)The tabloid lust for blood is insatiable. Jenson Button learned that early in his Formula One career. Over a hundred races without a win, they were beyond insatiable.

He was fortunate, then, to get a race like the Hungarian Grand Prix this year that afforded him the chance to put his skills on display unfettered by the limitations of his machinery.

Yes, Fernando Alonso suffered a rare retirement. But not only was Button stunningly quick, he was strong and bold enough to overtake his way up from 14th on the grid, and he didn’t throw his car into a backmarker like Kimi Raikkonen did. Good job Jenson. Now, when are you going to win that championship???????

Rookie revelations

Three of the most exciting drivers the sport has ever seen retired this year – but with Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica arriving on the scene, the sport is in good hands. Let’s hear it for the future of F1.

Fernando Alonso’s first lap in Hungary

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Hungaroring, 2006 (2)For me, this was the highlight of the season. Alonso lined up 15th in Hungary and at the start the Renault’s traditionally phenomenal getaways couldn’t help him.

No matter. He filleted the field ahead, swinging the Renault across the track in his trademark bold moves with total confidence – as if the track wasn’t even wet. He capped it with a rugged, ballsy pass on Felipe Massa – a driver he might have expected to seize the first opportunity to put him in the wall.

Breathtaking. If you’ve not seen the full onboard video below, check it out now.

New qualifying

Jarno Trulli, Toyota, Interlagos, 2005Once the results of the second FIA survey came in they loudly trumpeted how well qualifying went down with the fans.

As entertainment it certainly can’t be faulted – a far better concept than what we had last year, especially once the tedious ‘fuel burn’ section had been cut in length.

If any criticism remains it is that the artificiality of qualifying with race fuel levels remains. If every driver were hanging it out in the final session with only fumes in the tank, the spectacle would be even better.

Lows

Rascasse-gate

If the Brazilian Grand Prix proved Michael Schumacher’s desire to race remained undimmed in his final racing year, the Monaco Grand Prix showed that his ethical compass – at least on the racetrack – still didn’t work.

Now knowing that he made his decision to retire after Monaco, it remains to be seen whether the fact that he got punished for once had any bearing.

If a positive can be taken from it, it is that the stewards made the right call, and hopefully it will deter future racers from trying to pull the same stunt.

Fernando Alonso’s Monza penalty

Fernando Alonso, Renault, Monza, 2006The stewards didn’t always come out with the right decisions, though. Many of the earlier penalties handed out to drivers for ‘impeding’ others racers in qualifying in 2006 were dodgy, but Alonso’s in Monza was downright disgraceful.

Worse, it gave ammunition to those who suggested the governing body were trying to help Schumacher towards an eighth world title.

Renault’s mass damper ban

The FIA’s ban on Renault’s mass dampers halfway through the season stank something rotten. A system that had been declared legal the year before suddenly became outlawed.

Like the U-turn on Michelin’s tyres in 2003, it once again painted a picture of the FIA arbitrarily changing the rules to favour Ferrari and spice up the championship battle. Yet more bad PR for the sport.

‘Strategy’ races

Giancarlo Fisichella, Magny-Cours, Renault, 2005The frantic, giddy end to the season and the sudden unpredictable turns the championship battle took shouldn’t distract us from the fact that there were a lot of tedious races in 2006.

F1 still needs compelling answers to the difficulty of overtaking, and desperately needs to wean itself of the false excitement of ‘strategy’ races where all the passing is done in the pits

San Marino, Europe, Spain, Britain, France and Germany all gave us turgid follow-by-leader-and-pit snooze-fests. If GP2 can put on stellar races at these tracks, so should the big boys.

The Yuji Ide affair

You had to feel for Yuji Ide. After virtually nil testing time in the Super Aguri and with very little English he was dropped into the most technical and demanding (and Anglophone) motorsports in the world.

It was no surprise he struggled and, when put under pressure, caused a dangerous accident. The FIA were right to push Super Aguri into dropping him, but the whole affair was distasteful and a little sad.

Farewell to Cosworth

San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, start, 2006The company that produced what was the most powerful engine in F1 at the start of the year has no customers for 2007. How can that possibly be?

With a freeze on engine specifications looming for next year Cosworth were already looking to cut back their dedicated and professional British workforce. Having no F1 contracts for next year after the fabulous job they have done is galling way for this historic and successful company to bow out of the sport.

Farewell to Suzuka

Japanese Grand Prix start, Suzuka, 2006It remains to be seen how well F1 at the Fuji Speedway is going to work – early impressions are not encouraging. But it’s profoundly saddening that Formula One is to turn its backs on one of its best and most historic circuit for commercial reasons that are of no interest to the majority of fans.

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