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The Way It Is/ The Schumacher Era comes to an invigorating end

by Gordon Kirby
Whatever shortcomings the man had as far as racing ethics and sportsmanship, you have to give it to Michael Schumacher for the way he closed-out his spectacular career. The guy absolutely drove the wheels off his Ferrari in the season-closing Brazilian GP as he worked his way through from the back of the field after cutting a tire on Giancarlo Fisichella's front wing as he tried to pass Fisichella. After a stop for new tires and fuel, Schumacher rejoined almost a lap down and showed us his true racer's spirit, dispensing in quick order in the closing laps with the hapless Fisichella and then catching his controversial replacement at Ferrari, the inscrutable Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn tried hard to block his rival, but Schumacher matched every move and squeezed inside at the first turn in one of the season's toughest and most memorable passes.

In the end, Schumacher finished fourth behind Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Schumacher put on a superb closing act while teammate Massa dominated his home race, leading all the way from pole to score his second win of the year. At the same time, Alonso drove a textbook perfect race to finish second and wrap-up his second consecutive driver's world championship and Renault's second successive constructors title.

Of course, it's all-change in Formula One next year with Schumacher retiring, Raikkonen taking his place at Ferrari, and Alonso moving to McLaren-Mercedes. The Schumacher era is over and it's not at all clear whether or not the remarkable Alonso will be able to assume with McLaren the same dominant role in the sport Schumacher achieved with Ferrari. It's even less clear what's going to happen at Ferrari with Ross Brawn taking a ‘sabbatical', Jean Todt's plans not established, and Raikkonen having mustered a reputation as a party-boy who has little of Schumacher's legendary discipline, fitness, commitment to testing and team-leading charisma.

For the record, Schumacher won seven championships and 91 races and took 68 poles during his sixteen years in F1. His statistical record puts the likes of even Senna and Prost in the shade--he also leads the all-time rankings for total points and laps led--and is unlikely ever to be approached or broken. You can argue that Fangio, Clark, Moss and others were more complete drivers and much better sportsmen, but you can't argue with Schumacher's record. And then there's Tiger Woods' recent compliment that he believes Schumacher is the greatest athlete of modern times. Coming from the golfing maestro, it's hard to refute.

Change remains the defining characteristic of all sports, of course, and is graphically at work in F1 today. Many observers believe Schumacher's retirement and Raikkonen's arrival at Ferrari heralds the beginning of a downslide for the red cars from Maranello. It was Schumacher's team for many years and now both Michael and the team's technical boss Ross Brawn have departed the scene. So too, has longtime chief mechanic Nigel Stepney and everyone awaits news about team manager Todt's future plans.

Without these key people, Ferrari will be searching for new leadership and it will be interesting to see what new elements Fiat/Ferrari boss Luca Montezemolo brings to the table. Montezemolo's deal with Raikkonen is said to be worth more than $130 million over three years so the 27-year old Finn will be expected to put his shoulder to the grindstone. If the legendary stories of Raikkonen's carousing are to be believed, he's going to have to curb his excesses and become a little more of a Schumacher.

Can he do it? One of Ferrari's strengths is superb reliability and certainly the cars have been very quick this year. With the engine freeze and a Bridgestone spec tire in ‘07, there's no reason to suspect the Ferraris won't be very quick next season. Raikkonen has the opportunity of a lifetime in his hands and it will be interesting to see what he makes of it. And of course, let's not forget Massa, as quick, if not quicker than Schumacher in Brazil, and a convincing winner. The jockey-sized Brazilian has been Schumacher's most effective teammate and clearly has established his place in the team. Now, he has a chance to show that he's the team's number one driver. So not to worry, there will be plenty for the Italian press to write about next year.

What of Alonso's move to McLaren-Mercedes? The youngest world champion in history was the first driver to seriously challenge and beat Schumacher in recent years and there's no question that he's a tremendous driver---fast, cool, analytical, a fierce racer, an excellent test driver, and a laid-back, hard-working fellow. During his time with the Renault team, he lived in England near the team's UK headquarters and will continue to do so with McLaren. In recent years, Ron Dennis had a couple of fast young bucks in Raikkonen and Juan Montoya, but neither wanted to live nearby. Coupled with his highly-rated testing abilities, Alonso may be exactly the right guy for Dennis's team. The big question is can the team produce fully competitive and reliable cars and engines? The responsibility for making this new marriage successful lays squarely in McLaren's court.

