Alonso nears title after Japanese GP win

World champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso moved within a point of retaining his title on Sunday when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari suffered an engine failure and he capitalised by winning the Japanese Grand Prix

Alonso nears title after Japanese GP win

The 25-year-old Renault driver trailed the German for 36 laps of the 53-lap contest before taking the lead when the seven-time champion Schumacher was forced to retire with an engine failure for the first time this year.

Alonso went on to cruise to an unexpected victory and now requires just one point in the final race of the season, in Brazil, to clinch his second championship. It was his first victory in eight races since the Canadian Grand Prix in June, his seventh win this year and the 15th of his career.

Alonso now leads Schumacher by 10 points in the drivers' standings and they are level on seven wins apiece this season. Schumacher can only claim an unprecedented eighth crown if he wins and Alonso fails to score a point in Sao Paulo.

Brazilian Felipe Massa, in the second Ferrari, came home second ahead of Italian Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Renault.

Briton Jenson Button in a Honda finished fourth ahead of Finn Kimi Raikkonen in a McLaren, Italian Jarno Trulli in a Toyota and his teammate German Ralf Schumacher, who was seventh. German Nick Heidfeld, in a BMW Sauber, finished eighth.

On a dry and sunny afternoon, the air temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the track 28 degrees at the start. The big crowd of an estimated 160,000 waved banners to signal goodbye to Suzuka after 20 years shortly before Massa pulled away to lead from the second pole position of his career.

Schumacher followed him into the first corner in close formation as the two Toyotas behind him battled with a surging, rampant Alonso, seeking to gain places swiftly. The Spaniard found his way past Italian Jarno Trulli's Toyota through the 'Esses' on the opening lap and as the field settled was running fourth.

The anticipated sight of Schumacher sweeping past his Ferrari teammate and into the lead did not arrive until the end of lap two, the German taking the inside line on the straight and overtaking Massa as they approached the first corner of lap three.

There were no other incidents in the opening phase and after ten laps it was Schumacher in front of Massa with Ralf Schumacher in his Toyota third ahead of Alonso, Trulli and Fisichella.

Both American Scott Speed in his Toro Rosso and Australian Mark Webber in a Williams spun continued in this period before the opening round of pitstops. The first in for fuel was Trulli after 12 laps and he was followed one lap later by his teammate Ralf Schumacher and Massa.

This gave Alonso his chance to move up to second and push, a fastest lap following immediately. But Schumacher was nearly five seconds ahead and enjoying leading the field in the sunshine in pursuit of his seventh Suzuka victory.

After 15 laps, Alonso pitted and Briton Jenson Button in his Honda inherited second to the delight of the locals in the big crowd. Button, however, pitted after 16 laps while Schumacher stayed out and built a lead of 28.3 seconds before he came in after 18 laps.

By then, Alonso had recovered second having returned to the fray ahead of German Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber and Massa, an incident that upset the obvious Ferrari strategy of hoping that the young Brazilian could drive around in front of the Spaniard and set a pace that was advantageous to Schumacher.

Schumacher himself finally came in after 18 laps and resumed in the lead, his cushion reduced to 5.4 seconds. Then, on lap 21, came the spectacular sight of Dutchman Christijan Albers' car almost blowing up when it seemed a gearbox failure, followed by a driveshaft failure, triggered the right rear wheel to fly off with the entire rear wing. The circuit was, briefly, covered in debris.

Luckily, Albers was able to hang and escaped unhurt and the safety car, which was anticipated, was not introduced. This must have been a relief to Ferrari, notably when a marshal scampered onto the circuit to retrieve part of the wrecked Spyker MF1 that had been left behind.

This danger passed, Schumacher and Ferrari settled into a rhythm with Alonso in pursuit. He gradually enlarged the gap, but it remained only 5.9 seconds after 32 of the scheduled 53 laps when the second round of pitstops began.

Alonso and Massa were the first of the leaders to come in after 35 laps, but by then the Spaniard had an 11 seconds advantage. Schumacher followed into the pits after 36 and resumed with a lead of 8.8 seconds when, for him, disaster struck.

As he swept into the Degner Curve, his Ferrari engine produced a first trail of blue smoke and then the full ferocity of his first power failure of the year. For the seven-time champion it was over: the race, after an otherwise impeccable weekend of speed, his dream of a seventh Suzuka triumph and, probably, the pursuit of an unprecedented eighth championship.

Alonso led for the first time and, when the field settled again, held a 10-second lead ahead of Massa with Finn Kimi Raikkonen, last year's winner, who started 11th on the grid and was taking antibiotics to fight an illness, running third before his second stop.

As the race continued, Schumacher climbed from his car, removed his helmet and walked away. He waved and received applause in exchange before returning to the Ferrari garage where rueful sympathy and smiles were everywhere.

PROVISIONAL RACE RESULTS The Japanese Grand Prix Suzuka, Japan; 53 laps; 307.573km; Weather: Sunny. Classified: Pos Driver Team Time 1. Alonso Renault (M) 1h23:53.413 2. Massa Ferrari (B) + 16.151 3. Fisichella Renault (M) + 23.953 4. Button Honda (M) + 34.101 5. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 43.596 6. Trulli Toyota (B) + 46.717 7. R.Schumacher Toyota (B) + 48.869 8. Heidfeld BMW-Sauber (M) + 1:16.095 9. Kubica BMW-Sauber (M) + 1:16.932 10. Rosberg Williams-Cosworth (B) + 1 lap 11. de la Rosa McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 1 lap 12. Barrichello Honda (M) + 1 lap 13. Doornbos Red Bull-Ferrari (M) + 1 lap 14. Liuzzi Toro Rosso-Cosworth (M) + 1 lap 15. Sato Super Aguri-Honda (B) + 1 lap 16. Monteiro Spyker MF1-Toyota (B) + 2 laps 17. Yamamoto Super Aguri-Honda (B) + 3 laps 18. Speed Toro Rosso-Cosworth (M) + 5 laps Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:32.676 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Webber Williams-Cosworth (B) 40 M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 37 Coulthard Red Bull-Ferrari (M) 36 Albers Spyker MF1-Toyota (B) 22 World Championship standings, round 16: Drivers: Constructors:  1. Alonso 126 1. Renault 195 2. M.Schumacher 116 2. Ferrari 186 3. Massa 70 3. McLaren-Mercedes 105 4. Fisichella 69 4. Honda 78 5. Raikkonen 61 5. BMW-Sauber 36 6. Button 50 6. Toyota 35 7. Barrichello 28 7. Red Bull-Ferrari 16 8. Montoya 26 8. Williams-Cosworth 11 9. Heidfeld 23 9. Toro Rosso-Cosworth 1 10. R.Schumacher 20 11. de la Rosa 18 12. Trulli 15 13. Coulthard 14 14. Webber 7 15. Villeneuve 7 16. Kubica 6 17. Rosberg 4 18. Klien 2 19. Liuzzi 1 All timing unofficial 
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