For the fourth round of the 2006 F1 season, the F1 community went to Imola, a circuit home to exciting racing, but also great tragedy. After the horrible weekend in 1994, some revisions were made to the track to make it safer. After F1 had dropped Imola from its circuit after 2006, more major alterations have been made both to the track and the paddock.
2006 was a year in which a whopping 27 drivers competed, spread into 11 teams. It was the year in which the much quieter V8s were introduced and it was the last season in which there were two tyre manufacturers on the grid, Michelin and Bridgestone. Both Alonso and Schumacher won seven races in 2006, meaning there were only four races neither of them won. It was supposed to be Schumacher’s last year in F1, until he decided to return in 2010.
When F1 raced at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in 2006, only three rounds had passed. Reigning champion Fernando Alonso in his blue-yellow Renault was leading the championship by 14 points from teammate Fisichella and McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen. Michael Schumacher, who would become Alonso’s biggest rival that year, was following closely behind with 11 points.
The Friday of the San Marino GP saw five test drivers drive in Free Practice, because the bottom six teams of the 2005 championship were allowed to run three cars in training on Friday. Among those test drivers were Dutch Robert Doornbos, who would step into the Red Bull to actually race later that season, and 2008 Canadian GP winner Robert Kubica. On Saturday, Michael Schumacher broke Ayrton Senna’s pole record, which Ayrton had set at the very same circuit it was broken at, in the weekend he passed away. Jenson Button started alongside Schumacher on the front row on Sunday. Barrichello and Massa started right behind them and championship leader Alonso had to settle for P5. Giancarlo Fisichella, who was second in the championship before Imola, started all the way back from 11th.
At the start, Alonso bolted past Barrichello, with Schumacher and Button keeping the first two spots. In the first lap, at the exit of the Villeneuve chicane, Yuji Ide hit Christijan Albers, which made the latter roll over a few times into the gravel. Ide continued the race but retired after driving into the wall in lap 34. The incident with Albers was one of the incidents that lead to Ide losing his superlicense and landing him a spot in many “worst F1 drivers ever” lists.
The safety car was out for two laps after the incident, and the race saw a calm restart. It was quiet for a few laps, until Liuzzi spun in lap 6 and Trulli retired in the pits with a steering issue.
Two- and three-stops were on the schedule for the 23rd of April 2006. The first regular pit stop came in lap 14 for Barrichello, who put in a lot of new fuel and returned to the track in 13th position. Jenson Button, who was driving around behind Schumacher, stopped a lap later and loaded up on very little fuel, indicating he’d be going for a three-stop strategy. Schumacher pitted in lap 20, after which he came back on track behind Alonso, who was then leading the race, going on a longer first run. Alonso was driving some very quick laps, 1:24s. He pits in lap 25, coming out ahead of Button and Massa who were running 2nd and 3rd.
Alonso quickly gains on Schumacher, who was not having the best of times on his used tyres. The German champion had used up all but one of his tyre sets on the days before Sunday, so only the set of tyres he started on were new. While Alonso was closing in on Schumacher, the man in P3, Jenson Button, pitted again. All seemed to go well, until the lollipop man signalled the Brit that he could drive away when the fuel rig was still attached. Button drove away with the attachment of the fuel rig still secured on his car. He had to stop in the pit lane to get it off again, which would cost him a podium that afternoon.
The battle between Schumacher and Alonso continued, just like it did in Imola a year earlier, only now with Schumacher in front. The second round of pit stops started in lap 41, when both Alonso and Massa stopped. Massa’s Ferrari teammate stopped a lap later and put on another set of used tyres. The undercut unfortunately did not work out for Renault, because Schumacher had a very quick in-lap. Montoya, who was driving around behind Massa for the entire race overtook him during the pit stops for the last podium position.
In the final phase of the race the yellow flag was waved for a slow driving David Coulthard with a driveshaft issue, making him the second Red Bull driver to retire from the race, after Klien had to stop the car in lap 41 due to a hydraulic issue.
The Alonso/Schumacher battle continued, just like it would for the rest of 2006. Alonso took some unusual lines to distract Schumacher but could not make the move. Imola had always been a great circuit for Ferrari and for the Bridgestone tyres. The Renault driver ruined his last hope of overtaking his title rival when he ran wide and nearly into the gravel with just four laps to go.
After 62 laps full of racing, the chequered flag was waved for the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher for the first time since the race in the USA in 2005, and for the first time in a race with all drivers racing since Suzuka in 2004. The Italian team was ecstatic. It was Schumacher’s 85th victory, won in front of the always passionate Tifosi. Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the podium. It would be Montoya’s very last Formula 1 podium.
A hug with Jean Todt, the German and Italian anthems played (oh to hear that combo just one more time this year), and the first time in 2006 Renault did not win the race.
Alonso retained his championship lead and would go on to become double world champion at the end of the year. Schumacher jumped to second in the championship after this race, the position he would end the season, and his first stint in F1, in. The season ended on October 22nd, ten days earlier than we will now be watching the cars go round at the rebranded Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola. There will only be one 90-minute practice session this weekend, which will mask true performance gaps according to Mattia Binotto, the team boss of the team for whom Imola is its home. Only Kimi Räikkönen has raced an F1 car here before, but that advantage doesn’t really mean anything if we think about how much F1 cars have changed since 2006 and how not-on-it Alfa Romeo is this year. Mercedes only needs to score 12 points this weekend to become the 2020 Constructor’s champion. Oh well, if they have a massively disappointing weekend they’ll just do it in Turkey.