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After Michael’s spectacular win at the 2006 European GP, Fernando Alonso and the Renault team responded by winning four back-to-back races. Alonso’s initial lead transformed into a formidable one as the teams reached the United States. Michael had to win to keep his hopes alive for the championship.
There were other things and thoughts in play too. The next scheduled race was in the United States. The 2004 and 2005 season would be remembered for the Michelin runners having it tough at the circuit, so much so that none of them raced in 2005. Michael was the winner both of those seasons.
However, Michelin had learnt from the previous two seasons and was now race-ready at the circuit. The only impediment would be the drivers’ confidence in going flat out in a Michelin-shod car. These concerns, however, would have minimal effect on the championship leaders. Even if Schumacher won and Alonso lost, the lead margin was huge for Renault. That said, Renault would be going flat-out to win at the circuit.
It was now a wait-and-watch game as the United States GP unfurled. Given the circumstances and the supposed advantage to Bridgestone-shot teams, could Michael win the United States GP?
Let’s find out.
The 2006 United States GP: Qualifying
Coming to the all-familiar U.S. track, Ferrari and Michael were confident of posting good qualifying times. Michelin-shod cars’ performance during the practice session helped alleviate any fears of critical failures like the 2004 and 2005 season.
Despite the Michelin-shod cars coming to par with the Bridgestones, the Ferraris were ruthlessly faster than any other car. It was not just Michael but also Massa who was fast. In Q1, Massa was faster than Michael, but Michael pulled it back in Q2 and Q3. The Ferraris were fast enough to put nearly half a second difference between the second-qualified Ferrari car and the rest of the pack.
The track clearly suited the Ferraris, while the reigning champion, Fernando Alonso, who had hoped to win the U.S. GP, was struggling to qualify in the top four. It was his partner, Fisichella, who qualified ahead of him on P3 and made it to the second row of the grid. Barrichello made it to P4 while Alonso was on P5.
Have a look at one of the flying laps onboard a McLaren at the U.S. circuit:
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The 2006 United States GP: Race Day
At the turn of the lights, Massa from P2 had an incredible start, storming past Michael on pole. But Massa’s superb start wasn’t the one that took the limelight, but another event which happened on the first turn.
At the turn, the first four cars got away clean, but then a huge pileup followed. The crash took out no fewer than four cars and had Nick Heidfeld in his BMW barrel-rolled thrice. Have a look at the start of the race:
Note: Fan-made video of the start of the GP. A bit shaky.
The crash took center stage; even Alonso battling Schumacher for the second position at the first turn went unnoticed. Massa stayed in the lead for most of the race, and the Ferraris quickly put up a lead over the other cars. It looked like a good race for Massa where he could have finished in front. However, there was a minor twist.
So, what was the twist? Michael pitted first and did his customary lightning-quick out lap. When Massa came in and out in the next lap, he was just that few seconds behind Michael. That gave Michael the lead and the eventual victory.
With that, Michael broke Alonso’s consecutive four-win run. The championship was alive again with Michael’s eighty-seventh career win and third for the season.
Back to the Pits
Michael still had a hefty gap to bridge to catch up with Alonso. By the end of the U.S. Grand Prix, he had a nineteen-point deficit to Alonso. There were still eight races remaining, and the championship remained open. With Michael in the run, it was for the opposition to stay focused.
The Next Win..
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