2006 was a dramatic season in Formula One, not least of all for the Renault F1 team, who arrived at the grid in Bahrain with the youngest champion in history, their Spanish number one driver, Fernando Alonso.
Alonso has come a long way since joining the team as a test driver in 2002, and he began the season this year brimming with confidence and determined to replicate his success the previous year. Bahrain saw him and the team get their 2006 campaign off to a flying start, when Alonso managed to hold off multiple champion Michael Schumacher after a dramatic pit stop exit to secure a vital first win of the year.
The Malaysian GP was a milestone in the history of the team, who in May were voted World Team of the Year at the prestigious Laurens Awards in Monte Carlo. Giancarlo Fisichella led the race from start to finish, controlling from the front and confidently holding off the chasing pack. Alonso, who battled in qualifying, showed his true form by moving upto third on the first lap, charging through the grid and showing the form which made him the world champion. At the finish line, the team achieved their first one two victory since Renault returned to Formula One, and only the second since their similar achievement at the French Grand Prix back in 1982. With both Renault and Alonso leading the manufacturers and drivers championships respectively, he season looked set to be another great one for the team.
Safety car periods dominated in Australia, with no less than four stints where the racing pack were backed up due to incidents. Alonso managed to get the jump after each one, and this undoubtedly helped him secure his tenth Formula One victory, and cemented his points lead in the championship. The San Marino GP at Imola was set to be a strategic race, where it is notoriously difficult to overtake. Despite a good fuel strategy in qualifying, Alonso had to be content to sit behind Michael Schumacher in second place, hoping the Ferrari driver would make a mistake, but that mistake never came, and the result set the scene for the rest of the seasons exciting duel between these two champion drivers.
A second place finish for Alonso at the Nurburgring showed his consistency, while Fisichella managed to earn some valuable points in his bid to chase the championship. When the team arrived in Spain they were met with a huge crowd of Alonso supporters, eager to see their champion perform well on his home track. The Michelin tyres coped perfectly with the conditions at the Circuit de Catalunya and kept Alonso firmly in control as he held off Schumacher to take the win, much to the delight of the 130 000 fans who packed the circuit. It was a great day for Fisichella too, as he completed Renault’s domination on the podium with a well deserved third place.
The jewel in the F1 crown, Monaco, saw Alonso lead from pole to take the victory on a circuit where strategy is everything.
Fisichella battled after a penalty was imposed before the race, but he went on to show true driver skill by performing a number of fantastic overtaking manoeuvres, which eventually helped him secure sixth place. For Renault, the British GP at Silverstone holds plenty of emotion, as it was where they first debuted back in 1977, some 29 years ago. It was in fact the team’s 200th start, and Team Director Flavio Briatore was eager to see a good result. Alonso failed to disappoint, and took his third victory in a row by using a strategy which he described afterwards as “the best form of defence is attack.”
Canada was another Alonso benefit, with him determined to win on a circuit where he has never before been on the podium. With Raikkonen chasing hard, Alonso admitted to be on the limit for most of the race, but good teamwork helped to secure the victory and increase his points lead in the championship. The United States GP at the historic Indianapolis circuit was to temporarily end the winning streak for Alonso. The Michelin tyres were no match for the soaring temperatures and the resurgent Ferrari’s, and Alonso had to settle for fifth place, while Fisichella managed to hold onto the main pack to take the final step on the podium before the team headed for Renault’s home grand prix at Magny-Cours.
In France the pressure was on, and again the race came down to some serious planning in terms of strategy. In the end it was Ferrari who got it right, with high temperatures causing Alonso to battle for much of the race with blistering tyres. However, he managed to push hard enough to secure second place and earn valuable points to maintain his lead in the championship. Hungary would best be described as a complete wash out, with neither Renault driver finishing in a race marred by appalling weather, when the heavens opened on the Budapest circuit. Things improved in Turkey though, with the championship scene being set for the remaining races as Alonso and Schumacher dominated the action in their race for second and third. Alonso managed to hold of the Ferrari to take the second step on the podium, while Fisi unfortunately had to settle for sixth after a number of racing incidents out on the track.
The Italian GP at Monza was a difficult weekend for all in the Renault camp. According to Executive Director of Engineering for the team Pat Symonds, “to all intents and purposes, the World Championship starts here.” Alonso faced a tough weekend, and although there was some good news when Michelin brought an improved tyre package, it was mechanical failure that ended the race for Alonso, when the engine blew for the first time in three years during the latter part of the race. Despite a great fourth place for Fisichella, Renault temporarily relinquished their lead in the championship, but there was still more to come.
The Chinese GP was once again about the tyres, and in varying weather conditions, there was plenty of spectacular racing as the two championship contenders fought for valuable points. Alonso was gaining valuable ground on leader Schumacher, when a problem in the pit stop lost him time and any chance of a race victory in Shanghai. However, second and third place finishes for Alonso and Fisichella enabled to Renault to regain the lead over the manufacturers, while the driver’s championship was tied between the two top runners going to Japan.
The Japanese Grand Prix proved to be a major decider in the championship race. Schumacher was in dominating form and with the Ferrari pace unmatchable on the day, there was a chance that he could take the crown from Alonso.
However, luck was in the Renault camp when the engine on Schumacher’s Ferrari let go late in the race forcing his retirement. This handed the win to Alonso who had not had the best race of his career, and it was all set for the final battle in Brazil.
In the end it was the last race of the season which confirmed Alonso’s place in history with his second consecutive Drivers Championship title. A superb race saw the elated Spaniard take the chequered flag as the best driver in Formula One in 2006. It also secured the Manufacturers Championship for Renault, a great result and one that will give the team much confidence as they go into a new season in 2007, with a new driver line-up. Alonso will be moving on next year, with Fisichella taking the lead role and being joined by the young Finnish driver Heikki Kovaleinen. Both are extremely experienced, and with Flavio Briatore having renewed his contract with the team, it will be an exciting season once more for the Renault Formula One Team.