Then of course, there's the Renault team, champions with Alonso the past two years. Renault has produced excellent cars and engines and Flavio Briatore's team is one of the best in the business with guys like engineering director Pat Symonds and engine boss Denis Chevrier. Alonso's place at Renault has been taken by another highly-rated Finn, Heiki Koivalainen, who showed his speed in GP2 last year and has worked this year as a test driver for Renault. Koivalainen is expected to do well, but he will be an F1 rookie and whether he's Alonso's match as both test and race driver remains to be seen. Giancarlo Fisichella continues with Renault, but after a very weak year in ‘06, it's hard to imagine the long over-rated Italian showing much more next year.

Meanwhile, Sebastien Bourdais wrapped-up his record-equalling third Champ Car title on a messy day in Surfers Paradise. Bourdais was not his usual, fault-free self in Australia, crashing on the second day of qualifying, then running race leader Will Power into the barrier when he locked-up his brakes in an untypically wild passing attempt. Bourdais eventualy finished eighth and with the problems he inflicted on the unfortunate Power and Forsythe drivers Paul Tracy and A.J. Allmendinger having a variety of adventures, the race was won by Nelson Philippe after a spirited late-race battle with Mario Dominguez.

Philippe has been knocking on the door this year and earned his win in Australia as he became Champ Car's youngest winner of all-time at 20 years and three months old. Nelson is six months younger than Champ Car's previous youngest winner Scott Dixon was when he scored his first CART win at Nazareth in 2001. Philippe is also the youngest man to start a Champ Car race, establishing the mark at 17, eight months and 25 days when he made his debut at Long Beach in 2004. Philippe drove for Rocketsports in ‘04, Mi-Jack/Conquest last year and Keith Wiggins CTE-HVM team this year, and by winning in Surfers Paradise the shaggy-haired Nelson pushed his way ahead of Paul Tracy into fourth in this year's championship. Quite an achievement for both driver and team.

Then there's Will Power who really made his mark in Surfers this year. The 25-year old Aussie has looked good in this his rookie season with Derrick Walker's Team Australia operation, but he really stepped up at his home race, taking the pole and leading the race until he was assaulted by Bourdais. Before that, Power had received similar treatment in the pitlane from Paul Tracy! Power was able to make the finish, a lap down in twelfth place but he put on a great show in front of his countrymen. It was also a shot in the arm for Walker's team which has endured a tough year with many crashed cars. Power has led Champ Car's rookie of the year standings most of the year and will try to secure the rookie award in Mexico City from closest rival, Brit Dan Clarke.

By the way, A.J. Allmendinger has still not signed a contract for next year in either Champ Car with Forsythe or NASCAR with Red Bull/Toyota. But he is entered in next Saturday's truck race at Atlanta in Bill Davis's truck and is expected to make his Nextel Cup debut on Sunday in a Team Red Bull car. Clearly, NASCAR is beckoning Allmendinger.

NASCAR was at Martinsville last weekend where Jimmie Johnson came through to score his fifth win of the year. Johnson was strong all day at Martinsville and held off a final challenge from an aggressive Denny Hamlin. Johnson pulled himself back into the championship hunt, now just forty-one points behind leader Matt Kenseth who was eleventh at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick kept himself ahead of Johnson in the points race by finishing ninth in Virginia while Jeff Burton plumetted from first to fifth in points after failing to finish because of an engine failure. Mark Martin also fell back after struggling home twenty-fourth with an overheating engine.

Jeff Gordon had a good race, as expected, and finished fifth, but remains ninth in points, 141 behind Kenseth. Dale Earnhardt Jr was also very competitive but made a mistake and spun late in the race, finishing twenty-second. He's sixth in points, 94 behind Kenseth with four races to go at Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

And finally, a hearty round of congratulations goes this week to Mario Andretti who is now a Commendatore della Rebubblica Italiana. The Italian knighthood was bestowed on Andretti on Monday evening in New York City by Italy's consul-general at the Columbus Citizen's Foundation. Mario joins Enzo Ferrari as the only Italian-born motor racing personalty to be honored with a knighthood. Salute, Commendatore!

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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