In many ways 2006 was a defining year for Formula 1 with new 2.4-litre V8 engines and some of the sport’s leading lights in their last season with a particular team. The championship itself was a classic contest between acknowledged master Michael Schumacher and young pretender Fernando Alonso.
Alonso and Renault were the class of the field from the start of the year and he eventually retained his title after a fast, consistent and virtually error-free campaign. The only doubts came after the FIA banned Renault’s "mass damper" with the R26 suddenly no longer as competitive as before. However, the team regrouped for whom Alonso won seven times to clinch the title at the final round. Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella won in Malaysia but was generally out-paced once more.
Schumacher also won seven times to challenge Alonso all year but there was also a reminder of old controversies when he parked his car on the exit of La Rascasse during Monaco Grand Prix qualify to deny Alonso a chance of pole position. This was to be the German’s final season with Ferrari for he announced his retirement from the sport he had so dominated at an emotional press conference at Monza. New team-mate Felipe Massa exceeded expectations and won in Turkey and Brazil, both from pole position.
The only other team to win a race was Honda for whom Jenson Button scored a popular breakthrough victory in Hungary after mastering changeable conditions. That seemed to give him a new level of confidence and he finished the season regularly finishing in the top five. Rubens Barrichello joined from Ferrari but could not match the Englishman over the season.
With relationships between its drivers and senior management strained to breaking points, McLaren failed to win a race in 2006. Kimi Raikkonen challenged Alonso in Monaco and seemed set for victory in the Chinese rain before retiring from both races. Juan Pablo Montoya finished third at Imola and second in Monte Carlo but was promptly dropped after announcing he would switch to Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team in 2007. Reserve driver Pedro de la Rosa replaced the Colombian and finished second in Hungary.
Williams endured a difficult season although GP2 graduate Nico Rosberg did recover from an early unscheduled pitstop to score points on his debut in Bahrain. Almost as disappointing was Toyota although Ralf Schumacher did finish third in Australia. Jarno Trulli would have matched that result in Monaco but for hydraulic failure six laps from the finish.
Design genius Adrian Newey joined Red Bull although the team’s initial progress proved slow. David Coulthard’s third place finish in Monaco was the highlight and Dietrich Mateschitz’s continued enthusiasm for F1 was confirmed when he joined forces with Gerhard Berger to buy Minardi. Scott Speed became the first American F1 driver since 1993 but it was Tonio Liuzzi who scored the renamed Scuderia Toro Rosso’s only point when eighth in Indianapolis.
Nick Heidfeld was a regular scorer for BMW Sauber with third in Hungary his best result. The disappointing Jacques Villeneuve was replaced by talented newcomer Robert Kubica that day and the Pole confirmed his promise by finishing third at Monza. Sebastian Vettel was the team’s Friday test driver for the last five races and he topped the time sheets for Friday’s free practice in Turkey.
Neither newcomers Super Aguri nor what had been Jordan Grand Prix scored a point during 2006. The latter began the year as Midland F1 but owner Alex Shnaider soon grew tired of F1 and sold the team to Spyker Cars before the Italian GP to cue another name change.
New qualifying rules were introduced with the hour split into three sessions with the slowest cars in Q1 and Q2 eliminated to leave the quickest 10 drivers to compete for pole position in Q3.